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Thursday, September 26, 2019

Leonard Read on Ideal Candidates vs. Ideal Government

Leonard Read saw clearly the ideal and sole purpose of government: universal protection against violations of our liberty.

One of the striking things about 2019’s run-up to our 2020 election is how many people claim to be ideal candidates for president. But they all share one thing in common. At the core of each campaign is a promise to re-slice the economic pie so that whoever they are addressing at the time will get a bigger piece—to be poster-boy or poster-girl for directing a government that is, in H.L. Mencken’s words, “a broker in pillage” in which “every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.”

What none of those self-appointed “ideal” directors of our lives seem to notice, however, is that what they are promising is entirely at odds with what an ideal government would do. This is because they could not deliver on their promises unless they could also impose unjustified harm on others.

Few people have made that clearer than Leonard Read, FEE’s founder, whose Why Not Try Freedom? opened with “Government—An Ideal Concept.” Revisiting Read’s insights is particularly important when the ideal government is almost unrecognizably far from current reality, and presidential wannabes compete with promises about who will accelerate us faster in our mistaken direction.

  • “Any person has a moral right to inhibit the destructive action of another or others. However, no person has a moral right to forcibly direct or to control what another shall invent, create, or discover; no right to dictate where he shall labor, how long he shall work, what his wage shall be, what and with whom he shall exchange, or what thoughts he shall entertain. No single person…No combination of persons… No agency, political or otherwise, has any such moral right.”
  • “The moral sanction for establishing government springs from the right of the individual to inhibit or prohibit or restrain the destructive actions of others.”
  • “Removal of inhibitory influences—the kind imposed by man on men—serves to benefit all of us in common…This can be accomplished by restraining aggressive force [with] defensive or repellent force.”
  • “The rights to the fruits of one’s own labor involves the restraint or the removal of obstacles to…one’s own exchange, but also the obstacles to other people’s exchange, [because] every other person has a similar right.”
  • “The source of all creative and variable human energy…rests in…the individual, in such voluntary and cooperative actions as he may freely choose to take. This is the…vast, unlimited area of liberty, of self-reliance, and of self-discipline.”
  • “Rules and prohibitions for social administration can logically serve only the purpose of deterring man’s destructive actions for the sake of giving full flower to his creative actions…government, within its proper bounds, can be but the protective servant of all individuals equally against antisocial marauders.”
  • “Cooperation for creative purposes requires, as an auxiliary, cooperation to annul destructive purposes.”
  • “Defensive force may be used to neutralize aggressive force, and…serves a social end. This use of defensive force should be the guiding principle of the political agency…the only dissenters would be those who want to live by predation.”
  • “Every human being is born with as much right to live his life creatively as any other man. Man, however, is incapable of protecting his life as a personal, individual project, and at the same time of realizing his human potential…By reason of this social circumstance, he is committed, in principle, to cooperating with his fellow men in the protective project…where special privilege should be unknown.”
  • “In short, the law’s limitation inheres in its justification. Force is a dangerous thing. Therefore, society’s organized arm is a dangerous instrument…When limited to its proper defensive scope, it is a positive good. When exceeding its proper limitations and becoming aggression, it is not a ‘necessary’ but a positive evil.”
  • “One of the most distressing fallacies having to do with government and liberty is the assumption that the State, an agency presumably of the people, has rights beyond those possessed by the people…no reasonable person can logically believe that any such control belongs to a multitude of citizens…It is an arrogation.”
  • “Any person has the natural and moral right to use repellent or defensive force against any other person who would aggress against him. No person on this earth has any moral right of control over any other person superior to the defense of his own life and livelihood.”
  • “Every individual has a vested interest in common with all other men in restraining all inhibitory influences to creative energy and creative energy exchanges. All else is individual, voluntary, and cooperative as individuals may choose.”

Leonard Read provides a valuable touchstone to what should characterize a government of self-owning individuals—universal protection against violations of our liberty. But how does our current cornucopia of candidates relate to that touchstone? Like Superman to kryptonite. Defending our liberty would drain all of their claimed superpowers by preventing the predation upon which they rest. And no one whose campaign depends on further violating ideal government—unjustly harming some citizens to buy support from others—can be an ideal candidate.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).