Most libertarians are converts. Very few were inculcated from childhood in the freedom philosophy. Most of us were indoctrinated by the education system to believe in big government. At some point, we somehow got “un-doctrinated.”
Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, discussed such turning points in “Liberated!,” a 1962 essay published in the Notes from FEE newsletter and included as the final chapter of his great book Elements of Libertarian Leadership. He described it as “an intensely personal experience—the moment of liberation, the break-through!”
The breakthrough can feel like an intellectual prison break. Our minds are suddenly freed from the dungeon of dogma. The cell door swings open and “the light floods in,” as Read wrote.
“Once this opening has taken place,” Read continued, “old ideas take on a different perspective and new ideas come into one’s comprehension.” Seen starkly in the new light, our former interventionist assumptions look absurd, and once-obscure libertarian truths are now clear as day.
This “sudden illumination,” as Read called it, might be generated by reading a book or listening to a lecture series. For some, reading an essay is all it takes.
One such essay that has helped many to “see the light” is Read’s own “I, Pencil.”
The Mastermind Fallacy
In “I, Pencil,” Read revealed the market economy for the wonder that it is by tracing the “family tree” of a humble pencil. He demonstrated how transforming raw materials—timber, aluminum ore, etc.—into a seemingly simple pencil is a vastly complex process involving the cooperation of millions of individual producers: lumberjacks and axe manufacturers, truckers and oil drillers, etc.
This mega-collaboration has no central plan or central planner—no “master mind” as Read said. Indeed no single mind could even begin to manage the manifold details of the operation.
And yet, in a market economy, the mass production of affordable pencils goes on smoothly every single day. This amazing feat of human cooperation happens thanks to what Milton Friedman called “the magic of the price system” which involves, as Read wrote, “millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire.”
Read’s classic essay has revealed to multitudes the miracle of the market. Seeing such a wondrous phenomenon with our mind’s eye fills us with awe and renders us properly humble. It makes plain the hubris of socialism and interventionism: the sheer epistemological arrogance of thinking that bureaucrats can know enough to centrally plan a pencil, much less an industry, much less an economy. We are forever disabused of what we may call “the mastermind fallacy.” It instills in us what Read called in Elements an “unwavering faith in free men,” and frees us from “any lingering, misplaced confidence in little men playing god.”
So liberated, we become eager to liberate others from the mastermind fallacy and thus free the world from the would-be masterminds who tyrannize it. With the zeal of a convert, we go around proselytizing: maybe to our family and friends, maybe to strangers on the internet.
To our bafflement, our efforts are met with rejection. Like the denizens of Plato’s cave, our audience not only shuns the light but resents us for trying to release them from their ideological prison. “It is difficult,” Voltaire wrote, “to free fools from the chains they revere.”
We keep trying the lock of their dogmatic dungeon, but we keep failing. We get frustrated. Then we get angry. Then we get mean. We let them know they are fools for conspiring in their own captivity and villains for endorsing ours.
In the heat of verbal battle, we forget what we had set out to do in the first place. The worthy aim of liberation gradually gives way to the vain urge to aggravate those who refuse to be liberated. We offer fewer ideas and more barbs. The other side responds in kind. What was supposed to be a contest of ideas becomes a clash of egos. And when egos are on the line, everyone becomes more entrenched in their position.
Eventually someone storms off and it’s over. And what have we accomplished? Nothing but resentment for us and for the ideas we sought to represent. Instead of opening minds, we have hardened hearts toward liberty. Not good.
“The worst thing,” Frédéric Bastiat wrote, “that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”
What went wrong? How could an intellectual journey with such a beautiful beginning turn so ugly?
Most often it is because we forgot what made it beautiful in the first place.
"There is the inevitable temptation," Read wrote, "once a person comes into possession of ideas new to him, to inflict the new 'wisdom' on others, to reform them, to make them over in his own image."
But, if we think back to our own liberation, we will recall that ultimately it was an act of self-emancipation. Someone may have guided you, but their efforts would have been futile without your active and voluntary participation in your own enlightenment.
As Read wrote, "the gaining of wisdom or the understanding of freedom is not imposed by man upon men, nor can it be."
Someone may have recommended “I, Pencil,” but you had to choose to read it. You had to open your mind to its message and grapple with its ideas. You had to recreate Leonard Read’s arguments in your own mind to truly assimilate them.
And why would you have made those choices in the first place? Something about the way your benefactor recommended the essay must have appealed to you. Maybe the topic was something you had been curious about; it spoke to a hunch you had; it offered to fill some gap in your mental model of the world. Or maybe you admired, trusted, or merely liked the person who recommended it well enough to give it a go.
Now, imagine how differently things might have played out if someone offered an argument, or recommended a book, that did not appeal to you.
The argument may have been just as sound as Read’s. The book may have been just as much a masterpiece as “I, Pencil.” But it just wasn’t what you needed at that point in your intellectual journey. You would have rejected the argument and declined the book.
Now, what if the arguer and recommender had done unto you as you now do unto the fools and villains who cross your path? You would have responded then as they do now. Far from “admiring, trusting, and liking” the inept defender of liberty, you would have resented his obtrusiveness, and by association, may have come to resent the philosophy he sought to impose on you.
