All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1998

How to Get Action

The Only Way to Truth Is Through One's Own Person

Leonard E. Read established FEE in 1946 and served as its president until his death in 1983. This article is excerpted from Essays on Liberty, Vol. III (1958), pp. 102-109. It is the eighth in a monthly series commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mr. Read’s birth.

“I want less talk and more action.”

Thus speak Americans when they suddenly awaken to the fact that their liberties are endangered. Talk, they say, is useless; only action counts. But perhaps talk and action aren’t necessarily opposites. What if studying, talking, writing, and explaining should turn out to be the only worthwhile action there is? What then?

There are only two types of action: physical and intellectual. Do those who would save liberty advocate physical action? If so, how? To use physical force against others, except defensively, is to destroy the liberty of others which, by definition, is not liberty. To adopt this tactic—to employ physical force against others in any form or degree, except in self-defense—would be merely to substitute a new form of compulsion for the existing forms of compulsion, trading violence for violence—revolution! At best, it is the court of last resort and is not, really, what most persons have in mind when they insist they want action. Most of them mean only that they want “something done,” and quickly! They want to fight peacefully. The thought of using fists or guns never as much as enters their heads; they reject physical action, in their calculations, by not even contemplating it. Thus, according to their own thesis, nothing logically remains but intellectual action.

The Mania for Organizing

How, then, does one fight for liberty intellectually? The best thing to do even in an intellectual fight for liberty, many think, is to organize—which is a form of action. Usually they think in terms of organizing someone else to do something instead of organizing their own time and energies. This damaging tactic is employed as though organizing had the power, somehow, to absolve individuals from doing any more than joining some organization. This mania for organizing is usually little more than an effort, doubtless unwitting, to transfer responsibility from oneself to some other person or persons whose competence is often unknown.

Responsibility and authority always go hand in hand. Thus, if this process of organizing succeeds, authority over one’s own actions is lost precisely in the degree that responsibility is shifted to someone else. The citizen who “wants action,” and resorts to this type of tactic, ends up further from his goal than ever. In fact, organizing, more often than not, is merely an attempt to “pass the buck.” Yet, oddly enough, the mere act seems to have the strange power of conferring a sense of accomplishment on the ones who organize.

Organization, though much used, seems to be little understood. In the field of extending individual liberty, organization has strictly limited, technical possibilities. Unless these limitations are scrupulously observed, organization will inflict on liberty more harm than good; thwart, not abet, the spread of understanding. Sobering is the thought that if there were no organization, there could be no socialism! . . .

For Voluntary Cooperation

Organizations can, however, serve a highly useful purpose in developing and spreading an understanding of liberty if organization is confined to its proper sphere. For the purpose of advancing liberty, which depends solely on the advancement of individual understanding, the only usefulness of organization would seem to be to accommodate and to make easier the joint contribution to, participation in, and ownership of the physical assets that will aid in the process. These physical assets may include typewriters, buildings, specialized libraries, printing presses, telephones, and the many other tools helpful to individuals who are attempting to extend their understanding of liberty. These physical accommodations can enable searchers for truth to exchange and disseminate ideas and knowledge more effectively. They can be used to secure the advantages which derive from specialization or division of labor. Organization, limited to this form of voluntary cooperation, is a useful and efficient means for achieving these desirable ends.

Organization, however, like government, if extended beyond its proper sphere, becomes positively harmful to the original purpose. This fact constitutes the need for much careful thought on organizational limitation. Just as government becomes dangerous when its coercive, restrictive, and destructive powers are extended into the creative areas, so do voluntary organizations pervert and destroy the benefits of intellect when the capacity to merge is carried to the point of subjecting individual judgments to the will of the majority or group. Truth, as each person sees it, is the best that the mind of man has to offer. Its distortion, inevitable when achieving a collective chorus, does injury to understanding.

Try Self-Improvement

If organization is not the best way to secure liberty, then what is? My answer—self-improvement—is the essence of simplicity. The reasons which lie behind the answer, however, are not so simple.

The inclination to escape personal responsibility—plus the belief that somehow intellectual miracles can be wrought by us on someone else—is too pervasive for easy rejection. Unless we fully understand that these inclinations and beliefs are wholly without merit, we will continue to indulge in them. I wish to make the argument that self-improvement is the only practical course to liberty.

