When Leonard Read created the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in 1946, the prospects for liberty must have seemed bleak. Central planning had become the norm in the United States during the New Deal and World War II. Intellectuals and politicians almost universally rejected laissez-faire as a thing of the past. There was no libertarian movement at all. There was only a handful of dissenting intellectuals, such as Ludwig von Mises and Henry Hazlitt, whom Read could call upon to advise his organization. There was also a “remnant” of libertarians scattered across the country, but there was no way to even know who they were. Read persevered, though, because he knew that libertarian ideas would only survive if the few principled people who believed in them deliberately kept them alive — and he knew that keeping them alive was the only hope for civilization.
In those desperate times, some friends of freedom probably thought that Read should try to rouse the masses to elect politicians who would repeal the many government interventions that had amassed over the first half of the 20th century. But Read gave great thought to the question of how to spread libertarian ideas and increase liberty, and he rejected that approach.
Instead, Read called for every libertarian to focus on the one unit of society he is certainly capable of improving: himself. Read believed that if each of us becomes knowledgeable and cultivates an exceptional intellect and character, people will want to hear what we have to say. Those other people, in turn, will follow our example, and slowly the ideas will work their way into the culture. In a lecture called “How to Advance Liberty,” Read described what people would be doing in his ideal libertarian movement:
No eyes are cast downward on those thought to know less, but all eyes turn upward toward those thought to know more. Each person is seeking those fragments of truth that he does not presently possess. Each individual is always reaching higher than self; he looks “over his head,” as the saying goes, for facts, ideas, knowledge, wisdom. Instead of trying to make others into reflections of himself, he tries to gain an understanding helpful to others should they choose to seek that which he possesses.
Read knew that if libertarians just told everyone that everything they believe is wrong and tried to “reform” them, they wouldn’t be receptive, and FEE’s cause would only be harmed:
Unfortunately, liberty may suffer more from her friends than from her enemies; for a philosophy, like a person, is often known by the company it keeps. A philosophy will likely be held in contempt if its supporters are bad-mannered, pestiferous, holier-than-thou, know-it-all, reformatory, eager beavers — in a word, if they radiate that characteristic I call be-like-me-ness.
Read also knew that it’s easy for libertarians, like anyone, to become intellectually complacent. When we first discover libertarian ideas, we are intellectually stimulated. We read a lot and consume ideas voraciously. Our whole understanding of politics and economics changes; we feel as though scales are falling from our eyes as we begin to see the violence inherent in everything the state does, the harm the state causes, and the prosperity the market can create.
After a while, though, the ideas that were once so new and exciting start to seem obvious, and we begin to wonder why everyone else doesn’t share them. Consciously or not, we may feel that we understand so much more than the mass of humanity does about how the world works, that we know “enough.” The intellectual curiosity that led us to discover libertarian ideas gives way to anger and frustration with our fellow man for not agreeing with us. And some of us, instead of exchanging ideas with others in pursuit of ever-greater understanding, may retreat to a libertarian echo chamber, where we can congratulate ourselves for being so much better than everyone else and condemn those outside our group for their ignorance and heresies. This behavior is not conducive to personal growth or to the growth of a movement, and it’s difficult to see how it could possibly change the world for the better. Constant striving toward personal betterment helps us avoid this trap.
Read’s more constructive attitude can be seen, explicitly and implicitly, in the many books he wrote over the course of his lifetime. He was not a great philosopher or economist in the usual sense, but he read great thinkers and thought deeply about the philosophy and economics of freedom — about why liberty matters and what its benefits are. Then he shared his insights by publishing them in little books — available only upon request from FEE, not in bookstores — and by giving occasional lectures. He never attacked anyone and was never at all censorious; he simply offered such enlightenment as he thought he had attained in case anyone might be interested and benefit.
Some may question whether Read’s strategy can really be effective. It may be personally fulfilling, but how does it increase freedom? Don’t we have to translate our ideas into action if we want to change the world? In fact, however, Read’s approach did work. People did learn from him and from FEE. One such person was former congressman Ron Paul, who used an unconventional political career not to impose libertarian policies on the country, but to put libertarian ideas in front of ordinary people he thought might be receptive to them. For years, he toiled in obscurity, but eventually his persistence paid off. Now a huge libertarian movement, full of young people inspired by Paul, is carrying the ideas forward. True, our political situation is only getting worse in the short term, but libertarian ideas are in the air like never before, and the culture is changing as a result. As more people become libertarians, one by one, the country becomes more libertarian; with each new person on the side of liberty, there is one less person seeking government intervention.
Someday, somehow, this shift will result in political change. The ground is more fertile now for some types of activism to succeed. (Whether Read would approve of some of today’s activism, I don’t know.) And not all advances in liberty have to come through politics. Entrepreneurs also can and do increase liberty by innovating faster than the state can regulate and by offering people ways to work around the obstacles the state has put in their way.
In any event, the libertarian movement will continue to grow and thrive only if we heed Read’s advice to put personal growth first.
This article is excerpted from Jacob Huebert's foreword to Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read by Freeman contributor Gary Galles.