All Commentary
Tuesday, September 1, 1998

Leonard E. Read, Crusader

The Freedom Philosophy Remains an Ideal Worth Striving For

If you had known Leonard E. Read in the 1930s, you would probably not have picked him as a future crusader for the freedom philosophy. Charismatic, energetic, debonair, he was a businessman, an organization man, a Chamber of Commerce man. In 1932, in the depth of the Depression, he became manager of the Western Division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, headquartered in San Francisco. Some Chamber members were alarmed at the direction government was taking. But not Read and not the U.S. Chamber, which adopted a policy of going along to get along.

Then Read called on a prominent California businessman who had been criticizing the Chamber’s position, William C. Mullendore, executive vice president of Southern California Edison. Read left Mullendore’s office a changed man, “liberated,” as he would phrase it later, from accepting blindly the popular worldview. He started to consider and ponder ideas that had never concerned him before. (See Edmund Opitz’s account on page 519 of this issue.)

Freedom-Tinted Glasses

As Read examined the world through his newly acquired “freedom-tinted” glasses, he realized that the New Deal’s spending and inflation, its economic distribution programs, and its pro-union Wagner Act and minimum-wage legislation all restricted the freedom of individuals and hampered economic recovery. He was aghast at the violations of private property he saw around him. He embraced enthusiastically the freedom philosophy Mullendore had expounded, became convinced it held the answer to the country’s economic depression, and began to look for ways to share his newly found philosophy with others. In the process he became a crusader.

Read could not spread his pro-freedom ideas to the extent he wished within the Chamber. So he started an outside publishing venture, Pamphleteers, Inc., through which he released pamphlet versions of several pro-freedom works—Frederic Bastiat’s The Law, Rose Wilder Lane’s Give Me Liberty, Andrew Dickson White’s Fiat Money Inflation in France, Ayn Rand’s Anthem, and Virgil Jordan’s Freedom in America. But Read felt frustrated. He realized he was trying to serve two masters—his employer and his freedom philosophy.

Just before the war ended in Europe, Read resigned as general manager of the L.A. Chamber to take a position in New York City as vice president with the National Industrial Conference Board (NICB). His job was to raise funds for its educational program, through which he hoped to promote the freedom philosophy. But the NICB’s idea of “education” was not Read’s. It wanted to present “both sides” of every issue. In a world where “the other side” was already being presented everywhere, in newspapers, radio, films, schools, universities, and books, “the freedom side” would receive short shrift. Disappointed once more, Read resigned.

The Founding of FEE

By that time, Read, through his work with the Chamber of Commerce and the NICB, had many contacts who shared his faith in freedom and his belief in the importance of finding some way to counteract the New Deal thinking. By 1946, Franklin Roosevelt’s interventionist ideas had been further entrenched by price, wage, and rent controls and other wartime emergency legislation. So, with the backing and support of some of his friends, Read decided to set up his own organization. That spring Read established the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).

It is one thing to believe in, and to dream of, promoting the freedom philosophy; it is quite another thing to actually do so. Without an organization to put outreach schemes into practice, there could be no promotion of the freedom philosophy, except in a very limited way through personal contacts. It takes an organization to publish books, briefs, and pamphlets, to hire speakers, to schedule lectures, and to arrange seminars. This is what Read had in mind for his foundation. And he was well-prepared for the task. He was a rare mix of crusader, businessman, administrator, and money-raiser. As crusader, the sincerity of Read’s belief in moral principles infected others. His zeal and enthusiasm for the freedom philosophy persuaded listeners to support his cause. As businessman, Read realized that if an organization is to succeed its income must exceed its outgo. Establishing and maintaining an organization also required Read’s talents for money-raising and administration.

As there had been controls on rents and practically no construction during the war, office space in New York City was scarce or non-existent. When a real estate agent suggested that Read look at suburban property, he found and purchased a large private estate, still FEE’s home, which had been vacated by the owner during the war because of the difficulty of getting help.

To staff the Foundation, Read sought to assemble a group of persons who shared his goal. Read turned first to V. Orval Watts, who had been with him at the L.A. Chamber and had written some of its most effective anti-big-government tracts. Then, from Cornell University, he hired F. A. Harper, W. M. Curtiss, Paul L. Poirot, and Ivan R. Bierly. I came to FEE in 1951 and Edmund A. Opitz arrived four years later. Other staffers came and went over the years. When they left FEE, many continued to promote the freedom philosophy in one way or another, in business, in colleges and universities, and through other free-market think tanks.

Read was a moral philosopher, not an economist, though his principles made him a pretty good free-market economist. He reasoned that if it is moral to respect the life and property of individuals, then it is immoral to violate their rights to life and property; if it is moral to deal peacefully with others, then it is immoral to use force, fraud, or threat of force to impose one’s wishes on others; if voluntary transactions among private-property owners are moral, then to hinder or prevent voluntary transactions among willing traders is immoral. No one, neither private individual nor public agency, should take property by force or coercion from one person for the benefit of another. These principles led Read logically to believe in the morality of private-property rights, a free-market economy, and free trade, and to the conviction that government intervention that violates private property, hampers free markets, and interferes with free trade is immoral. His proverbial answer when asked how to solve any economic problem was: “Get the government out of it.”