Is there one book or one article written by anyone at any time that can be designated as the final word on liberty? Perhaps the best that can be said is that the finest minds of all time have been in pursuit of its understanding and that now and then a tiny ray of new light has been thrown on what theretofore was darkness and lack of understanding. These few most advanced searchers have been among the first to say, “The more exploration I do, the more I find there is to learn.”

The reason for this difficulty in understanding liberty is that liberty, like truth, is an object of infinite pursuit, a quest without end, ever! The understanding of liberty requires intellectual ventures into the areas of the unknown or, more likely, into the areas that have become unknown or that majorities have declared taboo. Have you not noticed the vigor we employ when a present liberty is threatened and then, when it is lost, how soon we refer to it as a “social gain”? How can one who has been thus trapped, or who himself has lapsed into thinking of a new restraint as a “social gain,” possibly identify the liberties he has lost?

Every individual ought to realize that he has not mastered the subject of liberty until he thoroughly understands, and can competently explain, this idea: With government properly limited to its legitimate functions of defense, our problems of interdependence can be resolved through voluntary effort, and only through voluntary effort. If that is a correct appraisal, then most persons are inexpert in their understanding of this subject.

In brief, not a single person among us is justified in regarding himself other than as a student of liberty. No know-it-all exists or ever will.

In searching for a student of liberty, the search must be within oneself. In the world of persons, it is only within each of us that the fertile, explorable areas exist. The best explorer of oneself is oneself. It is not possible to impart to others that which we do not possess. And even after we have made some progress in understanding, the most we can do for others is to make known to them a willingness to share what we have discovered by our own thinking, or what we find edifying from recorded thinking. Whether or not what we offer is, in fact, shared, is beyond our power; and we should realize this.

It is conceded that the student attitude, this search within ourselves, may at times appear unrewarding. But if the understanding of liberty is to be advanced, the attempt must be persisted in, regardless of its seeming extravagance in time and effort.

Along this line, a fictional statement ascribed to Christ is heartening if one will think of him in the symbolic terms of truth and infinite goodness, and of our own weakness and inabilities as weeds and brambles; and of our own rare virtues and abilities as fertile ground:

Presently the Master appeared on the steps of the Synagogue and began to speak. It was immediately obvious that he had been aware of the rudeness of the crowd—and deplored it. He had been appointed, he said, to offer a way of salvation to the world; and that meant everybody. In a task so great as this, no prudent thought could be taken about the cost of it or the waste of it. His mission, he said, was to sow the seed of good will among men in the hope of an eventual harvest of peace. Much of this seed would be squandered. Some of it would fall among weeds and brambles where it would have no chance at all to grow, but the sower could not pause or look back to lament this extravagance. Some of the seed would fall upon stony ground where there was very little soil to nourish it and the tender plants would soon wither and die; but the sower must not be dismayed. Some of the life-giving grain would grow! Some of it would find friendly lodging in fertile ground![1]

The Only Practical Action

Action? The casual thinker might imagine that the best course is to try to tell others what to do and how to think. But reason supplies a contrary answer. It suggests that pursuit of one’s own personal understanding is the only practical action for one to take. If a person advances his own understanding of the true and the false, the understanding thus acquired will be sought by others. Reason recommends that a person get the horse before the cart; that first one must learn; that influencing others will take care of itself. Reason says that influence in the creative areas can have no effectiveness prior to learning; that learning has no end.

Some persons will assert that the conclusions herein set forth are self-evident, but will argue that this suggested student approach—this process of self-improvement—is too slow to meet the challenge of these times.

I am in no position to deny this. But, in my opinion, there is no shortcut. The only way to truth—that is, to understanding—is through one’s own person. When we gain an appreciation of this simple fact, we will be on our way to as little violence against persons, and thus to as much liberty among persons, as is within our power to bring about.

Action? For authoritarians it is physical force. For libertarians it is first understanding and then explanation—the latter being “talk,” either verbal or written.

  1. Lloyd C. Douglas, The Big Fisherman, Houghton Mifflin, 1948, p. 377.

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”