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Monday, May 25, 2020

How Ralph Waldo Emerson Influenced Leonard Read

Leonard Read saw that substituting external dictation for individual choices, which are the only way individuals “bloom”—had to be both unjust and unsuccessful.

Image Credit: Flickr- Ken Lund | CC BY 2.0 (

Leonard Read, founder and guiding light of the Foundation for Economic Education, searched constantly for sources of inspiration toward liberty, wherever he could find them. And he shared them with readers throughout his works.

Since what Read quoted reveals much about him, it is worth revisiting one of the people he quoted most—Ralph Waldo Emerson, who he called “one of those who have seen what most of us have not.” In fact, the verbal nuggets he selected from Emerson reveal more about Read’s character than those from anyone else. So as we mark Emerson’s May 25 birthday, consider some of Read’s self-revelation through Emerson, because others who wish to advance liberty could profit from similar character.

Great men are they who see that spiritual is stronger than material force, that thoughts rule the world.

What you are speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.

Look not mournfully to the past…wisely improve the present…go forth to meet the shadowy future without fear.

No man thoroughly understands a truth until first he has contended against it.

I cannot find language of sufficient energy to convey my sense of the sacredness of integrity.

We lie in the lap of Immense Intelligence which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves but allow a passage of its beams.

America is another name for opportunity. Our whole history appears like a last effort of divine Providence on behalf of the human race.

The best lightning-rod for your protection is your own spine.

Talent working with joy in the cause of universal truth lifts the possessor to new power as a benefactor.

Explore and explore and explore. Be neither chided nor flattered out of your position of perpetual inquiry.

Make yourself necessary to the world, and mankind will give you bread.

These Emerson quotes reveal many aspects of Leonard Read’s character. He emphasized the spiritual and mental dimensions of life over the material and the need for consistency between word and deed. He saw the immense potential in constant learning. He recognized that we cannot change the past, but we can learn from carefully studying it, allowing us to change the present and the future, by growing and improving ourselves as individuals. He saw the need for morality and integrity, including entirely avoiding coercion of others and other immoral means.

He understood the Providence and opportunity that has been provided to Americans, uniquely in the world, and the necessity of maintaining the courage of one’s convictions to make use of those possibilities. Leonard Read also worked to infuse that same character into the Foundation for Economic Education. Those of us who profit from FEE’s presence and efforts, including myself, could benefit from emulating his character as well as his ideas.

And certainly among those is what Read quoted more frequently than any other:

Cause and effect, means and ends, see and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end pre-exists in the means, the fruit in the seed.

Many who would remake society into a utopia they imagine overlook that the ends actually achieved may not match their imaginations and that the means which they must use are unjust.

Leonard Read was an astute observer of such coercive political panaceas. And he frequently started his rebuttals by citing Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end pre-exists in the means, the fruit in the seed.” As we approach Emerson’s May 25 birthday, it is worth noting how his argument blooms in Read’s hands.

Reflecting Emerson, Read argued that the ends actually achieved are implied by the means used. Only moral means can achieve moral advances; immoral means will “achieve” moral decline. He made that argument most clearly in his 1969 “The Bloom Pre-Exists in the Seed.” It merits reconsideration.

A hard look at means and ends is appropriate.

Ends, goals, aims are but the hope for things to come…not…reality… from which may safely be taken the standards for right conduct…Many of the most monstrous deeds in human history have been perpetrated in the name of doing good—in pursuit of some “noble” goal. They illustrate the fallacy that the end justifies the means.

Examine carefully the means employed, judging them in terms of right and wrong, and the end will take care of itself.

Examine the actions—means—that are implicit in achieving the goals.

Implicit in the collectivistic approach…is the masterminding of the people…The control of the individual’s life is from without. [But for] an individualist…what is valued above all else [is] each distinctive individual human being.

Any conscientious collectivist, if he could…properly evaluate the authoritarian means his system of thought demands, would likely defect.

However lofty the goals, if the means be depraved, the result must reflect that depravity.

When the individual [is] the ultimate goal…the means implicit in achieving such a goal must be radically different.

If…man has a right to his life, it follows that he has a right to sustain life, the sustenance being the fruits of one’s own labor. Private ownership is as sacred as life itself.

It is senseless to talk about freedom if the right of private ownership be denied.

Either I will…mind my own business or mind other people’s business…[And] In view of the obstacles to the relatively simple task of self-realization, reflect on the utter absurdity of…undertaking to manage the lives of millions.

Each individual best promotes his own self-interest by peaceful, social cooperation as in the free market. Indeed, the more I make of myself the more are others served by my existence.

Can we pronounce a moral judgment on these means implicit in the individualistic goal…These means serve as a powerful thrust toward the individual’s material, intellectual, moral, and spiritual emergence…those who comprise society—are the secondary beneficiaries of individual growth. If we would help others, let us first help ourselves by those means which qualify as righteous.

Leonard Read saw that substituting external dictation for individual choices, which are the only way individuals “bloom”—had to be both unjust and unsuccessful. In contrast, voluntary means that violate no one’s rights are the only reliable path to both individual growth and social advance. He knew that the bloom of liberty pre-existed in the seed of self-ownership, and the wilting of collectivism pre-existed in the seed of violations of self-ownership. That is a lesson few have ever learned as well as Read, and which we are in desperate need of relearning today.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).