FEE’s current president, Lawrence W. Reed, takes a break this week from his Real Heroes series to focus on the man who founded FEE nearly seven decades ago and served as its president until his death in 1983, Leonard E. Read. “Real Heroes” resumes next Friday. What follows are (1) a few introductory paragraphs by Roger Ream, president of The Fund for American Studies and chairman of the FEE board of trustees; and (2) an abridged and updated version of a 1998 essay by longtime FEE staff member Bettina Bien Greaves, who at 98 now resides in Hickory, North Carolina.

Comments from Roger Ream

I was fortunate at a formative time in my life to accompany my father to a FEE seminar in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. At the seminar, Leonard delivered three lectures: “The Essence of Americanism,” “The Miracle of the Market,” and “How to Advance Liberty.” The experience that summer led me eventually to spend three years at FEE as director of seminars and a member of the senior staff.

Leonard Read believed freedom was inextricably linked with the practice of self-improvement.

If I were to summarize Leonard’s vision, it would be by way of a quotation from the 17th-century essayist and poet Abraham Cowley, who wrote, “Liberty will not descend to a people; a people must raise themselves up to liberty. It is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.”

Leonard would have liked that quotation. It captures his lifelong passion for learning and for “raising himself up to liberty.”

Leonard was committed to spiritual growth, or what he would sometimes call “hatching.” He believed freedom was inextricably linked with the practice of self-improvement. Each of us should seek to continually develop our talents and our understanding. Leonard himself reached what he called the third level of libertarian leadership: a level of learning that leads others to seek one’s tutorship. Leonard’s philosophy was to “go only where you are called, but do everything in you power to be called.” He was often called by those seeking to learn about the freedom philosophy, and he traveled the world to speak, teach, and inspire people to commit to self-improvement.

Leonard understood that advancing the cause of freedom is not a numbers game. We don’t win by getting 50 percent plus one of the people to support liberty. He emphasized instead the power each of us has to spread the light of liberty. One person of character and commitment can make all the difference. History is replete with examples.

Leonard also understood that there is no magic key. People come to understand and commit to the ideas of liberty through a range of life experiences. Some are convinced by a good argument of a friend or by a practical experience. Still others might read the work of a great libertarian such as F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, or Henry Hazlitt. Some may be moved by a deeper understanding of the moral consistency of free market ideas.

Leonard’s influence was global and profound. It came from the power of his example and the consistency of his first principles. His concluding lecture at FEE seminars was to demonstrate in a darkened room that “darkness has no resistance to light.” Leonard’s light continues to shine brightly, long after his death, driving darkness from the world.

Comments from Bettina Bien Greaves

If you had known Leonard E. Read in the 1930s, you would probably not have picked him as a future crusader for the freedom philosophy. Charismatic, energetic, and debonair, he was a businessman, an organization man, a Chamber of Commerce man. In 1932, in the depth of the Depression, he became manager of the western division of the US Chamber of Commerce, headquartered in San Francisco. Some chamber members were alarmed at the direction government was taking. But not Read and not the US Chamber, which adopted a policy of going along to get along.

Then Read called on a prominent California businessman who had been criticizing the chamber’s position, William C. Mullendore, executive vice president of Southern California Edison. Longtime FEE staff member Edmund A. Opitz recounts the impact:

As Leonard tells this story, he spent ten minutes explaining Chamber policies, and the next few minutes trying to rationalize them. And began to stumble! His sound instincts began to send up warning signals. At which point Mr. Mullendore took over, ripped the Chamber’s position to shreds, and went on to demonstrate that the New Deal was riddled with fallacies and fantasies. Money is unjustly taxed away from those who earn it and unjustly given to those who lobby for it. And in effecting these transfers government itself becomes rich and powerful while the country at large suffers a drop in productivity, as well as an impairment of personal freedom.

Whatever the words uttered by Mr. Mullendore, they had an overwhelming effect on Read; they changed his life by altering his thinking. He began to study and then wrote a book in order to clarify his philosophy. The result was The Romance of Reality, published in 1937 by Dodd, Mead Company.

Read left Mullendore’s office a changed man, “liberated,” as he would phrase it later, from accepting blindly the popular worldview. He started to consider and ponder ideas that had never concerned him before.

