All Commentary
Saturday, May 1, 1971

Speak for Yourself, John


Millions of Americans realize that our politico-economic situa­tion is askew. Yet, few are speak­ing their minds, that is, consulting the conscience and then saying openly and honestly what they truly think. They leave the task of speaking out to organizations and professionals and, by so doing, gain a false sense of discharging their social responsibility. My pur­pose here is to examine this error.

The limited role of organiza­tions, when delving into politico-economic affairs, is rarely recog­nized by their supporters and all too seldom by the persons in charge of operations. Unless these limitations are known, such in­stitutions must head down the wrong road—their efforts ren­dered useless. Happily, the poten­tialities for usefulness are tre­mendous, once the limitations are known.

An experience may help to illus­trate my thesis. I had been asked to a southern city to lecture to some fifty invited guests. Among them was a brilliant, hard-headed business executive—more or less unfamiliar with our efforts. As the three-hour lecture and discussion session drew to a close, he asked in all sincerity, “I am sympathetic with your philosophy, but what is it you really want?”

My reply: “You!”

Obviously puzzled, he asked, “You mean you are not looking for money?”

“No. This is not essentially a money problem but one of brains—if I may use such loose phras­ing.”¹

“Well, you can buy brains with money, can’t you?”

“Not the kind I am talking about. The intellectual qualities required to cope with the social problems we have been discussing can no more be coaxed or cajoled into existence by money than can friendship or patriotism.”

Overspecialization

This executive, dedicated to his own business and typical of count­less thousands of highly positioned individuals, is carrying the prac­tice of specialization a bit too far. He has been assuming that the politico-economic waywardness of the U.S.A. can be corrected with­out him, that organizations can be structured to do the job, that he can give them some financial support, that there is nothing else to it! His only responsibility is check writing.

When financial backers believe this, and when those who establish and operate organizations enter­tain notions that they are cast in the role of helmsmen to steer the ship of state, the inevitable result is failure. Better that there be neither supporters nor organiza­tions for this wholly unrealistic view of how improvement can be achieved. This assessment is why I replied “You” to the business executive’s question. For it is you, whoever you are, not organiza­tions, to whom we must look for solutions to politico-economic problems.

First, let us recognize what or­ganizations cannot do. My critical conclusion stems from intimate experiences spanning 44 years: secretary of two small chambers of commerce, a decade with the National Chamber, general man­ager of the country’s largest cham­ber, a brief spell as executive vice-president of the National Indus­trial Conference Board, and the past 25 years as the operating head of FEE. I have learned about the limitation of organizations the hard way: organizational voices broadcast to the public or at legis­latures go pretty much unheeded, claims to the contrary notwith­standing. Might as well howl at the moon.2

There is reason aplenty for the indifference and apathy that greets organizational pronouncements. Organizations designed to deal with the politico-economic realm are typed. They may or may not truly stand for any particular interest or doctrine, but they at least pretend to do so. This has been said of FEE no less than of ADA. Fence straddlers or oppo­nents, the ones these eager and misdirected organizations “try to reach,” heed them not. Why? Be­cause these organizations are sus­pected of having an axe to grind!

There is, moreover, a compel­ling reason why pronouncements ground out by committee proce­dures—a common organizational feature—deserve no hearing. Hav­ing, on one occasion, 200 commit­tees in my organization, leads me to share the harsh criticism lev­eled at the process by Leo Tolstoy:

From the day when the first mem­bers of councils placed exterior au­thority higher than interior, that is to say, recognized the decision of men united in councils as more im­portant and more sacred than reason and conscience; on that day began the lies that caused the loss of mil­lions of human beings and which continue their unhappy work to the present day.

Mindless Organizations

Reason and conscience originate in and find expression only in and through you or other discrete in­dividuals. Committee resolutions or organizational positions, on the other hand, are the outcroppings of men united in council. As a rule, they represent whatever com­promises are necessary to gain majority acceptance. These com­promises are but stabs in the dark aimed at a position not too dis­agreeable and, in consequence, they form an amalgam or pot­pourri substantially divorced from reason and conscience.3

Once we recognize that our so­cial waywardness stands no chance of improvement, let alone correc­tion, unless reason and conscience come to the rescue, and when we see that these qualities of the in­tellect have their source only in you, then it logically follows that you must speak for yourself. Not FEE! Not any organization! YOU!

Just before I began this trea­tise, two illuminating examples of you in action came to my atten­tion. The first was from a college president, a man of unusual in­sight and understanding. He sent along an article of his that was about to be published. In this ar­ticle he had broken his silence on our politico-economic dilemma; this was an honest, forthright ex­pression of his insights and re­actions. Integrity glowed through every word of it! Here we have reason and conscience applied —worth more than all the committee resolutions ever written. Who knows! Perhaps others will follow his exemplary conduct. If they do, we will witness a turn toward a sound economy.

