All Commentary
Monday, March 1, 1965

Light Brings Forth the Eye

The longest way round may sometimes be the shortest way home, even when “home” is the free market economy and its ideo­logical running mate, individual liberty. My thesis is that most devotees of freedom have been at­tempting an illusory short cut, following a mirage so to speak; whereas the right way to the free society is both long and difficult—but possible.

First, a word of background about “home,” that is, the goal or where it is we want to go.

Our economic world is being torn asunder, but so pronounced is popular opinion to the contrary that one must insert, “in my opinion,” to qualify the judg­ment. But this is, indeed, my opin­ion. Simply observe: The Ameri­can people are turning away from the free market; they are looking more and more to government for their security, welfare, and pros­perity, and calmly accepting the controls incidental thereto. Such abandonment of self-control in favor of state domination means economic regression over the long pull)

In view of this unmistakable and continuing trend, it behooves citizens interested in freedom to reflect seriously on an effective way—regardless of how long the way may be—as an alternative to the illusory and futile short cuts most of them have been at­tempting.

Let us concede that the Ameri­can people are sharply divided on the question at issue. On the one side are the millions who give enthusiastic approval to govern­mental responsibility for security, welfare, and prosperity. On the other side are the very few who see only ruin in the current drift, who have a profound faith in free market processes and rely exclu­sively upon them for economic progress.

What’s Wrong with Them, or with Ourselves?

Being one of the latter few, my purpose is to discover why the millions do not understand what we understand, or what ails us who would bring understand­ing. Are they not educable and, if not, why not? Is there something out of kilter with our educational methods and, if so, what is it?

What of these millions, the en­thusiasts for statism? Could it be that they have really lost heart for an economy richer in its ma­terial outpourings than any other ever known? Ortega suggested this possibility:

We are now beginning to realize that these centuries, so self-satisfied, so perfectly rounded-off, are dead within. Genuine vital integrity does not consist in satisfaction, in attain­ment, arrival. Cervantes said long since: “The road is always better than the inn.” When a period has satisfied its desires, its ideal, this means that it desires nothing more; that the wells of desire have been dried up. This is to say, our famous plenitude is in reality coming to an end. There are centuries which die of self-satisfaction through not know­ing how to renew their desires, just as the happy drone dies after nuptial flight.²

If Ortega was correct, then we live in a period which has satis­fied its most urgent “desires, its ideal.” In order to weigh prop­erly the nature of this “ideal,” we need to contrast it with the general poverty of less than 200 years ago. According to Adam Smith, there were mothers who had to bear 20 children to assure two reaching adulthood. Life ex­pectancy at birth was less than 39 years, as against today’s 70!

Then came the Industrial Revo­lution followed by the flowering of specialization and freedom in transactions: the free market econ­omy more fully realized than ever before. Reckoned in terms of ev­olutionary time, we witness in only a moment millions upon millions of people rising from abject pov­erty to a state of unprecedented affluence—millionaires galore and an enormous upper middle class with the power to acquire luxur­ies of every sort—our “famous plenitude.” Indeed, so fantastical­ly has this approximation of the free market performed that count­less people—with little ability and little effort—have acquired great wealth. Because of a free­dom they know nothing about, many have in real life approxi­mated the fantasy of something for nothing.3

No Place to Go

This emerging from abject poverty to a state of great affluence has been a fascinating experience for Western man; wealth became his desire, his ideal, his aim in life. Millions fulfilled their desires and the rest came to believe that fulfillment was just around the corner. Political opportunists with their something-for-nothing schemes assure them of this.

But reaching a goal dries up the desire for it. The road is always better than the inn. Ever so many of those with materialism as their god are now at the inn. There is no more road for them, no place to go—and no happiness at the inn! Millions of affluent Americans are less satisfied than Russian peasants still on the road, struggling in vain for the same false god but unaware of the hopelessness of their struggle. In this sense, “ignorance is bliss.”

