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On Keeping the Peace

The key difference between libertarians and statists comes down to what they wish to prohibit.

Image Credit: iStock-Hakase_

Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in Leonard Read’s book, Anything That’s Peaceful.

My thesis, in simplest terms, is: Let anyone do anything he pleases, so long as it is peaceful; the role of government, then, is to keep the peace.

In suggesting that the function of government is only to keep the peace, I raise the whole issue between statists or socialists, on the one hand, and the devotees of the free market, private property, limited government philosophy on the other.

Keeping the peace means no more than prohibiting persons from unpeaceful actions. This, with its elaborate machinery for defining what shall be prohibited (codifying the law), along with the interpretation, administration, and enforcement of the law, is all the prohibition I want from government—for me or for anyone else. When government goes beyond this, that is, when government prohibits peaceful actions, such prohibitions themselves are, prima facie, unpeaceful. How much of a statist a person is can be judged by how far he would go in prohibiting peaceful actions.

The difference between the socialist and the student of liberty is a difference of opinion as to what others should be prohibited from doing. At least, we may use this as a working hypothesis, think it through, and test its “validity. If the claim proves valid, then we have come upon a fairly simple method for distinguishing between warlike and peaceful persons—between authoritarians and libertarians.1 But first, let us consider prohibitions in general.

How many animal species have come and gone no one knows. Many thousands survive and the fact of their existence, whether guided by instincts or drives or conscious choices, rests, in no small measure, on the avoidance of self-destructive actions. Thus, all surviving species have, at the very minimum, abided by a set of prohibitions—things not to do; otherwise, they would have been extinct ere this.

Certain types of scorpions, for example, stick to dry land; puddles and pools are among their instinctual taboos. There is some prohibitory force that keeps fish off dry land, lambs from chasing lions, and so on and on. How insects and animals acquire their built-in prohibitions is not well understood. We label their reactions instinctual, meaning that it is not reasoned or conscious behavior.

Man, on the other hand, does not now possess a like set of instinctual do-nots, prohibitions. Instead, he must enjoy or suffer the consequences of his own free will, his own power to choose between right and wrong actions; in a word, man is more or less at the mercy of his own imperfect understanding and conscious decisions. The upshot of this is that human beings must choose the prohibitions they will observe, and the selection of a wrong one may be as disastrous to our species as omitting a right one. Survival of the human species rests as much on observing the correct prohibitions as is the case with any other species.

But in our case, the observance of the correct must-nots has survival value only if preceded by a correct, conscious selection of the must-nots. When the survival of the human race is at stake and when that survival rests on the selection of prohibitions by variable, imperfect members of that race, the wonder is that the ideological controversy is not greater than now.

When Homo sapiens first appeared he had little language, no literature, no maxims, no tradition or history to which he could make reference; in short, he possessed no precise and accurate list of things not to do. We cannot explain the survival of these early specimens of our kind unless we assume that some of the instinctual prohibitions of their earlier cousins remained with them during the transition period from instinct to some measure of self-knowledge; for, with respect to many millennia of that earlier period, we know nothing of man-formalized prohibitions. Then appeared the crude taboos observed by what we now call “primitive peoples.” These had survival value under certain conditions, even though the reasons given for their practice might not hold water.

Three Forms of Persuasion

If prohibitions are as important as here represented, it is well that we reflect on the man-contrived thou-shalt-nots, particularly as to the several types of persuasiveness—for there can be no prohibition worth the mention unless it is backed by some form of persuasion. So far as this exploration is concerned, there are three forms of persuasion which make prohibitions effective or meaningful. I shall comment on the three forms in the order of their historical appearance.

The Code of Hammurabi, 2000 B.C., is probably the earliest of systematized prohibitions. This is considered one of the greatest of the ancient codes; it was particularly strong in its prohibitions against defrauding the helpless, that is, against unpeaceful actions directed at the helpless. To secure observance, the “persuasiveness” took the form of organized police force. The Columbia Encyclopedia refers to the retributive nature of the punishment meted out as a “savage feature … an eye for an eye literally.” Not only is this the oldest of the three forms of persuasion employed to effectuate prohibitions and to keep the peace, but it remains to this day an important means of persuasion.

The next and higher form of persuasion appeared about a millennium later—the series of thou-shalt-nots known as The Decalogue. Here the backing was not organized police force but, instead, the promise of retribution: initially, the hope of tribal survival if the commands were obeyed, and the fear of tribal extinction were they disobeyed, and, later, the hope of heavenly bliss or the fear of hell and damnation. It may be said that The Decalogue exemplifies moral rather than political law and, also, that its form of persuasion advanced from physical force to a type of spiritual influence. We witness in this evolutionary step the emergence of man’s moral nature.

