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Friday, August 3, 2018

Political Change Starts with Self-Improvement

The way toward social improvement is not through forcing what one sees as improvements on others, but through self-improvement.

The Foundation for Economic Education’s founder Leonard Read’s book Accent on the Right (1968) hits the half-century mark this year. And its chapter, “On Thinking for Self,” is particularly relevant for more than just its anniversary. It offers valuable insight into a major issue in the most recent Presidential campaign and in the 2018 midterm elections, just three months away, that will be, in large part, a referendum on its outcome.

The only ultimate “solution” is for enough Americans to rediscover the liberty that was at the heart of our country’s founding principles.

Read brings us to a central insight that is easy to miss amid the histrionics, mud-slinging, “fake news,” etc. that passes for public policy debate—electoral results reflect what people demand. Until enough people who now endorse robbing Peter to pay Paul, whenever they happen to be named Paul, can be convinced that they face better prospects under expanded freedom, those they elect and their parties may change, but not their substance of seeking benefits for some at others’ expense. The only ultimate “solution” is for enough Americans to rediscover the liberty that was at the heart of our country’s founding principles. And the first step in any such renaissance is for people to think carefully for themselves. At a time when that is far too uncommon, Read’s insights merit consideration.

“What a fearful thought… a nation of people the vast majority of whom do no thinking for themselves in the area of political economy! Positions on matters of the deepest social import formed from nothing more profound than radio, TV and newspaper commentaries, or casual, off-the-cuff opinions, or the outpourings of popularity seekers!”

“Market demand… determines the kinds of persons who vie with each other for political office. Assume a people who do no thinking for themselves. Theirs is a stunted skepticism. Such people only react and are easy prey of the cliche, the plausibility, the shallow promise, the lie. Emotional appeals and pretty words are their only guidelines. The market is made up of no-thinks… Statesmen [and women] of integrity and intellectual stature are hopelessly out of demand.”

“And who may we expect to respond to a market where thinking for self is absent? Charlatans! Word mongers! Power seekers! Deception artists!… the worst rise to the political top.”

“Now assume a society of persons who do their own thinking and, as a consequence, possess a healthy and intelligent skepticism, persons who cannot be “taken in,” hardheaded students of political economy graced with moral rectitude. The market for charlatans is dead… Instead, we find statesmen [and women] of character and integrity vying for political office.”

“Merely keep in mind that whatever shows forth on the political horizon is the response to the market, an echoing or mirroring of the preponderant mode in thinking. When thinking for self is declining, more charlatans and fewer statesmen [and women] will vie for office… So, blame not the political opportunists for the state of the nation. Our failure to think for ourselves put them there–indeed, brought them into being. For we are the market; they are but the reflections!”

“Approximately 50 per cent of those who do not think for themselves are furious with what they see on the political horizon—which is but their own reflections! And to assuage their discontent they exert vigorous effort to change the reflection…As should be expected, they get no more for their pains than new faces masking mentalities remarkably similar to those unseated. It cannot be otherwise.”

“No improving trend on the political horizon is possible except as there is an improvement—quantity and quality—in thinking for self. Thus, it is of the utmost importance that we seriously attend to our thinking.”

“Given the present situation, where government is recklessly out of bounds and has its hand in practically every aspect of life, the well-informed citizen is expected to know all about everything…[But] most of these so-called national or world problems are of similar origin and nature… trying to manage everyone’s business…[a] hopelessly impossible challenge.”

“Instead, concentrate the thinking on what the principled and proper scope of government really is. This is easily within the realm of any reasonably intelligent person, and is… the kind of thinking for self in political economy one should cover. All else—welfare, security, prosperity—is in the realm of the free market: you to your affairs, me to mine.”

“Most individuals who have abandoned thinking for self in matters of political economy are unaware that… Such wisdom as society requires does not and cannot exist in any one person… [but only in] your and my disparate wisdoms… this is the nature of knowledge in society and it behooves each of us to make the best of it.”

“A good society cannot be developed except through the process of thinking for self. Until such introspection becomes as natural as eating and breathing, there is little prospect for the good life.”

“Each to his own thinking! The rule, therefore, is not to take somebody else’s word for it… Don’t take my word for it! Scarcely any self-anointed seer or prophet wants to go that far; but, unless he will, write him off as an intellectual authoritarian, a be-like-me god.”

“Indeed, one who would think for himself should look not only among his contemporaries but also among his predecessors, even among the ancients, for any bits of wisdom that can be garnered. Take full advantage of one’s environment, experience, and heritage, but let each thoughtfully do his own selecting, evaluating, and reasoning.”

“To trust this Creative Wisdom reflects an abiding faith in… free men… But don’t take my word for it; think that one through for yourself.”

As Leonard Read emphasized so often, the way toward social improvement is not through forcing what one sees as improvements on others, but through self-improvement. And when it came to politics, an absolutely essential aspect of that improvement was thinking carefully. Read saw that absent careful thinking, statism, with its alluring but undeliverable promises of something for nothing, was a virtual certainty. But he saw that the case for individual liberty was so strong that he trusted people who really thought for themselves to discover it. With each such discovery would come self-reform. And more self-reform would lead to reduced demands for political charlatans’ snake oil, making possible the only ongoing basis for “social reform” that represents real social advancement.

  • 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).