September 26th is the birthday* of Leonard Read. Though he isn’t exactly a household name today, according to his biographer Mary Sennholz, “Leonard Read was one of the most notable social philosophers of our time. His name will forever be associated with the rebirth of the freedom philosophy.” Due in large part to his efforts, Bettina Bien Greaves noted, “the freedom philosophy and free markets are now more widely discussed and more respectable.” As Gary North said, “The libertarian movement…can be traced to Read and Read’s vision.”
Born September 26, 1898, Read’s hard work and talent led him from poverty to the manager of the Western division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1932, and eventually general manager of the Los Angeles branch—the largest in the country—in 1939.
An Open Mind
Leonard Read vigorously represented Chamber of Commerce policies, which included a “go along to get along” approach to FDR’s New Deal. But in 1933, Read met with W.C. Mullendore, executive vice president of Southern California Edison, who had criticized the chamber’s positions. "Read’s whole life became devoted to this task, to free-market education in the broadest sense of the word.” After Read defended the chamber’s approach and rationale, Mullendore eviscerated that defense, followed by what Read called “his best lesson ever” in the liberty philosophy. Afterward, Read wrote the book The Romance of Reality (1937) to clarify his understanding of the case for liberty—self-ownership and the solely voluntary arrangements it enabled—that he would further develop for more than four decades.
Unable to be a pro-freedom crusader at the Chamber of Commerce or later, as the vice president of the National Industrial Conference Board, Read left, at a very sizeable financial cost, to create his own organization to promote freedom in 1946, a time when the prospects for freedom in the world were bleak. That new effort was the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), which Gary North called “the granddaddy of all libertarian organizations” and which inspired the formation of many other free-market organizations (such as the Mont Pelerin Society, formed in 1947) and think tanks that have since arisen all over the world.
Bettina Bien Greaves wrote that Read found “The problem was to reawaken in the people a belief in the morality of freedom.” Consequently, “Since people cannot be forced to be moral, their ideas must be changed—through education. Read’s whole life became devoted to this task, to free-market education in the broadest sense of the word.”
The Power of Freedom
As not just FEE’s founder and leader but also its heart and soul, Leonard Read traveled widely, giving speeches and participating in hundreds of seminars to defend and advance individual liberty. The Freeman, for years FEE’s flagship publication, “was the printed incarnation of Read’s philosophy,” according to Gary North. Leonard Read also wrote prolifically, and his many books are now freely available online.
Bettina Bien Greaves captured the core of his message:
Read was a moral philosopher, not an economist, though his principles made him a pretty good free-market economist. He reasoned that if it is moral to respect the life and property of individuals, then it is immoral to violate their rights to life and property; if it is moral to deal peacefully with others, then it is immoral to use force, fraud, or threat of force to impose one’s wishes on others; if voluntary transactions among private-property owners are moral, then to hinder or prevent voluntary transactions among willing traders is immoral. No one, neither private individual nor public agency, should take property by force or coercion from one person for the benefit of another. These principles led Read logically to believe in the morality of private-property rights, a free-market economy, and free trade, and to the conviction that government intervention that violates private property, hampers free markets, and interferes with free trade is immoral. His proverbial answer when asked how to solve any economic problem was: “Get the government out of it.”
For Leonard Read, the difference between what was permissible and what was impermissible was simple. Anything That’s Peaceful (the title of one of his many books) was permissible. The voluntary way was not only right but also beneficial. On the other hand, the use of force to coerce others against their will was wrong and immoral.
Read was committed to the idea that nothing should stand in the way of the power of freedom to change minds, including its power to change minds about the morality and efficacy of freedom— “the free market and its miraculous performances”—as the principle of social organization.
That was Read’s goal—planting seeds of liberty so that individuals, and thereby society, could blossom to their fullest potential.
As Jacob Hornberger described him, “Leonard Read took an absolutely uncompromising approach to the principles of freedom.” In its essence, “He argued that man’s purpose on earth, whatever it is, requires the widest possible ambit for human growth and maturation. Therefore, he believed, a person should be free to do whatever he wants in life as long as it is peaceful.”
As we come to Leonard Read’s 120th birthday this September 26th, I hope this reminder will lead to further reading and stimulate serious thought, “infecting” more people with a deep-seated commitment to liberty. That, after all, was Leonard Read’s goal—planting seeds of liberty so that individuals, and thereby society, could blossom to their fullest potential.
Note: Adapted from my Introduction to Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read (2013), which presents some of Read’s best-sustained arguments.
*On this anniversary of Leonard E. Read’s 120th birthday, join us as we continue to shine the light of freedom. Please consider making a $120 gift in honor of his legacy.