The second has to do with a cliché that has been thrown in our face for the past 40 years: “If socialism is so bad, as you folks claim, why does it work so effec­tively in Sweden?” We have known all the time that socialism has never worked in Sweden; indeed, we know that it can never work anywhere. But try to prove it! It took a you to do it, in this in­stance an individual on the other side of the ideological fence. The celebrated Swedish socialist, Gun­nar Myrdal, remarked, “The or­ganized welfare state has gone mad.”4

You Must Decide

Suppose FEE had been on TV all of these years and had repeat­edly broadcast these very words. Effect? Probably the opposite of that desired. But let the renowned Dr. Myrdal make the acknowledg­ment and we can cite an authority on how Swedish socialism is not working.

Having, at least to my satisfac­tion, settled upon you with your reason and conscience as the sole source of any effective change for the better, it is plain why we at FEE have, over the years, turned a deaf ear to the countless pleas publicly to speak for you. Over and over again: go on TV, speak over the radio, get your works in the Reader’s Digest, sell the masses, reform the heretics, set the politicians right, and so on! And we say in reply, “Speak for yourself, John!”

Well, where does this kind of an attitude leave FEE? What re­mains for us to do? Actually, a task bigger than we can ever ade­quately perform, a field with pos­sibilities and challenges unlimited. What can that be? Rendering a service to YOU!

Division of labor—specializa­tion—does, in fact, apply here but caution must be exercised lest per­sonal responsibility be lost in some subdivision. Responsibility for a society featuring freedom of choice—freedom to create, to produce, to exchange, the right to the fruits of one’s own labor, limit­ed government, along with moral and spiritual antecedents—can no more appropriately be delegated than can responsibility for self. Your society is no less your prob­lem than is your own life and wel­fare, thus your social responsibil­ity can be discharged only by thinking for self and speaking for self. The requirement, I repeat, is you!

What goes on in society—good, bad, or indifferent—has its origin in you. It follows that you must assume responsibilities for what­ever delegating is done. What sort of thing can you appropriately as­sign to others? Not your thinking—which is nontransferable —nor your speaking—which should re­flect your convictions. Such as­signment is alienation, a divorce­ment from one’s own responsibili­ties. What then? Not you or I or anyone else can ever go it alone in the freedom philosophy, for it is as broad as wisdom and deep as understanding. Thus, everyone of us requires helpers. It is there­fore appropriate to delegate to others such chores as befits one’s own requirements: the gathering of facts and ideas, searching for the best there is in ideals and moral goals, and related aids. In a word, it is the leg work, as we say, that can appropriately be del­egated, as when one selects a tutor or teacher.

A Service Role

FEE’s role is of this sort, that is, FEE is not an institutional spokesman nor an organization trying to “reach” anyone. Rather, ours is, one might say, no more than an agency offering such serv­ices as you may think of value in your own search and personal growth. This and nothing more!

Once we who labor within such institutional frameworks realize our humble place in the total scheme of things, then countless potentialities burst into view. The opportunities for achievement can now be seen as limitless which is by way of saying that the pur­suit of excellence is a road with­out end. Instead of playing the utterly futile game of trying to “reach” others, we can concen­trate on getting enough into our own mentalities and improving our services to the point where others will reach for us. And, by the way, we have a fair means of measuring how well we are doing: the extent to which we can, at any given time, look up to those who once looked up to us. The excel­lence of a teacher can be judged by the students who finally excel him. You find it useful to reach for us now and, who knows, we may soon be reaching for you!

All of this is more than likely when enough individuals heed the admonition, “Speak for yourself, John.”

Foot Notes

1Of course, organizations have to be financed. I, however, believe no more in “looking” for money than “reaching” for converts. If the work is needed, and well enough done, adequate financing will be volunteered by those who value the efforts.

2 Some readers, observing the enor­mous influence of labor unions, for in­stance, may think this conclusion in error. Merely bear in mind that my re­marks are directed only to the process of advancing enlightenment, not to the techniques of coercion, violence, warfare. In the latter case, the more troops, the more likely is “victory.”

3 For a treatise of this, see the chap­ter, “Appoint a Committee” in my Any­thing That’s Peaceful (Irvington-on­Hudson, N. Y.: The Foundation for Eco­nomic Education, Inc., 1964), pp. 89-107.

4 See “White Collar Strike Forces Swedes to Question Welfare State’s Fu­ture.” The New York Times, February 26, 1971, p. 3


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