The experience might have so turned you off from the ideas of liberty that you wouldn’t have been open to exploring “I, Pencil” when you later encountered it. Your own liberation would have been thwarted before it even started.
As Leonard Read explained, “no person can gain access to the mind of another until the other lets him in. It is the other who has control of the doorways to his own perception. Prior to his decision to let us in, we are helpless.” In other words, each and every one of us has exclusive access to the prison doors of our own minds. A mind can only be unlocked by its owner.
Someone else can offer a key—an argument or a resource. But such offers only make a difference if the mind-owner voluntarily accepts the key and actively tries it himself. If you try to force someone else’s lock, they will only resent you and your keys for it. You will get the same response if you “cast your keys before swine” who have no interest or aptitude for the ideas you are offering.
Moreover, “Each mind has a unique lock,” as Read wrote, and, “Experience reveals no master key.” What unlocked your mind may not work for another’s. The arguments of “I, Pencil” may not fit their lock, whereas “Anatomy of the State” by Murray Rothbard might be what clicks. Or the opposite could be true.
If you are actually interested in persuading the other person, as opposed to vainly displaying how smart and knowledgeable you are like an intellectual peacock, then you will not only “inflict your ‘wisdom’” (as Read put it) on the other person, but inquire into and listen to their perspective (their “local knowledge”), so as to identify which of the arguments and resources at your disposal might reach them.
If you are earnest and humble enough to admit it to yourself, you may realize that you are simply not yet equipped to do the job. “The keys presently in our possession may or may not fit,” as Read said.
Maybe you need to become conversant in a hitherto neglected area of the freedom philosophy. That is, you need more keys. Or perhaps you need better ones. Maybe you yourself don’t understand an idea you’re trying to impart as well as you thought you did. Indeed, as Read pointed out, an inability to persuasively articulate an idea can signify a lack of full understanding.
This can be a hard pill to swallow, because it means swallowing our pride. "Most of us," Read wrote, "when we move slightly ahead of our contemporaries, are prone to think of ourselves as 'having arrived,' as having graduated from immaturity. Thus we forego the further pursuit of truth in favor of badgering others with such fragments of truth as we have."
This, Read reminds us, is a mistake, because learning and growth are lifelong missions.
Turning to Our Homework
To improve our understanding and exposition of liberty, we must “turn conscientiously to our own homework,” as Read put it. Step back from straining to improve the minds of others and concentrate on the much more doable task of improving your own.
Do more research. Shore up your understanding. Study the works of great thinkers and effective teachers. Then, make the ideas you’ve absorbed fully your own by putting them into your own words: both in speech and writing. Share your words with others, but do so in the humble and realistic spirit of self-improvement: for the purpose of formulating and testing your own understanding. Be careful not to slip back into the arrogant and self-defeating spirit of “other-improvement.”
“Explanations of what is discovered,” Read wrote, “should be made in speech and writing not as a means of repairing others but as the most effective way to increase personal exploratory powers, and—possibly—inspire others.” Resolve to “no longer attempt to insinuate [your] notions into the minds of others. Instead… try to gain an understanding that they will desire to share.”
The more you improve yourself in this way, the more you will help and inspire others to share in your learning. In discourse, just as spite begets spite, learning begets learning. People can sense the difference between an intellectual pugilist and a truth-seeker. “People,” Read wrote, “quite naturally, are fascinated with, interested in, attracted to those who concentrate on seeking truth.” When others see the earnest devotion of your quest for understanding, it will inspire them to join you on your journey.
“Work naturally,” Read counseled, “make freely available such insights as you possess, but do not entertain any notions about setting someone else straight. Go only where called, but qualify to be called.”
Craft your keys. Share them freely with all; impose them on none. See how well, or how poorly, they unlock your own understanding and that of others. Incorporate that feedback into improving your craft, and repeat.
Liberation by Leadership
Do this long enough, and you will gain a reputation in your circles as a master keysmith. You won’t feel the need to “inflict your wisdom” on others to make a difference. People will, of their own accord, come seeking your counsel and tutelage, looking to be unlocked and enlightened.
That is what Leonard Read meant by libertarian leadership. It is also the core of his theory of social change. Those we help self-liberate, if they follow our method as well as our message, can turn around and help others to self-liberate. Those others can become liberation facilitators in turn, et cetera.
The totalitarian central planner, like Satan in Paradise Lost, acts upon the fatal conceit that “all I know is all I need” to mastermind an economy and a society. Much smaller in scale, but similar in kind, is the arrogant notion that “all I know is all I need” to unlock the mind of another: that “what made sense to me must make sense to you” or “I have nothing to learn from you, even about your own perspective and barriers to understanding.”
The mastermind fallacy is akin to the master key fallacy. We cannot conquer the former if we ourselves fall victim to the latter. We cannot defeat political authoritarians if we ourselves act as what Read called “intellectual authoritarians.”
With both fallacies, the antidote to arrogance is awe: for the majesty of the market, as well as the unique and manifold nature of any single mind. And the remedy for hubris is humility: acknowledging the insufficiency of our knowledge, and doing the self-work necessary to improve upon our deficiencies.
The more that we libertarians tend to our own flames, the more we will illuminate and liberate the world.