A Reviewer's Notebook - 1975/6

Somewhere in Santayana, I forget where, there is a remarkable passage about all the powers and the pressures in the universe that keep jockeying, as it were, for position to get in the clear on that inside rail. Fecundity and inventiveness need channels. Leonard Read, who is as near an approximation to a saintly character as anyone could find, has lived his life as a channel clearer. He never exploits his own personality. But his new book CASTLES IN THE AIR (Foundation for Economic Education), is as redolent of a unique personality as a well-tended hope chest is of camphor balls.

Leonard Read’s economic theory is solidly based on Carl Menger and Ludwig von Mises, but the curious thing about most of the Read essays is the profusion of non-economic names that are used to make economic points. In an essay on the division of labor Read quotes Thoreau and Alfred Lord Tennyson, not Adam Smith. He doesn’t mention John Kenneth Galbraith when he is writing about the "bold-faced and flagrant lies" that are part and parcel of a price-controlled economy. Instead, he invokes Shakespeare.

When he is writing about the individual’s drive to improve himself, the substantiating quotations are from C. S. Lewis, Heraclitus, and the German psychologist Fritz Kunkel. In staking out the limits of government power Read uses Woodrow Wilson and Immanuel Kant to make his points, and his trust in the individual as a self-starter is bolstered by references to William Butler Yeats, Joaquin Miller, Benjamin Franklin and Arnold Toynbee.

Of course, there are references in CASTLES IN THE AIR to Adam Smith, von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, F. A. Hayek, Thomas Nixon Carver and W. A. Paton, all of whom qualify as first-rate economic minds. There is also one mention of John Maynard Keynes. But it is interesting that Read deals with Keynes not as the founder of an economic school but as an immoralist. Mises appears as a political philosopher and as a teacher, Hazlitt and Hayek as "ethicists of increasing influence." Just about the only economist who gets extended treatment in a Read essay as an economist is Adam Smith. But it is Smith on the nature of Providence (the "invisible hand") that gets Read going, and when one talks about Providence one is talking about "the inner nature of things."

The Art of Living

The point is that Leonard Read is more interested in the art of living than he is in the technical aspects of economic science. He wants to create character. If people believe in uncoerced choice, the economic system will take care of itself. Read’s pedagogic method is to try and perfect his own understanding and behavior. If he can improve himself he is satisfied that he can be a teacher by example, not one by argument.

No one, as Leonard Read says, knows, all by himself, how to make a pencil. Yet pencils are made and sold by the gross. The market has a wisdom that does not exist in any one person. So, naturally, Leonard Read wants to let individuals follow their own bents in an uncoerced way. The man who knows something about lead will, through the working of the market, pool his knowledge and skill with those of the man who knows something about wood. The man who knows about rubber will contribute the eraser. Pencils — and virtually every other economic product — depend on the generative capacity of individuals who have no external force standing in their way.

Freedom to Grow

But, though Read obviously uses pencils and other economic goods, it is the freedom to "flow and grow" as human beings that is his primary concern. When people have creative freedom, they do more than eat well. They have a margin to spare for other things. Everyone has a vested interest in the other fellow’s diversity. Reverence for differences leads to reverence for life which is made up of differences. So Leonard Read finds himself writing about the "open" human being in language which, to me, borders on the mystical. He believes that man who reveres life, with all its diversities, can actually "radiate" a feeling that will affect the plant life around him. I know that people can have rapport with birds and dogs. But plants? They depend on loving care. But do they really care about the love as long as they get water, warmth and sunlight?

Unlike Leonard Read, I wouldn’t bet on the plant having perception. But, in a world of mysteries, Read could be right. The main point is the live-and-let-live quality of Read’s "freedom philosophy," which, if it could be universalized, would create a world not only of happy plants but of men and women without envy.

Mr. Read’s concept of civilization is the opposite of most people’s. He believes that civilization represents an evolution from the complex to the simple life. When Thoreau went to Walden Pond, he had to be a master of many skills. When one had to be a Jack-of-all-trades to survive, it made for complexity. One had little time to discover one’s own uniqueness. To get from Michigan to Los Angeles in the days of Leonard Read’s grandfather, one had to know something about horses, hunting, Indian fighting, cooking and Heaven knows what else. But now all one has to do is to get on a plane, wearing a suit from Hong Kong and shoes made in Rome. The plane’s chef, a specialist, can offer you salmon 30,000 feet up from 3,000 miles away, still fresh.

The Simple Life

Read is so obviously right about civilization permitting one to lead the simple life. But our collective refusal to abide by the live and let live principles piles intervention on intervention and inflation on inflation. So, in self-defense, one is forced back to the Jack-of-all-trades philosophy. The believers in a free market, in the free flow of energy, are now subscribing to economic letters that advise the purchase of Walden-like retreats far from our decaying cities. One is advised to lay in a store of dried and canned foods and to learn something about gardening and carpentry. If the inflation survival letter writers are right, the only practical insurance policy lies in the cultivation of the Jack-of-all-trades attitude.

But, of course, that won’t work for very long, either. When civilization is on a retrograde course, things won’t stop at the Walden Pond point. The Stone Age mentality comes next in the retrogression, with the new savages from the decaying cities fanning out into the countryside to murder the Jack-of-all-trades in his Walden retreat for the sake of whatever food is in his cellar or in his garden. Even if things don’t go this far, an armed dictator would be quite capable of taking you out of your retreat and putting you to work on a collective farm.

No, there is no other way than to fight it through on Leonard Read’s terms. Propagation of the freedom philosophy is necessary to survival. We must put foundations under Mr. Read’s castles in the air.

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