The latest and highest form of persuasion is that which gives effectiveness to the most advanced prohibition, The Golden Rule. As originally scribed, around 500 B.C., it read: “Do not do unto others that which you would not have them do unto you.” What persuasiveness lies behind it? Not physical force. And not even such spiritual influences as hope and fear. Force and influence give way to a desire for righteousness: a sense of justice, regarded as the inmost law of one’s being. That this is a recently acquired faculty is attested to by its rarity. Ever so many people will concede the soundness of the prohibition, but only now and then do we find an individual whose moral nature is elevated to the point where he can observe this moral imperative in daily living. The individual with an elevated moral nature has moved beyond the concept of external rewards and punishments to the conviction that virtue and excellence are their own reward.

An Elevated Moral Nature

It is relevant to that which follows to reflect on what is meant by an elevated moral nature. To illustrate the lack of such a nature: We had a kitchen employee who pilfered, that is, she would quietly lift provisions from our larder and tote them home to her own. This practice did no offense to such moral scruples as she possessed; she was only concerned lest anyone see her indulge it; nothing was wrong except getting caught! My point is that this individual had not yet acquired what is here meant by an elevated moral nature.

What is to distinguish the individual who has an elevated moral nature? For one thing, he cares not one whit about what others see him do. Why? He has a private eye of his own, far more exacting and severe than any force or influence others can impose: a highly developed conscience. Not only does such a person possess a sense of justice but he also possesses its counterpart, a disciplinary conscience. Justice and conscience are two parts of the same emerging moral faculty. It is doubtful that one part can exist without the other.

It seems that individual man, having lost many of the built-in, instinctual do-nots of his earlier cousins, acquires, as he evolves far enough, a built-in, rational, prohibitory ethic which he is compelled to observe by reason of his sense of justice and the dictates of his conscience. We repeat, proper prohibitions are just as important to the survival of the human species as to the survival of any other species.

Do not do to others that which you would not have them do unto you. There is more to this prohibition than first glance reveals. Nearly everyone, for instance, will concede that there is no universal right to kill, to steal, or to enslave—that such behavior could never be tolerated as a general practice. But only the person who comprehends this ethic in its wholeness, who has an elevated sense of justice and conscience, will see clearly why this denies to him the right to take the life of another, to relieve any person of his livelihood, or to deprive any human being of his liberty. And, one more distinction: While there are many who will agree that they, personally, should not kill, steal, enslave, it is only the individual with an elevated moral nature who will have no hand in encouraging any agency—even government—to do these things on behalf of himself or others. He clearly sees that the popular expedient of collective action affords no escape from individual responsibility.

What Shall Be Prohibited?

Let us now return to the question this essay poses: “What shall be prohibited?” For it is the difference of opinion as to what should be denied others that highlights the essential difference between the collectivists—socialists, statists, interventionists, mercantilists, disturbers of the peace—and those of the peaceful, libertarian faith. Take stock of what you would prohibit others from doing and you will accurately find your own position in the ideological line-up. This method can be used to determine anyone’s position.

The following statement came to my attention as I was writing this chapter:

“Government has a positive responsibility in any just society to see to it that each and every one of its citizens acquires all the skills and all the opportunities necessary to practice and appreciate the arts to the limit of his natural ability. Enjoyment of the arts and participation in them are among man’s natural rights and essential to his full development as a civilized person. One of the reasons governments are instituted among men is to make this right a reality.”2

It is significant that the author uses the term “its citizens,” the antecedent being government. Such a conception is basic to the collectivistic philosophy: We—you and I—belong to the state. Of course, if one accepts this statist premise—this wholesale invasion of peaceful actions—the above quote is sensible enough: it has to do with a detail in the state’s paternalistic concern for us as its wards.

But we are on another tack, namely, examining what a person would prohibit others from doing. The author just quoted suggests no prohibitions, at least, not to anyone who fails to read below the surface. He dwells only on what he would have the state do for the people. Where, then, are the prohibitions? The “civilized” program he favors would cost X million dollars annually. From where come these millions? The state has nothing except that which it takes from the people. Therefore, this man favors that we, the people, be prohibited from peacefully using the fruits of our own labor as we choose in order that these fruits be expended as the state chooses. And take note that this and all other socialist-designed prohibitions of peaceful pursuits have police force as the method of persuasion.

To repeat what was stated in a previous chapter, socialism has a double-barreled definition, one of which is the state ownership and/or control of the results of production. Our incomes are the results of production. That portion of our incomes is socialized which the state turns to its use rather than our own. It follows, then, that a person would impose prohibitions on the rest of us to the extent that he supports governmental projects such as forcibly taking the fruits of our labor to assure others an “enjoyment of the arts.”

Only a few, as yet, favor the socialization of the arts and the consequent socialization of our incomes, but there are ever so many who favor prohibiting our freedom peacefully to use the fruits of our own labor in order to:

  • perform our charities for us;
  • protect us from floods, droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, freezes, insects, and other hazards;
  • insure us against illness, accident, old age;
  • subsidize below-cost pricing in air, water, and land transportation, education, insurance, loans of countless kinds;
  • put three men on the moon (estimated at $40,000,000,000);
  • give federal aid of this or that variety, endlessly

This is the welfare state side of socialism.

