All Commentary
Tuesday, November 1, 1983

A Reviewers Notebook: Essays on Liberty

From The Freeman of July 14, 1952, a fortnightly for individualists, of which Mr. Chamberlain served as one of the editors.

If you happen to be one of the fortunate 28,712 people who are on the mailing list of The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., you know all about the vital pamphlets and releases proclaiming liberty that issue periodically from its editorial sanctum at Irvington-on- Hudson. The Foundation is by any count a remarkable institution. It was founded six years ago by Leonard E. Read, formerly the Manager of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and Executive Vice President of the National Industrial Conference Board.

Mr. Read is a curious mixture of American go-getter, Tolstoyan Christian, Herbert Spencer libertarian and dedicated medieval monk. Every strand of his personality is entwined in his Foundation, which, in Emersonian terms, is simply the lengthened shadow of the man. The Foundation, which has a most capable staff of economists and libertarian thinkers, lives on voluntary contributions, which it never solicits. Mr. Read holds to the Emersonian belief that a good mouse trap advertises itself by its own goodness—and the world of people who wish to see all totalitarians, Statists, Welfare Staters and believers in political compulsion at the bottom of the ocean (figuratively speaking, of course) has been beating a path to his door.

Recently the Foundation published a book, “Essays on Liberty.” Consisting of the cream of the Foundation’s releases to date, this book is the definitive answer to the captive intellectuals of the New-Fair Deal in America and to the various issues of Fabian Essays which have, over the course of three or four generations, rotted out the entire social fabric of Great Britain.

In this book we have such notable things as Dean Russell’s discovery that the first Leftists in the French Revolutionary National Constituent Assembly in 1789 were libertarians who were pledged to free their economy from government-guaranteed special privileges of guilds, unions and associations whose members were banded together to interfere with the workings of the free market. These first Leftists, as Mr. Russell succinctly tells the story, held a slim majority in their parliament for two years. They did a remarkable job of confounding authoritarians. Then they were bowled over by the Jacobins, the terroristic Leninists of their day.

The tragedy that flowed from Robespierre’s and Marat’s despicable Statist counter- revolution has bedeviled the world ever since. Not only did it pervert the whole vocabulary of freedom; it also established the theory of the totalitarian “genera] will” which permits any majority, whether “transient” or not, to ride roughshod over the God-given natural rights of the minority. In the guise of killing royal totalitarianism it popularized the totalitarianism of 51 per cent of the population—and the supposedly individualistic peoples of western Europe have been kowtowing to this totalitarian conception since that evil day when the first head spurted blood under the guillotine that was set up in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Developments After 1933

In America, as Betty Knowles Hunt and other contributors to Mr. Read’s book make plain, the complex of ideas flowing from the Robespierrean counter-revolution never managed to become domesticated until after 1933. In Europe they had rent control and a concomitant shortage of houses, as Bertrand de Jouvenel shows in an excellent paper in this book, but in America a people free of rent control could rebuild the entire city of San Francisco after an earthquake in what amounts to the twinkling of a gnat’s eye. In England, as Sir Ernest Benn says in an essay called “Rights for Robots,” the Webbs and the other Fabians robbed the people of their Christian heritage of individual responsibility (which nurtures the divine, or the creative, spark), but in America (see W. M. Curtiss’s amusing “Athletes, Taxes, Inflation”) a Babe Ruth who climbed out of an orphanage to hit sixty home runs in a single year could reap the full reward for a highly individualized skill. The period of Babe Ruth’s development and ascendancy preceded, of course, the reign of Franklin I. After 1933 came the deluge, which is measured accurately by the cosmic water meters operated by Maxwell Anderson, C. L. Dickinson, Russell Clinchy, W. M. Curtiss, F. A. Harper and other contributors to Mr. Read’s volume.

