Government: An Ideal Concept: Leonard Read's Formula for Freedom

Read's Book Is a Milestone in Political Thought

Mr. Heller is an auctioneer in southern New Jersey.

The reviewer begs the reader’s indulgence for combining a book review with an appreciation of the author. Yes, Leonard Read is my guide and inspiration, and I was thrilled to learn of the republication of Government: An Ideal Concept (FEE, 1997, $12.95 paperback). This book is to me much like the fruits of scripture.

In 1982, I wrote to Read asking if he still believed what he had written in 1954. His reply: Just the other day I re-read Government: An Ideal Concept. Today I wouldn’t change a word of it. All of my books have been consistent with this book you like.

I have read all of Leonard Read’s books; they are consistent. Read is constant in character and consistent in thought. Given his premises, his freedom philosophy, as he called it (to disassociate himself from the anarchists who had appropriated his earlier use of libertarian), is consistent and corroborated by history. Read has grasped and described a natural law.

In Government: An Ideal Concept, he limits himself to basics and a few clear examples. Other issues and secondary points he leaves for other books, other writers. The argument of this work is logical, consistent, and neither circular nor abstruse.

Read is never a polemicist but warns against provoking antagonism with unnecessary personal attacks and criticisms of error, when what is needed is self-improvement and demonstration of truth. Although he says Government: An Ideal Concept is an essay in clarifying his own thinking, he writes with the authority and serenity of someone already possessed of a truth.

Not at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 nor when Read wrote Government: An Ideal Concept, says Read, was there any well-defined . . . principled, spelled-out ideal theory of government or liberty. The founders attempted to limit government, but lacking was a well-defined theory or positive rationale as to why limitation.[1]

Read was familiar with political and philosophical ideas from earliest writings to the present. Yet he was convinced that extant theories of liberty and government were inadequate and that this lack would have to be supplied before American society could secure the Blessings of Liberty cited in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution.

Read’s plan is to try to justify government, an effective but surprising strategy for one who sees that government, the immune system of society, designed to protect from internal and external dangers, has itself grown unhealthy, and, by proliferation, become an agent of social dysfunction. He seeks to understand the healthy state of government in society as the ideal—a key word in this book’s title. Properly limited government, he asserts, because it is necessary, must be a positive good rather than a necessary evil.

Fundamental to Read’s theory of limited government is his analysis of social versus individual problems, and the role of force and coercion in society. By definition, government is organized force. It monopolizes the legal use of force in those geographical, social, and economic areas under its jurisdiction. Read posits, Man’s purpose on earth is to come as near as possible in his lifetime to the attainment of those creative aptitudes peculiarly his own. He then explains why all of creative human emergence can only be a personal, voluntary undertaking. This leaves those actions of man which impair the source of creative energy and stifle its exchange, and also the actions which are parasitic on the flowing energy as the only social problem. To remove these inhibitory actions, it is necessary to restrain aggressive force and/or penalize those persons who indulge in it. Read explains why force can only restrain, never create. Therefore, the only proper use of force is to restrain aggressive use of force and fraud.

Only the widest possible social base is adequate to bear the responsibility for the use of force.[2] This means that the social authority for defense must be vested in a strictly limited government to be overseen, funded, and controlled by all society, a burdensome but unavoidable duty for citizens aspiring to freedom.

In earlier times, before the American Revolution, nearly all governments were tyrannical and most of their laws unjust. Even in the twentieth century, exemplary governments are rare. To be anti-government then was to be pro-freedom. Today, in spite of some discouraging problems, in many ways we are nearer to achieving liberty than ever before. It’s a healthful exercise to count our blessings in this regard: increased understanding and skepticism of big government, government-run schools, and the welfare state. And we are lengthening and improving the quality of the later years of life, thus enlarging the pool of human experience and, hopefully, wisdom.

The Ideal Role of Government

As we suffer the consequences of past errors, we can see the need to make finer distinctions in ethics, politics, and economics.[3] In Government: An Ideal Concept, Read has defined the ideal role of government, the rule on which such distinctions are based. We still need improved, refined definitions of liberty, theories of government, and analyses of social problems, old and new. Yet libertarians are urged by anarchists to throw out the good with the bad.

This is the fallacy of philosophical anarchism. In Government: An Ideal Concept, Read shows why limited-government libertarianism is as radical as we can get in approaching liberty. Beyond it lies a resumption of the belief that might makes right. By showing the necessity of limited government, Read proves that no government and no taxes are no formula for liberty.