The above, however, does not exhaust the prohibitions that the socialists would impose on our peaceful actions. For socialism, also, is the state ownership and/or control of the means of production. We are now prohibited from:

  • freely planting our own acreage to wheat, cotton, peanuts, corn, tobacco, rice, even if used only to feed our own stock;
  • quitting our own business at will;
  • taking a job at will;
  • pricing our own services (wages);
  • delivering first-class mail for pay;
  • selling our own product at our own price, for instance, milk, steel, and so on.
  • free entry into business activities, like producing power and light in the Tennessee Valley.

This is the planned economy side of socialism.

Again, the listing of prohibitions is endless. Harold Fleming, author of Ten Thousand Commandments (1951), having to do with prohibitions of just one federal agency—The Federal Trade Commission—claims that the book, if brought up-to-date, would be titled, Twenty Thousand Commandments.

Those who favor the socialization of the means of production would, of course, prohibit profit and even deny the validity of the profit motive.

Preserving the Peace

Of all the prohibitions listed above plus others that are implicit in socialism, which do you or others favor? This is the appropriate question for rating oneself or others ideologically.

Persons devoted to liberty would, it is true, impose certain prohibitions on others. They merely note that not all individuals have acquired sufficient moral stature strictly to observe such moral laws as “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal.” There are in the population those who will take the lives and the livelihood of others, those who will pilfer and those who will get the government to do their pilfering for them. Most libertarians would supplement the moral laws aimed at prohibiting violence to another’s person (life) or another’s livelihood (extension of life).3 Thus they would prohibit or at least penalize murder, theft, fraud, misrepresentation. In short, they would inhibit or prohibit the destructive or unpeaceful actions of any and all! Says the student of liberty, “Freely choose how you act creatively, productively, peacefully. I have no desire to prohibit you or others in this respect. I have no prohibitory designs on you of any kind except as you would unpeacefully keep me and others from acting creatively, productively, peacefully, as we freely choose.”

Be it noted that the libertarian in his hoped-for prohibition of unpeaceful actions does not have in mind any violence to anyone else’s liberty, none whatsoever. For this reason: The word liberty would never be used by an individual completely isolated from others; it is a social term. We must not, therefore, think of liberty as being restrained when fraud, violence, and the like are prohibited, for such actions violate the liberty of others, and liberty cannot be composed of liberty negations. This is self-evident. Thus, any accomplished student of liberty would never prohibit the liberty or the peaceful actions of another.

There we have it: the socialists with the countless prohibitions of liberty they would impose on others; the students of liberty whose suggested prohibitions are not opposed to but are in support of liberty and are as few and as simple as the two Commandments against the taking of life and livelihood. Interestingly enough, it is the socialists, the all-out prohibitionists, who call nonintervening, peaceful libertarians “extremists.” Their nomenclature leaves as much to be desired as does their theory of political economy!

But the students of liberty and the socialists have one position in common: the human situation is not in apple pie order; imperfection is rampant. The student of liberty, however, observing that human imperfection is universal, balks at halting the evolutionary process, such halting being the ultimate prohibition implicit in all authoritarian schemes. Be the political dandy a Napoleon or a Tito or one of the home grown variety of prohibitionists, how can the human situation improve if the rest of us are not permitted to grow beyond the level of the political dandy’s imperfections? Is nothing better in store for humanity than this?

The libertarian’s answer is affirmative: There is something better! But the improvement must take the form of man’s growth, emergence, hatching—the acquisition of higher faculties such as an improved sense of justice, a reined, exacting, self-disciplinary conscience, in brief, an elevated moral nature. Man-concocted prohibitions against this growth stifle or kill it. Human faculties can flower, man can move toward his creative destiny, only if he be free to do so, in a word, where peace and liberty prevail.

What should be prohibited? Actions which impair liberty and peace!


1. Some will make the point that the authoritarian employs compulsions as well as prohibitions. My thesis is that all compulsions can be reduced to prohibitions, thus making it easier to assess authoritarianism. For instance, we say that a Russian is compelled to work in the sputnik factory. But it is more accurate to say that he is prohibited from any other employment; he builds sputniks or starves, and freely decides between the restricted choices left to him. So-called compulsions by government are, in fact, prohibitions of freedom to choose. Ed. note, “sputnik” is a Russian term for satellite.

2. See The Commonweal. August 23, 1963, p. 494.

3. How prohibited? Unfortunately, by physical force or the threat thereof, the only form of persuasion comprehensible to those lacking a developed sense of morality and justice. Be it noted, however, that this is exclusively a defensive force, called into play only as a secondary action, that is, it is inactive except in the instances of initiated, aggressive force.

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