All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1974

Reflections on Gullibility

Quick sensitiveness is inseparable from a ready understanding.


We live in an age when superstition flourishes and quackery abounds. This is a credulous generation eager to swallow any political nostrum — the more absurd the better. I fully concur with this opinion by Professor W. A. Paton:

As an adjective to describe present-day attitudes, aims, and popular proposals for dealing with current economic problems, real or pseudo, the term “gullible” is a much more appropriate label for our society than “good” or “great.”¹

Very few, indeed, are those among us who have any awareness of the current gullibility — a blindness pervades the population. Short of a more general realization of this intellectual insensitivity, our society is doomed; it must fall into a shambles. Sensing this formidable situation, as does Professor Paton, is assuredly the first step in gaining any relief. However, two more steps would seem to be necessary: (1) discovering the cause of gullibility, and (2) finding its remedy, if there be one.

In my view, insensitiveness is the cause of gullibility. A recent experience: Ahead of me in the check-out line at the supermarket was a woman with many items in her basket. She paid with government food stamps, totally insensitive to the fact that I would be interested, as one who was financing her purchases. Utterly numb as to gratitude! And most taxpayers, in my place, would have been equally insensitive to their role in paying for that food.

I do not know what the total bill might have been for the food the woman had in her basket. Nor do I know precisely the value of the food stamps she receives each year. But I did find, upon doing a bit of research, that the total U.S. food stamp program that cost $85.5 million in 1965 is projected to cost $7.2 billion in 1975. Was I gullible, were all of us gullible in allowing the small beginnings of a program that would expand by 8,400 per cent in ten years!

And how many Americans are expected to be riding that $7.2 billion gravy train in 1975? The number, I am informed, will be 16,000,000. So if the woman in the supermarket is typical, she will be carrying $450 worth of groceries past the check-out counter, for stamps, in 1975.

In double-checking my estimate of taxes to be paid in 1975 — and calculating the impact on me of a $7.2 billion expenditure — I find that, in effect, I will be paying for about half of that woman’s food-stamp purchases. And I do not know her! Should I or should I not be giving some strange woman $225 worth of groceries a year? Do I know if her need is greater than that of any other customer? Or am I simply being gullible about food stamps and many other welfare programs, programs to which I am insensitive, since I do not know the real need for such handouts or know the effect of those handouts on either the recipients or the other taxpayers who will help foot the bill?

How account for this two-sided gullibility — exhibited equally by those who feed at the public trough and those who are forced to keep it filled? Doubtless there are unfathomable reasons — faults and shortcomings interacting on each other — too complex for clear-cut analysis. Were there a single cause, we might readily overcome this insensitiveness; alertness then would be a possibility. However, if a few likely causes can be identified, they may help us see our gullibility and bring some helpful responses from me, you, and some others; any switch would have to be an individual attainment.

The Roman, Horace, some twenty centuries ago, offered one reason which can hardly be questioned: “Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.”

Prosperous circumstances! Never in the world’s history have any people remotely approached the prosperity we Americans have experienced, and we are generally flabby in consequence. Gullibility is nothing more nor less than talents lying dormant. This appears to be an accurate diagnosis of our condition.

Free market, private ownership, limited government practices have been more nearly approximated in the U.S.A. than elsewhere. As a consequence, there has been the greatest release of creative energy ever known: goods and services have flowed in unprecedented abundance to the masses as if manna from Heaven.

Merely reflect upon the material things —tens of thousands—which are available in exchange for doing relatively little, if anything.2 Note the countless persons who enjoy a fantastic affluence and do nothing at all. When people get it into their heads that their prosperity is a natural phenomenon, as a sunrise, for instance, requiring no talents on their part, talents fail to evolve; in a word, they lie dormant. These people see nothing simply because they are unaware that there is anything to see.

No Faith in Charity

Another likely cause: an astonishing loss of faith in Judeo-Christian charity. Indeed, few in today’s world are aware of what it is, let alone the wonders wrought by its practice. That woman at the check-out line had no more gratitude for her something-for-nothing food than the average taxpayer has gratitude for the privilege of filling the trough.  Grover Cleveland, in vetoing a handout to drought-stricken Texans, wrote:

The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune…. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.

The Congressmen who approved that appropriation doubtless did so with the best intentions. They, as distinguished from President Cleveland, were insensitive to charity as a character-building means to deal with misfortune; they could think only of government handouts. This calls to mind a verse packed full of wisdom:

Oh, were evil always ugly;

What a boon to virtue that would be!

But oft it wears a pretty face,

And lets us cheat unknowingly.

It is an observed fact that whenever government pre-empts any activity, that is, when coercion takes over, voluntary ways are not only forgotten but faith in their efficacy ceases. How many, for instance, believe that mail could be delivered ever so much more efficiently if left to the free market? Only a person now and then! Similarly with charity. When government moves in, charitable practices tend to wither away. Your neighbor is hungry. Today? That’s the government’s problem, we say. Suppose the government had not intervened. What would you or I do? We would share our loaf of bread! Were government handouts looked upon as ugly, charity would thrive. But because they are well-intentioned and thus have a pretty face, we cheat each other unknowingly, insensitively. Result: gullibility!

What possibly can be the cure for this gullibility? What can restore alertness? Assuredly, the answer lies half-hidden or it would be generally known and observed; few would label themselves, or like to be labeled, gullible. An obvious answer to gullibility is thinking for self rather than imitating platitudes, plausibilities, popular cliches. But that is too obvious. The real question is, what can inspire or encourage one to do his own thinking? What is the overlooked formula?

Here’s mine: Count your blessings! Until now I have looked upon this as the remedy for perhaps the greatest of all evils: covetousness or envy. I am now convinced that it is also the cure for gullibility.

For this practice to have any meaning, to affect one’s intellectual demeanor, it would have to be a daily exercise — in a word, habitual and systematic exploration. At first blush, at least to those who have not reflected on their blessings, this is no more of a challenge than a daily repetition of the alphabet, so few blessings are most people aware of.

What I am suggesting is the discovery of one or more heretofore unknown blessings every day of one’s life. There aren’t that many? Their number is infinite, a world without end! They include every bit of wisdom since the human race began; they range from soaps to soups to tissues to dishwashers, from raindrops to bathtubs, from pets to friends past and present, from atoms to red blood cells to galaxies, from electricity to sunbeams, from blades of grass to the shade of trees, from hot and cold running water to still lakes and wavy seas, from paintings to all the beauties of earth and the heavens. They include all the freedom each of us possesses to be his creative self.

The daily exploration of one’s blessings opens the mind to Infinite Consciousness. This is the process of thinking for self; it is the downing of gullibility. For today, I count among my blessings the ability to share these thoughts with you, whoever you are.


1 See “The Gullible Society,” The Freeman, March 1974.

2 See “Confessions of a Rich Man” in my Let Freedom Reign (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1969) pp. 50-56. 

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