It has been wisely said that all important questions are ultimately religious. A primary axiom underlying a theory of liberty and limited government confirms the religious faith that God created man and woman in God’s image, only a little lower than the angels. It is the rational, secular, empirical observation, elucidated by Mises, Hayek, and other classical-liberal thinkers that humankind, regardless of individual variations, shares a common human nature of reason and emotion making it possible to take an optimistic view of society. This optimism assumes that sinfulness is not so prevalent as to preclude our living in a higher degree of liberty than we have yet experienced.

The pessimistic view, that most of us are hopelessly depraved and must be driven and restrained to do the right thing by those stronger and wiser, implies an elitist theory of supermen and underclass, masters and slaves. Pending the moral regeneration of mankind, it leaves no hope in this world for peace or the flowering of human potential. Such pessimism is belied by history. As Read observes elsewhere, civilization exhibits periods of evolution and devolution, progress and regress. But over time and space, what most persons regard as progress has predominated.

Read’s faith in the virtue of people, voluntary followers of uncommon women and men, is implicit in his insistence on personal responsibility, integrity, and devotion to freedom’s ideals.

Leonard Read is a Christian believer. He acknowledges God, the Creator, Judge, Infinite Consciousness, and Supreme Intelligence. He characterizes Jesus as the Perfect Exemplar. In an interview he stated that you don’t have to believe in God to believe in freedom, but if no one believed in God there would be no freedom. In Government: An Ideal Concept, Read reveals the foundation and framework of the rest of his life’s work. It is a systematic exploration of the social (as separate from the personal) aspects of human life. To my knowledge, it is the most if not the only systematic book he ever wrote, and a fine example of that beautiful American idiom unique to Leonard’s voice and pen.

Read often acknowledges (not in these words) that he is a crow who followed many plows. His distillation and synthesis of others’ ideas, combined with his own insights, are fruitful and offer us the gift of a harvest we could not gather on our own. We stand not in his shadow, but on his shoulders, facing the light.

Freedom or liberty (synonymous to Read) is defined in Government: An Ideal Concept as . . . man not playing God, individually or collectively, through government or otherwise. Elsewhere in his writings he rephrases it as No man-concocted obstacles to the release and exchange of creative human energy. He leaves no doubt as to the difference between creative and destructive or obstacle-placing energy. In these definitions and in the body of his writings he avoids contradictions, ambiguities, idiosyncrasies, and the dated context that limit the usefulness of earlier essays and definitions of Locke, Humboldt, J.S. Mill, Spencer, Henry George, and other classical liberals. A worthy companion and successor to these earlier libertarian visionaries, Read’s work and vision are not burdened with distracting baggage. He is remarkably lucid, leaving little likelihood of confusion. We can use his writings for outreach without the need for explanations, cautions, apologies, and extensive interpretation.


Read’s vision captures the only way there can be liberty and justice in the world: mankind’s purpose on earth—emergence.[4] Emergence depends on the free flow of creative human energy. Liberty is the free flow of creative human energy. The free market is the free flow of creative human energy. Therefore, the free market is liberty. Liberty, justice, equality before the law, and the free market are one. These different words have differing abstract definitions, but in reality identify the identical condition—liberty—seen from different perspectives.

Interestingly, Government: An Ideal Concept (1954) predates Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (1960) with its memorable dictum: But while the uses of liberty are many, liberty is one. Liberties appear only when liberty is lacking. Liberties are but the opportunity to exercise natural human rights. If liberties appear only when liberty is lacking, then rights appear only when the human right, the right to live in liberty, is shackled. Thus, the human right joins liberty, justice, equality before the law, and the free market as a synonym. There is a corollary: The human right, the right to live in liberty, must subsume, qualify, and test any other proposed human right, and as the free market is synonymous with liberty, so also must be access to the free market, for a market cannot be free when access is arbitrarily denied to individuals or groups.

Read does not explicitly speak to the unity of liberty, the human right, the free market, justice and equality before the law, but given his theory and arguments, it appears to be the inescapable conclusion. As Read would say, That’s what it is, and that’s all it is.

Read perceived what many overlook or deny. Not all mankind’s deviltry originates in men themselves being devils. [T]oo many people have, for the time being, adapted themselves to governmental interventionism. Most [reviewer's emphasis] of the troubles among men are set in motion by ill-advised institutions—that is by men faultily organizing themselves. He recognized that well-intentioned but foolish ideas, rather than evil schemes, lead to harmful and corrupting attitudes and institutions. Thus acceptance of wiser ideas could, by changing incentives and reducing temptation, initiate a reversal of this sequence. Behavior can improve while human nature more or less remains the same. In other words, a practicable approach to liberty need not wait on the moral regeneration of mankind.

