Those who favor freedom may be tempted to despair. We seem hopelessly outnumbered. The masses don’t appreciate freedom, so they support or acquiesce to rulers who are hellbent on abolishing it.
To free ourselves of these tyrants, we must turn the people toward liberty. But the masses seem too far gone for that: too economically ignorant, too morally unmoored, too hoodwinked by government propaganda. The prospect of getting such a benighted and deluded populace to understand and embrace libertarian political philosophy and free-market economics seems like a tall order—an impossible one, even.
The good news is, we don’t actually need to get the masses to master the freedom philosophy to get them to embrace it.
As Leonard E. Read wrote in Elements of Libertarian Leadership, “A study of significant political movements or vast social shifts will reveal that every one of them—good or bad—has been led by an infinitesimal minority. Never has one of these changes been accompanied by mass understanding, nor should such ever be expected.”
Now Read didn’t discount the importance of understanding and the power of ideas. Quite the opposite: Read started the Foundation for Economic Education because he believed that the prospects for liberty depend on the success of the ideas of liberty. Indeed, all successful liberty movements of the past arose in the wake of advances in the ideas of liberty.
The American Revolution in the 18th century, for example, was led by an “infinitesimal minority” of individuals like the American founders who were avid students of John Locke and other philosophers of liberty.
The liberal economic reforms of the 19th century that resulted in the Industrial Revolution were led by an “infinitesimal minority” of individuals like Richard Cobden and John Bright who were devotees of Adam Smith and other free-market economists.
However, the average 18th-century American did not pore over Locke’s Second Treatise of Government or comprehend his natural law philosophy. And yet, under the intellectual and moral leadership of those who did, he stood up for his rights and opposed tyranny anyway.
Similarly, your run-of-the-mill 19th-century Briton did not study Smith’s Wealth of Nations or grasp the Invisible Hand. And yet, under the intellectual and moral leadership of those who did, he supported free trade and opposed mercantilist policies anyway.
The same is true for major movements away from liberty, as well. The typical twentieth century Russian did not read Marx’s Das Kapital or understand his labor theory of value. And yet, under the intellectual and moral leadership of those who did, he supported class warfare and opposed capitalism anyway.
As a famous saying (commonly misattributed to Samuel Adams) has it, “It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in the minds of men.”
And as Margaret Mead has been (also dubiously) quoted, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
In FEE seminars, Read would illustrate this dynamic by drawing a “normal curve” on the chalkboard. One end of the curve represented the “infinitesimal minority” of the population who actively advocate freedom and oppose tyranny. The other end represented another “infinitesimal minority”: those who actively oppose freedom and advocate big government.
The vast bulk of the curve in the middle represented “the many millions, more or less indifferent, as uninterested in understanding the nature of society and its political institutions as are most people in understanding the composition of a symphony; who, at best, can only become ‘listeners’ or followers of one camp or the other.”
It’s not so much that the masses are incapable of becoming music theorists or political philosophers (although aptitude is a factor). It’s more an issue of the time required to master such specialist pursuits. We can’t all specialize in political philosophy, after all.
The good news is, we don’t all need to. The fate of freedom, Read explained, depends on which of the two infinitesimal minorities wins over the heart and minds of the majority. But that is not a matter of turning the masses into philosophers and economists. It’s a matter of which group of opinion-influencers earns the people’s esteem and trust and thus gains influence.
“Here, then,” Read wrote, “is the key question: What constitutes an influential opinion? In the context of moral, social, economic, and political philosophy, influential opinion stems from or rests upon (1) depth of understanding, (2) strength of conviction, and (3) the power of attractive exposition. These are the ingredients of self-perfection as relating to a set of ideas. Persons who thus improve their understanding, dedication, and exposition are the leaders of men; the rest of us are followers, including the out-front political personalities.”
Liberty advances when libertarians manifest these virtues. When other libertarians see them, it brings out the best in them, leading them to let their "light so shine before men” as well. When non-libertarians with a latent affinity for understanding liberty see them, it activates their potential, beckons them over to the light side, and can turn them into liberty leaders as well. And when the multitudes who are just not that into in-depth social studies see them, it elicits well-earned admiration and trust.
Read extracted from this analysis a pill that can be hard for libertarians to swallow. If the masses are rejecting liberty and accepting tyranny, that means the anti-freedom thought-leaders are outperforming the pro-freedom thought-leaders in attaining and manifesting the above qualities. It means the inheritors of the grand tradition of liberty “are failing to do their homework,” as Read put it: failing to do the self-work necessary to “improve their understanding, dedication, and exposition.” As a result they “are not manifesting the qualities of attraction and leadership of which they are capable” and that are necessary to lead the people toward liberty.
As Read concluded:
“...the solution of problems relating to a free society depends upon the emergence of an informed leadership devoted to freedom.
In short, this is a leadership problem, not a mass reformation problem.”
And, as he elaborated, the solution to that leadership problem is self-improvement: the reformation, not of the masses, but of ourselves.
If we who profess liberty each devote ourselves to self-improvement, we will become leaders of our communities—and ultimately of society at large—as a natural byproduct. Inspired by our genuine example, the individuals who make up society will reform themselves and turn toward liberty: even those who don’t fully comprehend its underlying rationale.
Those who deeply understand the freedom philosophy—the “Remnant” as Read called them, following his friend and influence Albert Jay Nock—will always be “outnumbered.” But that is no excuse for despair.
To paraphrase Mead mixed with Read, never doubt that an infinitesimal minority of individuals committed to self-improvement can improve the world.
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
P.S. In the video below, Leonard E. Read gives the "normal curve" presentation discussed above.