Not that these people deal in personalities: Mr. Read’s genius is for collecting writers whose self-imposed duty is patiently to explain the principles (or the perversions of principles) that underlie the antics and convolutions of the various saints and devils who have been struggling for the control of our destiny. The approach in “Essays on Liberty” is not that of daily, weekly or fortnightly journalism, which must inevitably deal to some extent in the personalities that make or mar principles. Mr. Read’s idea is to plant seeds that will mature in the fullness of time; he doesn’t aspire to compete in immediacy with the editors of papers and magazines.

Nevertheless, Mr. Read is a journalist on a high level; he knows that principles (or their lack) are at the bottom of elections, wars, and legislative and administrative acts. The thing that distinguishes Mr. Read from most of our journalists is that he seeks to assess personalities in terms of their basic philosophies. Long ago, as a young Chamber of commerce man in the San Francisco region of California, Mr. Read was a Light Brigade soldier who simply executed the commands from on high. In those days the national Chamber of Commerce, under Henry Harriman, was promoting what amounted to trade association fascism. (It was the Harriman thinking that created the Blue-Eagled NRA, that ill-starred adventure in price-wage-and-production fixing that had us all salaaming to Iron Pants Johnson in the days of the first New Deal.)

Read Meets Mullendore: A Conversion to Freedom

A crusader then as now, Mr. Read went down from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 1932 to lecture W. C. Mullendore of the Southern California Edison Company on the virtues of NRA-ism. The trip south was his Road to Damascus, for in the space of an hour the persuasive Mr. Mullendore tore all of Mr. Read’s thinking apart. The new Saul-become-Paul emerged from the Mullendore presence a changed man, a firm believer in freedom and voluntarism in all their phases, social, political and economic. The session with Mr. Mullendore was a pedagogical revelation to the young Mr. Read. It started him thinking about techniques and means of bringing collectivists of one stripe or another to a full realization of the Slave State implications of their position. As Mr. Read thinks back on it, The Foundation for Economic Education—and the “Essays on Liberty”—were really born in Mr. Mullendore’s office that day.

Like most men of individualistic distinction, Mr. Read is not a mere product of our more conventional educational institutions. He learned the rough way. In World War I he was dumped from the torpedoed Tuscania into the Irish Sea. Saved from a watery grave, he knocked about England in war camps as a rigger in America’s pioneer air force, learning the truth that you can’t fake or fudge a problem in mechanics. He came home to take on Chamber of Commerce jobs in Palo Alto and San Francisco. During his years with the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce he had a wonderful time fighting the myriad versions of collectivist lunacy that flourished on the Pacific Coast in the wake of Ham-and-Egg-ism, Townsendism, and Upton Sinclair’s attempt to hornswoggle the voters with his EPIC (End Poverty in California) platform.

With Mullendore and others he started the Freeman Pamphleteers, a group which gaily revived such forgotten individualistic worthies as Bastiat and William Graham Sumner. Meanwhile, as a hobby, Mr. Read was exploring the fascinations of good food, and making himself into a cordon bleu cook. He can look at a complicated recipe in a cookbook and taste the thing accurately in his mind. Since he can also smell a believer in State compulsion fifty or even a hundred miles away, Mr. Read is a fit candidate for some of Professor Rhine’s future investigations into extra-sensory perception. He is a canny and extremely perceptive man with a vested interest in other people’s variations, and if his assembled “Essays on Liberty” were to be made even an elective part of our school curriculum America might have a new birth of freedom virtually overnight. []

Books by Leonard E. Read

The following 23 books by Leonard Read are available, some in cloth, others in paperback. For ordering information and special quantity discounts contact: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York 10533.

Accent on the Right
Anything That’s Peaceful
Awake for Freedom’s Sake
Castles in the Air
Comes the Dawn
The Coming Aristocracy
Deeper Than You Think
Elements of Libertarian Leadership
The Freedom Freeway
The Free Market and Its Enemy
Having My Way
How Do We Know?
Let Freedom Reign
Liberty: Legacy of Truth
The Love of Liberty
The Path of Duty
Seeds of Progress
Talking to Myself
Then Truth Will Out
Thoughts Rule the World
To Free or Freeze
      Who’s Listening?

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.