The universal interdependence of human beings, never better expressed than by John Donne in the seventeenth century—No man is an island—is a fundamental and recurrent theme in Read’s expositions.[5] He does not explicitly disclaim his theory of government and liberty as inappropriate for small groups or exceptional situations, but it is obvious that different rules must apply in families, the military, disaster scenes, and similar circumstances. It is for the large, mostly anonymous society, dependent on and coordinated by the free market in goods, services, and ideas that liberty and government, as he defines it, is necessary.


Government being necessary, how is it to be funded and staffed? Is all taxation theft?[6]

Is conscription for national defense justified? Read’s answer to the last question: No ideal agency of society can conscript any of its members for any kind of employment. So much for conscription of military, of jurors, of bookkeepers, and of tax collectors. Read’s justification of taxation to support limited government is a powerful argument which alone ought to motivate every libertarian to read his book. Read warns us, One of the first, important and assuredly controversial points the foregoing theories will raise has to do with taxation. He rejects voluntary funding of limited government, not because it would be inadequate—he thought it would be oversubscribed—but because he saw it as an invitation to plutocracy. The democratic ideal of equality before the law would be subverted as those who paid the piper would surely call the tunes. But, he says, the faults with voluntary financing of government are not the really valid reasons for favoring taxation, or for contending that taxation does not classify as aggression against the liberty of citizens.

Every one of us exists by reason of a division of creative energy and its exchange. This is the free market, and ideal government is the just, organized agency for defense of the free market, employed by and responsible to the sovereign people, whose right to live in liberty it is government’s duty to protect.

Taxes are an acknowledgment of the relative freedom and sovereignty of the people. They focus our attention on our governments—be they good or evil. In this sense, taxes are disciplining, if unwelcome. This helps to explain why taxes need to be compulsory, but the basis of Read’s argument is still more fundamental: fairness. [W]hile what we do with our creative potentialities is strictly a matter of personal decision, the fact that we ourselves are alive is due to the degree of perfection of the exchange equation which has preceded us.

There are two sides to this coin. True, we inherit not only the benefits but also life itself, which division of labor and exchange confer. But by the same token, we inherit the obligation its maintenance and perfection demand. In this single respect, we are as much members of the society which has been responsible for this as we are individual human beings [my emphasis]. This membership in the societal organization that inhibits the social obstacles to creative energy and its exchange is one’s own. That which is one’s own isn’t anyone else’s. And it is not merely one’s own for harvesting its blessings; it is one’s own to support for precisely the same reason that it is everyone else’s to support. One cannot deny his parentage by the simple expedient of saying: ‘I don’t want any parentage.’ Nor can one deny his societal obligation by the simple expedient of saying: ‘I choose not to have inherited any obligation.’ The inherited obligation is a fait accompli. To support or not to support a limited organization of society, based on right principle, is logically exterior to the area of free choice, unless, of course, one chooses to absent himself.

Read pointed out: Some opponents of any organization by society refer to government as ‘slavery’ and to taxation as ‘robbery.’ These epithets appear not to be correct. When society’s agency goes beyond its authentic functions of defending all of society’s members equally and without favor and is employed as an agency of plunder to ‘help’ some members at the expense of other members, then and only then can the action of the agency be called slavery. Likewise, plundering the honest fruits of one’s labor for the ‘benefit’ of others classifies as robbery—legal perhaps but robbery nonetheless.

Based on the general will to live and the right to life and livelihood, Read proceeds to describe an implied contract between each individual and the rest of society to employ and pay limited defensive governments. This contract provides for the delegation of the personal right of self-defense to government because it cannot properly [and in justice] be attended to as individual projects.

Read, of course, condemned the progressive income tax. He did not offer alternatives. This task he left for us. So, having rejected the twin fallacies of no taxes and oppressive and discriminatory taxes, we are now free to, and obligated to, seek and propose a better tax system. The public at large accepts Poor Richard’s verdict on the inevitability of taxes, and has no patience with the anarchist delusion to the contrary. This confused area of libertarian thinking is, I believe, one of the remaining obstacles to its popular acceptance.

It may be argued that Read’s theory of limited government, being categorical, is so idealistic as to be inapplicable to the incremental nature of practical affairs. We need the theory for a compass, the vision for a map. The exploring party must still search to find its way. Mindful that human affairs cannot be mathematically exact, the categorical may be modified into a very strong but rebuttable presumption in its favor (against government intervention in creative actions), leaving statists with a heavy burden of proof.

