Leonard Read, Font of the Liberty Movement

Jeffrey A. Tucker

FEE is enormously pleased to announce the first-ever Collected Works of Leonard Read, a single download of all his books and articles, a literary legacy of one million words and 10,000 pages, fully searchable and unrestricted by digital rights management. Thanks to the genius of digital distribution, it is a speedy download and can be carried around on any digital device.

Any version of the modern history of libertarian ideas that excludes his role is incomplete.In ways that are not fully appreciated today – and perhaps this effort will change that – Leonard Read was the font of the liberty movement in the United States. He was writing about this subject at a time when hardly anyone else was, from 1937 until his death in 1983. But he did more than write. He organized, marketed, and built an institutional support system for the ideas of freedom to make sure they could become a driving force of history.

Crucially, he gathered like minds into his new organization, the Foundation of Economic Education, founded in 1946. His writings set the tone and agenda. But he also knew that the ideas of liberty would be a collaborative venture, with no one hero or intellectual godfather or dictator. Nor was it about political agitation – and not even about Right vs. Left – but education and cultural influence. Toward what end? The unleashing of the human spirit from the shackles of government control.

It was this lifelong effort that created the essential building blocks for everything that followed. Any version of the modern history of libertarian ideas that excludes his role is incomplete. His writings inspired many generations of thinkers, activists, businesspeople, donors, and statesmen in profound ways, and left a huge mark on the course of history.

Consider what F.A. Hayek himself said. In 1968, Hayek reflected on how even he had underestimated the power of Read’s thought and actions. Because Read was not an academic, Hayek had thought of him as a popularizer. Hayek admitted his error:

I want to use this occasion, however, publicly to admit that in that view of Leonard Read I was mistaken and that in the course of these twenty-one years my estimate of him progressively changed. I found not only that he knew much more than most of the rest of us about the opinions governing current policies, and was therefore much more effective in meeting the errors in them: I had rather hoped that, though I did not know how well it could be done. But I found also that he was a profound and original thinker who disguised the profundity of his conclusions by putting them into homely everyday language, and that those of us who for a time, and perhaps somewhat condescendingly, had seen in him mainly a populariser found that they had a great deal to learn from him.

 Leonard Read has indeed become in our circle, in which the nonacademics are still a small minority, not only one of the best liked but one of the most respected members, one on whom they rely not only to spread the gospel, but as much to contribute to the development of ideas. Nothing, therefore, gives me greater pleasure than to be able to join in this celebration of his achievement. And, if one who is his junior only by a few months may conclude on a personal note, the greatest pleasure in this is that on this occasion one may still expect even more from him in the future than he has already done in the past.

New and fresh ideas do not appear as if by magic in a culture. They have a source of transmission, a determined writer or thinker. It was Read who did that, preventing the idea of free markets from entirely dying during the 1930s and building a bridge for them to survive in the postwar world.

 This is a gift to the ages.Consider when he began his work. At the height of the New Deal, with American politics and economic life locked down and managed from the center, the old ideals of free markets did not seem to have much of a chance. There were no distribution centers for alternative ideas. There were no think tanks and no alternative media centers. The universities had become completely captive of regime thinking. Party politics were no help. The notion of economic freedom was widely disparaged in almost anything you could get your hands on to read.

In this period, a man named Read began to think of a way forward for a new way of thinking. He knew that change had to come through the realm of ideas. A new model was needed, a way to distribute these ideas. A former grocer and entrepreneur from Michigan, he was working at the Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles, and frustrated at the lack of vision he encountered. In 1937, he wrote his first book, The Romance of Reality, a celebration of the human spirit and an expose of government’s role in crushing it.

Nine years later, he had a new job. He was running the Foundation for Economic Education. This was the organizing center for free market ideas for the entire English-speaking world. The influence of FEE over the decades is incredible to consider. FEE has been named as the font of influence for nearly every liberty-minded public intellectual in the postwar period. It is impossible to tell the story of the rise of free markets in our time without putting FEE and Read at the center.

So it is long past time for this edition of his Collected Works to be in print. Please download it and share it widely. There is still so much to learn from him. Even all these years after his passing, the power of his ideas can be felt in this generation and all that follow. This is a gift to the ages.

{{article.BodyText}}