For Leonard Read, the difference between what was permissible and what was impermissible was simple. Anything That’s Peaceful (the title of one of his many books) was permissible. Read was always ready to point out that the voluntary way was not only right but beneficial. Obviously, it benefitted those directly concerned. But eventually it helped everyone through increased cooperation, production, and well-being. On the other hand, the use of force to coerce others against their will was wrong, immoral. Moreover, while the use of force might help some, it inevitably hurt others.

Read’s goal was to counteract, through FEE, the anti-freedom, pro-socialist, New Deal philosophy of post-World War II America. The problem was to reawaken in the people a belief in the morality of freedom. Since people cannot be forced to be moral, their ideas must be changed—through education. Read’s whole life became devoted to this task, to free-market education in the broadest sense of the word.

Promoting Bastiat

One of the ways Read engaged in free-market education was through the distribution of the works of Bastiat. It was “love at first sight,” or should I say “love at first reading,” when Read first encountered Bastiat during his Chamber of Commerce days. Bastiat (1801–1850), economist, journalist, and member of the French Chamber of Deputies, had fought long and hard against the socialist ideas of his day. Bastiat’s moral approach to freedom appealed to Read. And his anti-socialist arguments were relevant to Read’s struggle against Roosevelt’s New Deal.

As noted, Read, while still in California, reprinted the English translation of one of Bastiat’s small books, The Law. Bastiat had proclaimed that life—physical, intellectual, and moral—was a gift from God, not government. “Each of us has a natural right—from God—to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. . . . If every person has the right to defend—even by force—his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly.” However, according to Bastiat, that common force, government, had been used to destroy the rights of individuals and to take the property of some for the benefit of others. This would be considered “plunder” if done by gangsters or thieves. When done in the name of government, it was still “plunder”—Bastiat called it “legal plunder.” His book cited many examples of government-sanctioned “legal plunder.”

Read had been disappointed by the reception accorded The Law. He decided the rather archaic British prose of the translation must have prevented others from sharing his enthusiasm. So he set Dean Russell, a journalism graduate student recently mustered out of the Army Air Corps, to translating it into modern English prose. Russell’s translation, published in 1950, just a century after the book first appeared in French, introduced Bastiat’s writings on freedom to new generations of readers. It has since sold a half million copies and is still one of FEE’s best sellers. FEE has also published newly translated versions of Bastiat’s other books, Economic Sophisms, a collection of short pieces on free trade (most notably “The Candlemakers’ Petition,” a satirical attack on tariffs), Economic Harmonies, and Selected Essays in Political Economy. Bastiat’s valuable and readable works might have been forgotten were it not for Read.

Spreading the Word of Mises

When Read needed economic advice, he relied on others, especially Austrian-born economist Ludwig von Mises, who had joined FEE in the very beginning. Mises, a refugee from war-torn Europe, had arrived in the United States in 1940, jobless and practically broke. Mises had been well known and well established in Europe, but in this country where Keynesian big-government, big-spending ideas reigned supreme, his free-market ideas were considered old-fashioned. One of FEE’s founding trustees, economic journalist Henry Hazlitt, urged Read to take Mises on as economic adviser.

The Hazlitt-brokered relationship benefitted all concerned: Read, FEE, and Mises. Mises lent advice and prestige to the Foundation. Through the years, the Foundation spread Mises’s teachings by providing a platform for him to speak at seminars and to write for its magazine, The Freeman. FEE also helped with Mises’s 800-plus-page economic opus, Human Action. A FEE secretary finished typing the manuscript and staffers prepared it for publication by Yale University Press, which occurred in 1949. Once it was published, FEE helped to place it in libraries. The Foundation itself has also published some of Mises’s books—the first was Planned Chaos (1947)—and assisted in the publication of others.

The FEE Seminars

Read felt that one of the most effective ways to bring the freedom philosophy to people was through personal contact. The give-and-take of discussions, with the opportunity to ask questions, sparks interest. So in the 1950s, FEE began holding seminars, sometimes at its headquarters in Irvington, but frequently off-site around the country through arrangements made by local supporters of the freedom philosophy. Most were held on weekends—Friday evening to Sunday noon—with a three-man team of speakers—Leonard Read plus two others, perhaps Ed Opitz of FEE’s staff; Dean Russell; Jim Rogers, a dynamic spokesman for freedom; Ben Rogge, Wabash College professor; Hans Sennholz of Grove City College and later FEE’s president from 1992 to 1997; Percy Greaves, freelance economist and historian; George C. Roche III, FEE seminar director and now Hillsdale College president; or Bob Anderson, for many years FEE’s executive secretary.

Many seminars were aimed at the general public, but others have been intended to reach various special groups—high-school or college teachers, college undergraduates, ministers, students of journalism, and so on. Seminars have played an important part in FEE’s activities and, thanks to them, freedom has made friends all over the world.