An ideal is the conception of something in its perfect form and, thus, it is beyond the reach of imperfect men. Anything that is attainable loses its ideal qualities. If becoming wealthy is held as an ideal, what remains after wealth’s attainment? The ideal vanishes the moment the inn is reached; the situation is “rounded-off, dead within.”

The reason for this catastrophe appears simple enough: Western man has confused means and ends. There is a moral purpose in a good economy. The aim is not to finance luxury, opulence, retirement from the road, a fancy suite at the inn. Wealth used thus proves to be an empty end or ob­jective of earthly existence. Wealth, if its moral purpose is to be achieved, is but a means of freeing oneself from the enslave­ment which poverty imposes. Wealth consists of all the tools that make possible the refinement of those aptitudes and faculties for which each individual is best fit­ted; it permits everyone to freely exchange the product of the re­sultant specialization. Wealth—the services of many others in ex­change for one’s own contribution—affords each man a better op­portunity for getting more effectively into life. But wealth can be quite as enslaving as poverty if used to escape from life, which is the case when wealth is re­garded as an end in itself. Wealth should not be considered an ulti­mate desire or ideal but, rather, a means for the more efficient pursuit of something that can qualify as the ideal.

Persons who desire wealth for wealth’s sake, as their ultimate desire, are in trouble if they at­tain their ideal. Ortega concluded that they die of self-satisfaction through not knowing how to re­new their desires.

Assessing the Obstacles

Let us now consider the ob­stacles that confront the few who would, if they could, halt the drift into statism and turn toward the free market economy and individ­ual liberty. It is a fatal error to underassess the difficulty:

·         Wealth or materialism as an ultimate desire has proved to be a dead-end road, and the millions who have concentrated exclusively on it as an ideal cannot, by themselves, find any­thing else for which to yearn and strive, anything that can qualify as an ideal. Persons who have been able to obtain so much for so little are in­clined to mistake their opulence for a personal wisdom and, thus, are not easily teachable. They lack an eye with which to perceive the principles of freedom.

·         The millions who haven’t yet become affluent, the ones who envy the affluence they see about them, as well as the ease with which it came, and who can be taken in by something ­for-nothing schemes, are not easily teachable. They also lack an eye.

·         The millions with a hankering for power and who see appeals to mass gullibility as a means to attain it—those folks who specialize in contriving some­thing-for-nothing schemes—are far from teachable. They especially lack an eye for the free market philosophy.

Even though the above refer­ences encompass many millions of people, they hardly “scratch the surface.” I am merely trying to establish the point that we are confronted with a blindness prob­lem; that is, there isn’t much in the way of an eye to perceive the free market and its miraculous workings.

It is appropriate, however, that we first assess our own faults. Can it be that we, also, are afflict­ed with blindness? Unquestion­ably, yes, for many of us insist on trying to take nonexistent short cuts, and we learn nothing from our experiences. In a word, many of us refuse to concede that the longest way round may be the shortest way home.

An abbreviated self-portrayal, a sort of montage of us few: We have no trouble at all in seeing through the sham of the attrac­tive nicknames and the loftily worded preambles of political pow­er schemes. There is no distrac­tion to us by reason of these wordy adornments. A very good eye here! Nor are we blind as to their essence. We clearly see that all of them, without exception—TVA, Post Office, Farm Allotment Program, Urban Renewal, or whatever—are no more than something-for-nothing concoc­tions.4 We see that these grandi­ose political plans are founded on something being given in return for nothing, and given by a gov­ernment which has nothing of its own to give. An excellent eye up to this point!

But beyond this comes the blindness: Too many of us wish to correct the thinking of these millions who approve false measures by “telling ‘em off”; to spread the true word by pounding into their heads that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and that these schemes are a fraud and delusion; to elect the “right” people to public office. And more: to give them economics in cap­sules; to put the gist of our wis­dom in parables; to get our mes­sage across to the masses; to con­vince the man in the street. As the sales manager puts it, “Get out there and sell! sell! sell!”