Read was always ready to point out that the voluntary way was not only right but beneficial. 

As Read examined the world through his newly acquired “freedom-tinted” glasses, he realized that the New Deal’s spending and inflation, its economic distribution programs, and its pro-union Wagner Act and minimum-wage legislation all restricted the freedom of individuals and hampered economic recovery. He was aghast at the violations of private property he saw around him. He embraced enthusiastically the freedom philosophy Mullendore had expounded, became convinced it held the answer to the country’s economic depression, and began to look for ways to share his newly found philosophy with others. In the process, he became a crusader.

Read could not spread his pro-freedom ideas to the extent he wished within the chamber. So he started an outside publishing venture, Pamphleteers, Inc., through which he released pamphlet versions of several pro-freedom works: Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law, Rose Wilder Lane’s Give Me Liberty, Andrew Dickson White’s Fiat Money Inflation in France, Ayn Rand’s Anthem, and Virgil Jordan’s Freedom in America. But Read felt frustrated. He realized he was trying to serve two masters: his employer and his freedom philosophy.

Just before the war ended in Europe, Read resigned as general manager of the Los Angeles chamber to take a position in New York City as vice president with the National Industrial Conference Board (NICB). His job was to raise funds for its educational program, through which he hoped to promote the freedom philosophy. But the NICB’s idea of education was not Read’s. It wanted to present both sides of every issue. In a world where the other side was already being presented everywhere, in newspapers, radio, films, schools, universities, and books, the freedom side would receive short shrift. Disappointed once more, Read resigned.

By that time, Read, through his work with the Chamber of Commerce and the NICB, had many contacts who shared his faith in freedom and his belief in the importance of finding some way to counteract the New Deal thinking. By 1946, Franklin Roosevelt’s interventionist ideas had been further entrenched by price, wage, and rent controls and other wartime emergency legislation. So, with the backing and support of some of his friends, Read decided to set up his own organization. That spring, Read established the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).

It is one thing to believe in, and to dream of, promoting the freedom philosophy; it is quite another thing to actually do so. Without an organization to put outreach schemes into practice, there could be no promotion of the freedom philosophy, except in a very limited way through personal contacts. It takes an organization to publish books, briefs, and pamphlets, to hire speakers, to schedule lectures, and to arrange seminars. This is what Read had in mind for his foundation. And he was well prepared for the task. He was a rare mix of crusader, businessman, administrator, and money raiser. As a crusader, the sincerity of Read’s belief in moral principles infected others. His zeal and enthusiasm for the freedom philosophy persuaded listeners to support his cause. As a businessman, Read realized that if an organization is to succeed, its income must exceed its outgo. Establishing and maintaining an organization also required Read’s talents for fundraising and administration.

As there had been controls on rents and practically no construction during the war, office space in New York City was scarce or nonexistent. When a real estate agent suggested that Read look at suburban property, he found and purchased a large private estate in Irvington, New York, which had been vacated by the owner during the war because of the difficulty of getting help. It served as FEE’s home from 1946 until the foundation’s relocation to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2014.

To staff the foundation, Read sought to assemble a group who shared his goal. He turned first to V. Orval Watts, who had been with him at the Los Angeles chamber and had written some of its most effective anti-big-government tracts. Then, from Cornell University, he hired F.A. Harper, W.M. Curtiss, Paul L. Poirot, and Ivan R. Bierly. I came to FEE in 1951, and Opitz arrived four years later. Other staffers came and went over the years. When they left FEE, many continued to promote the freedom philosophy in one way or another, in business, in colleges and universities, and through other free-market think tanks.

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. They also led him 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. Read was always ready to point out that the voluntary way was not only right but beneficial. Obviously, it benefited those directly concerned. But eventually, it helped everyone through increased cooperation, production, and well-being. On the other hand, the use of force to coerce others against their will was immoral. Moreover, while the use of force might help some, it inevitably hurt others.

Read’s goal was to counteract, through FEE, the anti-freedom, pro-socialist, New Deal philosophy of post-World War II America. The goal was to reawaken in the people a belief in the morality of freedom. 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.