Read eschews discussion of strategy beyond pointing out that ours is not a numbers nor a propaganda problem. We do not have to sway multitudes. First, we have to get our own ideas right. This is a personal problem. Reflect on the waste of bloodshed and treasure and human suffering caused by trying to popularize or impose faulty systems. We must first bring our product to the point where it can withstand the most severe scrutiny. In Government: An Ideal Concept, Read deals with the role of government, not its structure. Apparently he is reasonably satisfied with the U.S. Constitution, condemning only black slavery, tariffs, the elastic clause, and the income tax amendment.

Now, on the eve of the next millennium, it is appropriate to ask, What is the Holy Grail, the end and purpose of political science, political philosophy, political economy? Is it not to discover and explain the ideal, the principles of the political and economic structure most helpful to the further flowering of imperfect but improvable man and woman? Liberty, as Read describes it, is the embodiment of those principles. His vision is that ideal.

The correctness of this vision is demonstrated again and again. As true liberty has been approached, the lot of humanity, across its fullest spectrum, has improved, its age-old miseries ameliorated. To enjoy the blessings of liberty is not a vague or idle phrase, but man’s noblest earthly ambition.

Read’s brief Government: An Ideal Concept may well be a milestone in political thought. By virtue of giving us this readily accessible, most highly advanced definition of liberty and ideal theory of limited government, Leonard Read is, despite lack of formal scholarship and academic credentials, the pre-eminent political philosopher of his time. Add to this his founding and staffing of the Foundation for Economic Education, recruitment of its trustees, 37 years as its president, staffing and publication of The Freeman, rediscovery of Bastiat, support of Mises, cooperation with Henry Hazlitt, authorship of thirty-odd books and extensive worldwide travel, everywhere planting fertile seeds of liberty to supplant the choking weeds of servitude. Who in his time did more than Leonard Read to advance the cause of liberty without ever impeding its progress?[7]

Readers of this article should not imagine that here is abstracted all of Read’s wisdom. This is only an overview, a few comments and (I hope) a little logic. This is the book that every libertarian should keep at hand as both a guide and a challenge. It deserves careful and repeated study.

To see an impending disaster and not warn others is immoral. To receive knowledge and insight and not share it is to be unworthy of the gift and disqualified for further blessings. These are Leonard Read’s principles. To spurn offerings of insight is a parallel fault. Unto whomsoever much is given, of him much is required. In Government: An Ideal Concept, that vision is our challenge and duty.


  1. Except for Government: An Ideal Concept, I don’t know where to find such a definition and theory today. Overwhelming might, whether right or wrong, always prevails. Our ideal is that right and might coincide. Who pays the piper calls the tune. Plural, private defense forces are divisive, a formula for plutocracy, goon squads, corruption, and conflict—a house divided against itself. Only a consensus on the proper use of force can lead to peace. To approach a consensus, the use of force in society must be limited to defense of life, liberty, and property—that is, the free market, the fountain from which we all drink. Limited government must have a society-wide, tax-supported base.
  2. See Isabel Paterson, The God of the Machine (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1943).
  3. Among the fine but vital distinctions: a.) The difference in nature, not degree, between the necessary exercise of force and all other social transactions. b.) The difference between self-defense and aggression. c.) The difference between collecting a just debt and theft. d.) The difference between just and unjust, efficient and inefficient taxation. e.) The difference between private and personal matters and the public economic arena. f.) The difference between children and adults. g.) The difference between absolute and conditional rights. h.) The politically intimidating effect of many laws.
  4. See Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Limits of State Action, edited by J. W. Burrow (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1969).
  5. The Limits of State Action contains numerous parallels in an eighteenth-century context.
  6. It is a measure of the difficulty and seriousness of these questions that in 1984 the libertarian writer, the late Roy A. Childs, in a conversation confessed to me that he had never been able to resolve the funding question to his own satisfaction.
  7. From the time of his conversion from a supporter of FDR’s New Deal in the early 1930s to a libertarian. This occurred in perhaps an hour-long discussion with W. C. Mullendore, head of Southern California Edison. Who could have foreseen the consequences of that pivotal conversation?

Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth

Say not the struggle naught availeth,

The labor and the wounds are vain,

The enemy faints not, nor faileth,

And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;

It may be, in yon smoke conceal’d,

Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,

And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,

Seem here no painful inch to gain,

Far back, through creeks and inlets making,

Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,

When daylight comes, comes in the light;

In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,

But westward, look, the land is bright!

—Arthur Hugh Clough (1819–1861)