Education is a drawing forth process, induced by an attraction to light. These attempted short cuts, on the other hand, are push­ing thrusts, and if they have any effect at all, it is to repel. They do not serve to educate. The re­cord is clear on this. Better noth­ing than these.

The Pursuit of Excellence

Not only is the longest way round the shortest way home, it is the only way home! The form­ula, as old as thinking man, is simple in pronouncement but as rare and difficult of achievement as any of life’s disciplines. It is the road that has no earthly inn, the ideal unattainable, the renew­al of desires that knows no sa­tiety; it is, as Hanford Henderson phrased it, “the passionate pur­suit of excellence in everything.” This he termed “a religion.”

Relating this longest way round to the problem at issue, it is plain that millions of citizens, at least in their present state, cannot per­ceive free market processes. For these they have no eye. What brings forth the eye? Why the light itself brings forth the eye!

We see that animal species com­mitted to the depths of the sea or to subterranean existence lose or never develop sight, and from this conclude that where there is no light there is no eye for seeing.

Nor need we confine these ob­servations to the kind of light that can be precisely measured in candle power. The same principle is applicable to that inner light—enlightenment—which we know not how to measure. In societies where there are no enlightened individuals we also note that there is neither light nor eyes developed to perceive it.

Where the eye is blind or un­derdeveloped, disaster to a once great economy cannot be avoided. Thus, any person concerned about the environment in which it is his lot to live, is warranted—yes, selfishly justified—in doing what he can to bring forth the eye. But analysis reveals that one’s in­fluence in this respect is limited to self-perfection, that is, to in­creasing one’s own candle power; approximating, as nearly as pos­sible, one’s creative potentialities; acquiring the ability not merely to perceive but to conceive ideas; in a word, it is the art of becom­ing human.5

It is this long way round, the continual emphasis on personal emergence in consciousness and awareness, along with ever-im­proving expository qualities—self­generated enlightenment—that should be what we mean by in­dividualism.

It is, of course, as unindivid­ualistic as it is futile to urge this form of individualism on anyone. Individualism, in this highest sense, is a product of the Creative Light and of self-urging. But of one thing I am certain: Regard­less of any pretensions to the con­trary, no one but an individual dedicated to and having success with his own upgrading has any influence whatsoever on better­ing the perception of others, on improving society or the free mar­ket or whatever. Can one develop light enough to open eyes? That’s the question. For light, and light only, brings forth the eye!

If this longest way round has the “fault” of being difficult, it at least has the virtue of being realistic—and possible—in my opinion.    

No man any more has any care for the morrow, either for himself or his children, for the nation guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave.¹

Edward Bellamy, 1888

Foot Notes

1 For a further development of this point, see “Freedom Follows the Free Market,” by Dean Russell, The Freeman, January, 1963.

2 From Revolt of the Masses by Ortega y Gasset (N. Y.: W. W. Norton & Co., 1932).

3 The gaining of wealth without ability or exertion must not, from the econo­mist’s standpoint, be condemned. The value of a good or service is not deter­mined by either ability or effort exerted but, instead, by what others will give willingly in exchange. The making of a funny face on TV may have more value than the labored efforts of a college pro­fessor. For a brief study of this all-im­portant subjective theory of value, see Value and Price, by Eugen von BöhmBawerk, 160 pp. Obtainable from the Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, N. Y. Paper, $2.00.

4 Some of the millions will counter that people pay for TVA power and light, for postal service, for money borrowed from government, and so on. They do, in part. But the feature of these socializa­tions is below-cost and below-market pricing. It is the uncollected part which has to be met by taxpayer subsidy that is the something the “beneficiaries” will receive in return for nothing.

5 For a further exploration of this idea, read Lecomte du Nouy’s commen­taries on the evolution of man, especially Chapter XI in his Human Destiny. Now available in paperback. A Mentor Book.

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”