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Tuesday, September 1, 1998

Leonard Read: Light Giver

Read Influenced Generations of True Liberals

September 26 marks the centenary of the birth of Leonard E. Read. Read’s life is proof that one person can change things. In 1946 the prospects for individual liberty, private property, and free markets were bleak. The Great Depression and World War II had fostered an interventionist mentality in the United States. The unhampered market order, perhaps appropriate in an earlier day, was regarded as obsolete. Society was too complex, the business cycle was too severe, people were too selfish—whatever the excuse, one thing was clear: the era of government direction of economic affairs—indeed, of nearly all aspects of life—had arrived.

The Depression-era and wartime regulatory agencies by 1946 were fixtures of American life. To believe that the economy could regulate itself was to subject oneself to ridicule if not accusations of villainy. The deck was stacked against any re-emergence of a movement for freedom and capitalism.

Into that darkness stepped Leonard Read, trademark candle in hand. He lit that candle and fanned the flame until the light of true liberalism flowed in all directions. Thanks to Read and FEE, the scattered and isolated lovers of liberty had a place to draw intellectual sustenance and moral support. They could be assured that they were not alone. I recall hearing the late Murray Rothbard, the prolific libertarian writer, tell how as a young man he happened on a FEE pamphlet debunking rent control, “Roofs or Ceilings?,” by two young economists, Milton Friedman and George Stigler. As a result, Rothbard contacted FEE and began a long association with Read and Ludwig von Mises.

A later generation was similarly influenced. When I was a college freshman, an acquaintance, having learned of my interest in free markets, urged me to contact FEE and to read The Freeman. There I encountered the names Mises, Henry Hazlitt, Israel Kirzner, and so many others. It was the beginning of a relationship that has spanned more than 25 years. Many libertarians my age tell the same story.

Leonard Read, whom we honor with this issue of The Freeman, left a legacy the highlight of which is the new appreciation of liberty that we can see all around us. The second half of the twentieth century would have been a far less inspiring time without him.

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We begin our observance of the 100th anniversary of Leonard Read’s birth with a biographical sketch by long-time FEE staff member Edmund Opitz, which follows Read from his days as a New Dealer to the start of his career as one of the most effective spokesmen for the freedom philosophy.

Next come reflections on Read’s achievements and influence by Bettina Bien Greaves, who joined the FEE staff in 1951. She takes us back to the early days of the Foundation to give us a glimpse of the young, dynamic Leonard Read in action.

Our reprint this month from Leonard Read’s collection of writings is “The Essence of Americanism,” perhaps his favorite topic and one of his standard presentations during the long history of FEE seminars. It truly rates the description “classic.”

In the first of three articles on environmentalism, Jo Kwong illustrates how individual rights and well-being are expected to give way to any and all environmental claims. Even bankrupting the elderly is not too high a price.

As if the interventionist legislation passed by Congress and local governments weren’t bad enough, American citizens, writes Jarret Wollstein, are increasingly subject to United Nations treaties aimed at restricting and even reversing development in the name of protecting nature. A pitched battled between bureaucrats and property owners is brewing.

Environmental laws and treaties are usually said to foster “sustainable development,” which sounds like something no reasonable person would oppose. But what does that term really mean? Jerry Taylor shows that some incoherent, not to mention bizarre, ideas are shrouded by the cozy words.

Last month Lawrence Reed looked at the economics of the Great Depression and the New Deal. This month Robert Higgs examines Franklin Roosevelt and the politics of the most interventionist administration in American history. Those who see FDR as a national hero may have to rethink their position.

How many times will governments raise excise taxes before they learn that the main outcomes are increased smuggling and violent crime? Many more times, apparently, according to John Attarian, who relates the experience of Michigan and its cigarette tax.

In our columns this month, Donald Boudreaux and Burton Folsom dissect a Wall Street Journal article comparing Microsoft to the old Standard Oil Company, which the federal government broke up using antitrust laws in 1911. To the assertion that both companies can be described as monopolies without competition, Boudreaux and Folsom proclaim, “It Just Ain’t So.”

Lawrence Reed anticipates that when people discover how poorly the return on Social Security compares to the return from private investment, they will clamor for privatization. Doug Bandow wonders whatever happened to conservatives who believe in limited government and small budgets. Dwight Lee describes the interdependency between freedom and markets. Mark Skousen points out that after years of disparagement, gold is winning new praise as a basis for the monetary system.

And in “The Pursuit of Happiness,” guest columnist Sigfredo Cabrera tells the story of two French immigrants who mistakenly thought that in America you could run your hotel the way you liked.

Venturing out into the jungle of new books, our reviewers evaluate volumes on Islam and liberty, the United Nations and the power to tax, and the business cycle.

—Sheldon Richman

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.