One of the ways Read engaged in free-market education was through the distribution of the works of Bastiat. It was love at first reading when Read first encountered Bastiat during his Chamber of Commerce days. Bastiat (1801–1850), an economist, journalist, and member of the French Chamber of Deputies, had fought long and hard against the socialist ideas of his day. His moral approach to freedom appealed to Read. And his anti-socialist arguments were relevant to Read’s struggle against Roosevelt’s New Deal.

As noted, Read, while still in California, reprinted the English translation of one of Bastiat’s small books, The Law. Bastiat had proclaimed that life — physical, intellectual, and moral — was a gift from God, not government. “Each of us has a natural right — from God — to defend his person, his liberty, and his property.… If every person has the right to defend — even by force — his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly.”

However, according to Bastiat, that common force, government, had been used to destroy the rights of individuals and to take the property of some for the benefit of others. This would be considered plunder if done by gangsters or thieves. When done in the name of government, it was still plunder — Bastiat called it “legal plunder.” His book cited many examples of government-sanctioned legal plunder.

Read had been disappointed by the reception accorded The Law. He decided the rather archaic British prose of the translation must have prevented others from sharing his enthusiasm. So he set Dean Russell, a journalism graduate student recently mustered out of the Army Air Corps, to translating it into modern English prose. Russell’s translation, published in 1950, just a century after the book first appeared in French, introduced Bastiat’s writings on freedom to new generations of readers.

When Read needed economic advice, he relied on others, especially Austrian-born economist Ludwig von Mises, who had joined FEE in the very beginning. Mises, a refugee from war-torn Europe, had arrived in the United States in 1940, jobless and practically broke. Mises had been well known and well established in Europe, but in this country where Keynesian big-government, big-spending ideas reigned supreme, his free-market ideas were considered old-fashioned. One of FEE’s founding trustees, economic journalist Henry Hazlitt, urged Read to take Mises on as economic adviser.

The Hazlitt-brokered relationship benefited all concerned: Read, FEE, and Mises. Mises lent advice and prestige to the foundation. Through the years, FEE spread Mises’s teachings by providing a platform for him to speak at seminars and to write for its magazine, the Freeman. FEE also helped with Mises’s 800-plus-page economic opus, Human Action. A FEE secretary finished typing the manuscript and staffers prepared it for its 1949 publication by Yale University Press. Once it was published, FEE helped to place it in libraries. The foundation itself has also published some of Mises’s books — the first was Planned Chaos (1947) — and assisted in the publication of others.

Read lived, breathed, and thought the freedom philosophy. Wherever he went, he looked for, or made, opportunities to present his ideas. When he flew — and he did a lot of flying back and forth across the country to fulfill speaking engagements and to meet potential supporters — he would tantalize his seatmate with hints of where he had been, what he had done, and persons he had met. Out of curiosity, his seatmate would ask, “What do you do, Mr. Read?” That question opened the door for Read to talk about FEE and the freedom philosophy.

Read’s goal was to counteract, through FEE, the anti-freedom, pro-socialist, New Deal philosophy of post-World War II America. 

Read was not above a little showmanship. When he wound up a lecture, he often had the lecture room darkened. Then he would light a small electric candle. The eyes of everyone in the audience would be riveted to that small flame. “No amount of darkness,” he said, “can extinguish that tiny light.” Then, gradually, Read would turn up the intensity of the candle until the whole room was flooded with light. “A good idea,” Read said, “is similar. Once abroad in the world it lives; it cannot be extinguished or put back in a bottle. And an idea whose time has come can spread in time to encompass the entire world.” And so it would be, Read believed, with the freedom idea. In spite of the refusal of the general public to accept the freedom philosophy, Read remained eternally optimistic, convinced that freedom would win in the end.

Read died in 1983. But FEE has endured, and in recent years, it has been growing rapidly by every measure. It will celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2016. Thanks in part to Read and to FEE, the freedom philosophy and free markets are now more widely discussed and more respectable than they were in the years immediately following World War II.

Until people understand economic principles clearly enough to realize that government should not intervene in the private affairs of peaceful persons, and that government’s role should be limited to protecting life, property, and voluntary social cooperation and to adjudicating disputes, Read’s work will not be done. Until that day arrives, there will be plenty of work for FEE’s staff and other free-market-minded thinkers, writers, and teachers. The freedom philosophy remains a dream, an ideal, but one well worth striving for.

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