Read lived, breathed, and thought the freedom philosophy. Wherever he went, he looked for, or made, opportunities to present his ideas. When he flew—and he did a lot of flying back and forth across the country to fulfill speaking engagements and to meet potential supporters—he would tantalize his seatmate with hints of where he had been, what he had done, and persons he had met. Out of curiosity, his seatmate would ask, “What do you do, Mr. Read?” And that opened the door for Read to talk about FEE and the freedom idea.

For Read, variety was the spice of life; he considered individual diversity “a blessing.” Everyone should be free to try anything, so long as he didn’t interfere with the equal rights of others. That way lay progress and economic development! Read had profound confidence that individuals could accomplish almost anything if left alone. He saw the “Miracle of the Market” (an article title) as the outcome of the actions and ideas of countless individuals.

As a boss, Read left his staff pretty much alone, counting on their self-motivation to contribute, each in his or her own way, to the freedom philosophy. But he insisted on several points. FEE should present a favorable impression to the public. All publications should be attractive. And anyone who wrote to FEE should receive a serious and courteous answer.

The Read Touch

One day the mail brought a vicious three-page diatribe from a labor-union organizer who attacked Read’s position, expressed in an article about a recent airline dispute, that there was no moral right for workers to strike, that is, to forcibly prevent willing workers from occupying vacated jobs. Read took no notice of the correspondent’s ill temper, but used a “turn-the-other-cheek approach”; he sent a serious and courteous reply with two small books. Some weeks later the union man, “Whitey,” wrote authorizing Read “to become my director of reading. Send me anything which in your judgment will help my thinking, and with invoice.” Whitey changed his occupation and eventually the two men met in Seattle when Whitey drove Read to the airport after a lecture. Read reminded Whitey of his first letter. Read wrote later that Whitey felt “crushed to think he had written in such a vein to one who reacted as [Read] had.”

“Suppose I had replied in kind?” Read recalled asking. “Would you and I be riding together?”

“I’ll say we wouldn’t!”

“Whitey, let me explain what I did to you.” Holding his plane ticket against the windshield, Read asked, “What holds it there?”

“The tension of your finger.”

“You are right, Whitey. It is known as the law of polarity or the tension of the opposites. Now observe what happens when the tension is removed.” The ticket fell to the floor. “Well, that’s precisely what I did to you. I removed the tension; I gave you nothing to scratch against.” Read then quoted an old Arab proverb, “He who strikes the second blow starts the fight.” “When I didn’t strike back,” Read said, “there was no fight; you and I could become friends.”

This story has a sequel. “Perhaps two years later, there came a period of three months with no word from Whitey—most unusual. Finally, a letter arrived, explaining that he had been in a head-on auto collision. He was still in the hospital after 90 days. And then this: ‘but, Mr. Read, you should see the interest my three doctors are showing in our philosophy.’”

What We Do Not Know

Read had an immense respect for what we do not know. “The Wisdom in Knowing I Know Not” and “The Importance of Awe” were titles of two articles. He considered ideas all-important. He advocated self-education, urged everyone to do his “homework,” to strive to become the best that he could, and to live up to his potential.

Read was not above a little showmanship. When he wound up a lecture he often had the lecture room darkened. Then he would light a small electric candle. The eyes of everyone in the audience would be riveted to that small flame. “No amount of darkness,” he said, “can extinguish that tiny light.” Then gradually Read would turn up the intensity of the candle until the whole room was flooded with light. “A good idea,” Read said, “is similar. Once abroad in the world it lives; it cannot be extinguished or put back in a bottle. And an idea whose time has come can spread in time to encompass the entire world.” And so it would be, Read believed, with the freedom idea. In spite of the refusal of the general public to accept the freedom philosophy, Read remained eternally optimistic, convinced that freedom would win in the end.

Leonard Read’s Influence

Read died in 1983. But FEE has endured. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996. And it continues along the path down which Read pointed. Thanks in part to Read and to FEE, the freedom philosophy and free markets are now more widely discussed and more respectable than they were in the years immediately following World War II. The founders of many recently established free-market think tanks give credit to Read and to FEE for having helped to inspire them. Some New Deal and World War II interventions, FEE’s targets in the early years, have expired or been repealed. But others remain, and new interventions are proposed daily. Government regulations and controls go on and on. The struggle against the welfare-state philosophy is by no means won.

Until people understand economic principles clearly enough to realize that government should not intervene in the private affairs of peaceful persons, and that government’s role should be limited to protecting life, property, and voluntary social cooperation, and adjudicating disputes, Read’s work will not be done. Until that day arrives, there will be plenty of work for FEE’s staff and other free-market-minded thinkers, writers, and teachers. The freedom philosophy remains a dream, an ideal, but one well worth striving for.

  • Contributing editor Bettina Bien Greaves was a longtime FEE staff member, resident scholar, and trustee. She attended Ludwig von Mises’s New York University seminar for many years and is a translator, editor, and bibliographer of his works.