All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1998

On Behalf of the Ideal

Undoing Socialism Requires Upholding the Ideal of Freedom

Leonard E. Read established FEE in 1946 and served as its president until his death in 1983. This article, one of Mr. Read’s Notes from FEE messages, is excerpted from Essays on Liberty, Vol. VII (1960), pp. 332–436. It is the tenth in a monthly series commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mr. Read’s birth.

There is a line of reasoning, gaining ground among businessmen and others, that tends to narrow an understanding of freedom rather than broaden it. It relates in part to our work at the Foundation for Economic Education, and I want to examine the reasoning from this standpoint.

Over the past 14 years—from countries as remote as India as well as here at home—have come inquiries to this effect: “In what ideological pigeonhole can FEE be put? You folks don’t quite fit Bentham or the Physiocrats or the Georgists or Smith or Mill or Simons, or any system. Where shall we put you?”

Honor be to these discriminating inquirers, for what FEE attempts to purvey is neither a system nor is it “pigeonholeable.” On the contrary, we seek to learn of freedom in its consistent, undiluted, ideal form, and to report candidly and in full what that search reveals.

This effort on behalf of the ideal has met with enough approval to put FEE on its educational and financial feet. While always challenged and even criticized by many “practical” people—among whom are some of the world’s greatest producers—there has been an adequate corps of what we shall call idealists to keep FEE going as a small-scale enterprise. Now, however, “practicality” appears to be winning converts from among those who were thought to be the idealists. Limiting these comments to the “practical” as distinguished from the idealistic businessmen and putting it bluntly, defections are observed at a time when leadership on behalf of the ideal might well turn the tide for freedom.

These “practical” people—many of them—will readily acknowledge that our society is shot through and through with socialism. But, having said this, they will add, “While I agree with your idea of the ideal society in theory, it is utterly naïve to insist upon its rightness in today’s world. The existing political interventions are fait accompli, water over the dam. To condemn them and to suggest the ideal in their stead, as you so undeviatingly do at FEE, is to operate in a dreamland. Forget about upholding the ideal and do your educational work for freedom premised on the what is, not on an idealistic what-ought-to-be. Let us be practical!”

Such counsel, increasingly offered, could more accurately be phrased, “Tell us how to make socialism work,” as though we at FEE could perform that miracle if only we’d try!

For instance, the “practical” argue that TVA is here to stay, as are subsidies to farmers, compulsory Social Security, federal delivery of the mails, exchange controls, the minimum wage at which one is allowed to work, the maximum one is permitted to earn, coercive powers in the hands of labor unions called “gains for the laboring man,” indeed any item of socialism once it is put on the statute books. Everything, no matter how absurd, appears sacrosanct to them the moment it becomes law. Thus, they regard as foolhardy any questioning of what they deem “unalterable.” The president of one of America’s largest corporations summarized their conclusions, “We wouldn’t think of supporting the work of FEE. Why those folks even argue that the government’s social security program is not right.”

Conceding, as they do, the hopelessness of removing any of the interventions, and recognizing clearly enough the miserable distortions these interventions inflict on a free and competitive market, the “practical” minded look with favor on additional anti-market devices such as governmental protections against their competitors. They privately regard as “economic nonsense” the wage earner’s claim to the job he has vacated and, at the same time, claim a right to an exchange made by other parties. They denounce compulsory actions of unions as they ask for compulsory protection for themselves. Their inconsistency, which certainly is apparent to them, is charged off to “being practical.”

It isn’t that these people quarrel with the way FEE presents the ideal; it is that they reject the presentation of the ideal as sound educational procedure. This brings us to the nub of the question, to the point when analysis of their position is possible.

One thing for certain: our “practical” friends, according to their own admissions, are dead set against any more socialism than we now have. Except for some socialism in the form of protection against competition or a pet project, they stoutly advocate “dropping anchor.” Yet, their unwillingness to criticize the status quo, coupled with their refusal to uphold the ideal of a free society for all to see and hear, makes them more effective obstacles to freedom’s progress than are the socialists themselves.

This, indeed, is a serious charge. Valid? Let’s see.

Socialism has only a few articulate antagonists and only a few articulate protagonists. Between these two small groups are unnumbered millions who are more or less indifferent, who at best are only followers of one camp or the other. Every issue has always been thus.

Socialism’s protagonists will argue for, not against, their credo. Count on that!

Now, socialism’s antagonists, were they to follow the counsel of the “practical” people, would remain neutral—standing neither against socialism nor for the ideal. In short, not one person in the population would be signaling either right or wrong. What is not shown to be wrong is perforce right, or so that unnumbered millions “who have the votes” would be warranted in concluding. . . .

Those who, in this moral crisis, remain noncommittal while purporting to be private enterprisers are, in effect, however innocently, abettors of collectivism. They, not the socialists, have the educational obligation for stating the private enterprise case, ideally.

Regardless of how thoroughly we may adjust ourselves to our sickness—or even enjoy it—the numerous social diseases must be repeatedly and consistently identified as maladies lest we mistake our sickness for a state of health. Indeed, such diagnostic action is a necessary preface to corrective action, to the presentation and ultimate realization of freedom in its ideal form.

There aren’t many of us at FEE naïve enough to believe that identifying socialistic projects as maladies, and upholding the ideal, will bring about the ideal. Any such expectation is absurd among human beings who, by nature, are fallible. However, we do insist that this course is the essence of genuine practicality, for only in this manner can our country’s direction be reversed. Man can do no better than travel toward the ideal, and this he can do only if the ideal is sought for and to some extent discovered. We must always face in the right direction! There will never be any undoing of socialism unless the ideal of freedom is identified and upheld with enthusiasm and with undaunted faith.

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