All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1974

“Speak for Yourself, John” Revisited

Mr. Foley, a partner in Souther, Spaulding, Kinsey, Williamson & Schwabe, practices law in Portland, Oregon.

Several years ago, Leonard E. Read explained the function of the Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., in a little pamphlet entitled “Speak for Yourself, John.” As always, his message contained great merit: too many Americans recognize that the national situation is faltering badly but “they leave the task of speaking out to organizations and professionals and, by so doing, gain a false sense of discharging their social responsibility.”¹

Mr. Read’s salient message and historical title started my thinking along a different but related path. Too few individuals in modern society speak for themselves — they prefer to descant and act for others, to bind their fellow man and to restrict his choice. In so doing, they render their neighbor less of a human being.

A litany of the mundane but eternal acts of speaking for others boggles the mind when viewed in the glare of searching analysis. I band together with like-minded souls and use the coercive force of government to ban highway advertising in the form of billboards, all in the name of ecological sanity and environmental beauty. No matter that some travelers along the freeways which crisscross our nation find billboards illuminating, educational and relaxing. No concern that the farmer along the road may put the income from the signs painted on his barn to good use, like buying penicillin for his enfeebled wife, or educating his children. I choose to speak only incidentally for myself; I assume the arrogant pose of expounding for the weary traveler and the embattled farmer.

Meddlesome Neighbors

Again, I gather with my neighbors and either directly or indirectly vote to impose an income tax increase upon all persons within a given category for the laudable purpose of donating funds to the underprivileged. No matter that the coerced “donors” may prefer to choose their own charities. No concern that the recipients of the largess may feel demeaned by being made objects of welfare (one can give and receive assistance more gracefully and humanly sans bureaucracy). I speak for all — mulcted and demeaned, creative and needy — when I choose the course which I demand that they follow.

A third example from the myriad ones which abound these days: I plunder the liberty of others by prohibiting them from engaging in pursuits which appeal to them and which neither coerce nor defraud others. I close movie houses showing X-rated films to adults; I impede farmers from exceeding an arbitrary grain or beef allotment; I bar American citizens from fleeing fiat currency into gold; I demand that homeowners with septic tanks hook up to a sewer line. In each example I speak for others, and bind their actions as surely as if I chained them.

Notice that when we tax or regulate those less potent than ourselves we often do so in their name and for their own good. We assume, like little dictators, that we know better than anyone else how their lives should be lived. We are so certain that we, and only we, know what constitutes goodness, rightness, justice and truth. Biblical testimony applied an apt label to people like us: righteous. The term came to encompass the pejorative sense of self-important little creatures unaware of their own finiteness.

My words have been chosen carefully to this point: for several paragraphs I have employed the first person singular; the last paragraph I switched to the first person plural. Two reasons for this grammatical choice merit examination.

First, I use the word “I” advisedly, for no one of us lives without sin in this regard. Each of us, even the strictest libertarian, harbors secret projects within his breast which “justify” a suspension of the rules. Damn all the taxing authorities and their petty schemes, but salvage the local art museum operated at public expense because I think it is so worthwhile that it must survive and it cannot survive without coercive exactions.

The moral? Each of us must constantly guard against the very human tendency to make exceptions and each of us must seek consistency as his banner. Each erosion of freedom, no matter how slight, chips away at our vital transcendent rights, our humanness. No liberty stands alone. If I may make an exception for my art museum, you may make an exception for your import duties, and the fellow down the street may argue for a law which requires gun registration.

Second, I switched to the term “we” in order to emphasize that man tends to salve his conscience when he performs unjust and immoral lootings by committee. Somehow, it doesn’t seem so evil to deprive a citizen of his life, his liberty, or his property if “all of us” do the trick together. Yet, in final analysis, each man must bear full responsibility for the consequences of his own acts, no matter if they are performed in the name of a politburo, a committee, a corporation, or a state. Thus, I tax, spend, and destroy if I support the policies, elect the officials, hesitate to criticize, stand mute, or benefit from this organized corruption. I can’t hide under “we” for “we” is just a “bunch of I’s.”


An additional noteworthy fact appears when we deliver more than a cursory glance at the problem: we are really speaking for a neighbor alone in most instances and not for ourselves. We tend to leave ourselves out of the picture. The man advocating increased aid to dependent children most often favors the collection of funds by means of an income, sales, or property tax which will fall more heavily, or totally, upon someone else. He may possess the purest motives and the most desirable goals but he wants someone else to pay. I do not contest the right of a wealthy politician to give away his estate to needy orphans; I rather resent it when he gives away my estate against my will and raises his own salary in the process.

Perhaps we tend to forget why we should speak only for ourselves and not for others. Simply stated, not one of us possesses any innate gift which enables him to determine the destiny of another human being. Each of us can run his own life better than any other person, better than Albert Einstein, better than John Stuart Mill, better than George Washington. Picture the most brilliant and incisive individual you can conjure up; he still falls short in capacity to govern the life of another individual because of his finity, his inability to creep into the mind and soul of the other. Anyone who has ever acted as executor, trustee, guardian, attorney, or fiduciary can attest to the difficulties inherent in managing the business and personal decisions of his ward.

Consider what transpires daily when we arrogate to ourselves the power to speak for those who have not given us authority to represent them. On the one hand, one who speaks for another assumes unwarranted control over the life and liberty of his subject. At the same time, he tends to assume that he is entitled to greater worth and stature than those lowly persons who are beneath him.

On the other hand, the object of such intervention starts to feel alienated and demeaned; he becomes less of a human being because others deprive him of one essential element of humanness: the meaningful power of choice and control over one’s own life. Feeding and care of hungry derelicts may constitute a worthy goal; the acting individual gains greater meaning and lives a higher life when he helps others by virtue of his own decision than when he acts under duress and compulsion. True charity exists when I help my neighbor in need; false charity appears when my neighbor steals my property to give, like Robin Hood, to the “poor.”

Furthermore, enforced choice creates an alienation and anonymity all its own. When we purport to speak for our neighbors, we do not think of them as human beings, as friends, as relatives, but rather in an abstract sense. When I participate in these acts, I limit my brother’s freedom, not just the liberty of some faceless stranger.

In final analysis, each of us should speak for himself alone and not for others in society when there is no voluntary agreement with those others to allow us to represent them. We should be proud of our choices and willing to live with their consequences, but we should avoid at all costs the arrogance which encourages us to declaim for others.


1 Read, Leonard E., “Speak for Yourself, John” appearing as chapter 19 in the book, To Free or Freeze. (The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, 1972).  

  • Ridgway K. Foley Jr. is a litigation lawyer who is passionate about individual and economic freedom, and has authored numerous scholarly articles on related subjects.