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Thursday, January 26, 2023

Leonard Read’s Three Levels of Libertarian Leadership

Do you have what it takes to attain the highest level?

Image Credit: Claire05 - Pixabay

Leonard Read identified three levels of libertarian leadership.

To achieve the first level, one must understand the freedom philosophy enough to personally refrain from advocating or participating in violations of liberty. A first-level libertarian leader leads by example. As Read wrote:

“Do not underestimate the enormous influences set in motion by a person who refuses to sanction or promote any wrong action. Pronounced exemplary qualities have unbelievable radiating powers. The individual who gives no offense to libertarian ideals—even if he be utterly silent—attracts emulators, sets high standards for others to follow.”

To achieve the second level of libertarian leadership, one must be able to articulate the freedom philosophy well enough to influence “those who come within one’s own personal orbit.” This may include one’s family, friends, and colleagues. It also may include people you meet (on the plane, at a dinner party, etc). In the digital age, it can include people you are connected to on social media.

To achieve the third level of libertarian leadership, one must be such a beacon of clear understanding and exposition of the freedom philosophy that others seek out your tutelage. They follow your published works and look for opportunities to learn from you through conversation.

It’s unwise, and perhaps impossible, to “skip” any of these levels. If your understanding of liberty is so flawed that you endorse violations of liberty, then you will not be able to accurately explain the freedom philosophy to others. And if you lack conviction and thus fail to practice what you preach, your hypocrisy will put off potential students and your actions will speak louder than your words.

And as Read stressed, even though the second and third levels of libertarian leadership involve articulating liberty to others, the focus must be on the improvement of self.

At the second and third levels, the libertarian leader articulates his understanding for others as an exercise in honing and testing that understanding and so as to share what he’s learned in case his audience finds it valuable.

True teaching is learning out loud and true leadership is by example. Education/leadership is not the direct improvement of others. It is self-improvement that inspires and equips others to emulate by pursuing self-improvement themselves. True leadership is modeling, not meddling.

Once libertarian advocacy becomes about “inflicting your wisdom” (as Read put it) on others in order to look smart or humiliate ideological opponents, then, while you may have advanced your career as a libertarian demogogue, you have disqualified yourself as a libertarian leader. Intellectual vanity is incompatible with intellectual leadership.

Genuine leadership is an outgrowth, not of arrogance, but of humility. The “meek” (i.e., humble) will inherit the earth, because it is a humble devotion to self-improvement that brings about true improvement in others and actually makes the world a better place.

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.


  • Dan Sanchez is an essayist, editor, and educator. His primary topics are liberty, economics, and educational philosophy. He is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor-in-chief of FEE.org. He created the Hazlitt Project at FEE, launched the Mises Academy at the Mises Institute, and taught writing for Praxis. He has written hundreds of essays for venues including FEE.org (see his author archive), Mises.org, Antiwar.com, and The Objective Standard. Follow him on Twitter and Substack.