All Commentary
Wednesday, April 1, 1970

Sinking in a Sea of Buts

There were five of us, one an Austrian, at a pre-dinner get-to­gether. These friends were each as near purists in the freedom phi­losophy as one ever comes upon —which is the only reason for men­tioning one man’s dissent. His dis­sent seemed insignificant, but it’s the minor deviations and incon­sistencies of the philosophical elite—not the imitators among us —that weigh so importantly against exemplary action.

That’s the setting; here’s the talk: A free market affirmation of mine brought an immediate re­sponse from the Austrian, “I infer that you wouldn’t even approve of the Vienna Opera.” (State owned.)

“Indeed, I would not.”

“Why, Leonard!”

Following my explanation, he remarked, “I agree with you in principle, but….”

I cut him short by saying, “If you agree with me in principle, then we have nothing more to talk about.” However, in that remark I was wrong. This is precisely where the talk should begin—with the origin of his and countless other buts.

To complete the background, my friend confessed the next morn­ing, “I lay awake most of the night fretting about our discus­sion. While I still agree with you in principle, I find myself so emo­tionally committed to the Vienna Opera that in this instance I must make an exception.”

It is not my intention here to pick on socialized opera or to show how socialization of the arts is au­thoritarian or even how a free market for the arts gives consum­ers what they wish in exchange for their money. This should be apparent to anyone who has an understanding of how freedom affords justice, whereas socialism does not and cannot.¹ Rather, I wish to suggest the fallacy and the damage arising from allowing exceptions or “buts” to what one regards as right principle.

Emotionally Committed Rather than Rational

I rather like the phrasing of my friend’s excuse for his devia­tion: “emotionally committed.” By using this term, he acknowledges that his is not a rational commit­ment; for one of his understand­ing, it couldn’t possibly b. No use explaining to him how the market works—he already knows. So do countless others who approach ex­emplary status! His phrasing is valuable because it brings to light a facet of the freedom problem that has been eluding us: emo­tional rather than rational com­mitments against which rational rebuttals are fruitless.

Among those who understand the freedom philosophy and how it works in practice will be found very few, indeed, who aren’t emo­tionally committed to this or that practice of socialism. Nearly ev­ery one of these near-exemplars has his socialistic “thing.” If it isn’t the Vienna Opera, it is the Gateway Arch, this or that bit of protectionism, a subsidy that befits his convenience, or whatever. “I agree with you in principle, but….” In the first place, I cannot al­low my own pet exception to free­dom without allowing others their pet buts. Every socialistic “thing” is someone’s pet. Logically, if I break faith, then I am, by my con­duct, endorsing faithlessness on the part of everyone. For me to stand for one socialistic item, re­gardless of how emotionally com­mitted, is for me to give away the case for freedom; it is to open the sluice gates for all-out socialism. I cannot allow myself an excep­tion and deny a similar allowance to others.

Freedom, as I define it, is “no man-concocted restraints against the release of creative human energy.” This, in my view, is right in principle. Granted, a principle stands whether or not anyone stands for it. But whether or not I am a man of principle depends on whether I adhere to or abandon the principle. I cannot slightly de­fect and remain principled any more than I can slightly lie and remain truthful, or any more than I can slightly steal and remain an honest man.

Bearing in mind that we are here discussing the minor flaws of near or would-be exemplars of freedom—the actions of the philo­sophical elite—the word “slightly” suggests another error common among them. It is that we must rid ourselves of socialism but it must be disposed of gradually, that is, slightly, or by a step at a time. Were it abolished suddenly, so it is argued, the shock would be unbearable, adjustments to a free society impossible.

This argument rests upon the unwarranted assumption that, were you or I to stand for the im­mediate repeal of all socialism, then immediate repeal would fol­low. Actually, if millions of us turned against socialism and de­manded its immediate repeal, it would take years for the realiza­tion. The wheels of society turn slowly. Gradualists fail to distin­guish between principle and practice.

Whenever anyone urges the gradual repeal of laws he believes to be wrong, he has lost the thought and force behind the case for repeal. Instead, postponement is actually advocated; and post­ponement, as eternity, has no cal­endar days, no deadline—it is a never-never proposition. Gradualism has yet another flaw. It implies that what is de­clared to be wrong isn’t all wrong; otherwise, why abide it for a mo­ment? It’s like saying that we should bring the thief slowly to justice else the baker and the haberdasher will lose the malefac­tor’s trade too suddenly.

When events in society are go­ing wrong—and they appear to be—nothing less than exemplary ac­tion can set them aright, a difficult role. Any exemplar must be pre­pared for disfavor and unpopu­larity, simply because his princi­pled positions are and of necessity must be an affront to the mores, a break with the prevailing wrongs. Freedom appears to be sub­merged in a sea of buts. It is en­tirely realistic to expect these buts from persons who do no thinking for themselves. The exemplar, however, never degrades a princi­ple with a but. To do so is com­monplace, not exemplary.



¹ See my article, “Can Opera Be Grand If Socialized?” in THE FREEMAN, September, 1962.



Imagine That!

Assume you discover a way of saving the Federal government one million dollars. Assume furthermore that 999 other citizens find different ways of saving one million dollars. If the govern­ment were to accept all the proposals, the savings would amount to less than one-half of one per cent of the proposed 1970 Fed­eral budget.


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