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Friday, March 1, 1974

Strive for the Simple Life

“I love a life whose plot is simple.” – Thoreau

I, too, love a life whose plot is simple. However, my idea as to what’s simple differs from that of the great naturalist and essayist, Henry David Thoreau. Doubtless, he had in mind the quietude of Walden Pond and its seclusion from society. And this is what nearly everyone regards as the simple life.

My great-grandfather, born during the founding of America, was the first settler in Shiawassee County, Michigan. There was no “society” to interfere with his comings and goings — the nearest village being miles away — and except for the prying eyes of foraging Indians he and his family hacked it out alone. According to the popular definition, his life was indeed simple, far more so than Thoreau’s.

What, really, is the simple life? Unless we settle that question, we will be plagued by a troublesome, socialistic cliche: “The more complex the society, the more government control we need.” The result, eventually, will be out-and-out dictatorship as intricacies in society are used as an excuse for total government. Is it not true that most people in today’s world think of my great-grandfather’s life as simple and of mine as complex? Actually, it is the other way around. You and I really live the simple life, and this is the point I wish to clarify. If, as I believe, man’s purpose is to grow, evolve, emerge along the lines of his uniqueness, it follows that he must emerge from that poverty which attends those who are forced to become a Jack-of-all-trades. My great-grandfather’s unique talent might have been musical composition, or he might have become a distinguished naturalist and essayist, as did Thoreau — for all I know, or for all he knew! He, so preoccupied in doing nearly everything for himself, never had a chance to discover his uniqueness; he was imprisoned by the lack of opportunities to discover himself.

Then and Now 

I reflected on the differences between my great-grandfather’s and my way of life on a recent flight from New York to Los Angeles. Think how complex it would have been for him to get from Shiawassee County to such a destination! Enormous preparations, hardships, and several months of dangerous travel! Me? Perfectly simple! All I did was to board a plane, debarking five hours later.

His wife had to weave and sew the clothes they wore — so complex a series of operations that only a very few in America today have any idea of how this is done. My case? My suit was tailored in Hong Kong — 12,000 miles away —the shirt in Madrid, the shoes in Rome. Complex? Indeed not; so simple that all I did was to sign three checks.

Came the luncheon at an altitude of 39,000 feet. Among the delectable dishes was fresh salmon from the Pacific Northwest and broiled in the plane’s kitchen. My part in this wonderful fare? As simple as waving a friendly greeting to a passing stranger! As to my ancestor, the complexities would have been too profound and numerous for him even to imagine.

Salmon still fresh after 3,000 miles in transit! A jet plane never entered his head, or that broiler, or the coffee brewed from beans from another part of the world. My life is far more simple, much less complex, than his.

Gaining a More Simple Life Through Social Cooperation 

How to explain this evolution toward civilization — from the complex to the simple life? How does one accomplish it? Instead of continuing as a recluse, leading a solitary, secluded existence, running away from others, man becomes civilized by getting into society, that is, by letting others with their unique talents come to one’s aid. Let them do their countless things, which permits me to do my “thing.” We need only remember that man is at once an individualistic and a social being, the latter no more warranting oversight than the former. Actually, the individualistic side of any person can never be fully realized except as the social side is understood, embraced, and skillfully exercised. Think of the things —literally millions of them — which are beyond your or my competence but by which you and I prosper.

Next, how shall this way of life in its ideal form be defined? I hesitate to use one apt expression, “social cooperation,” for the reason that most statists, be they Russians or Americans, apply it to their coercive devices. Their command to “cooperate by doing as I say” is a contradiction in terms. Cooperate means “to act or work together with another or others for a common purpose.” The decrees and edicts of authoritarians reflect strictly their own, not common, purposes. In any common cause, the working together has to be private, personal, voluntary. In a word, let each do whatever he pleases so long as it is peaceful. What, then, do we have in common? Each pursuing his uniqueness!

That would be my ideal of freedom: No man-concocted restraints against the release of creative human energy. More precisely, I refer to the free market, private ownership, limited government philosophy with its moral and spiritual antecedents. To me, this is but an ancient, moral axiom —the Golden Rule — expressed in politico-economic terms. You and I can best help each other by tending to our own knitting, pursuing our own uniqueness, respecting the rights of each to the fruits of his own labor, and freely exchanging when and if mutually advantageous — not an iota of coercion! Does this not clarify what we mean when referring to the freedom philosophy?

The Miracle of the Market 

We have had in the past few decades a remarkable demonstration of the simple life. Yet, few have taken any note of this miracle of simplification — which brings the wealth of the world to our doorstep; they are blind to the wonders they have been experiencing. This makes all the more extraordinary Lord Tennyson’s prophetic vision of more than a century ago:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see, Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonders that would be; Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails, Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales.

So let us understand and enjoy the simple life — its exclusively voluntary nature, and the unimaginable wisdom which attends the unfettered release of creative energy. Otherwise, if we remain unaware of its blessings, our blindness threatens its termination and promises instead a descent into the complex life of the primitive. For it is an observed fact that the complexities are alarmingly on the increase.

In every instance, the complexities are composed of coercive intrusions by dictocrats in and out of public office. The excuse, of course, is that the intricacies are now too enormous to operate without dictocratic management; these people actually believe that they possess the capabilities needed to make things function. Really, the intricacies are no more numerous than before; all that has happened is a fantastic and wonderful expansion in specialization — division of labor — that is, each to his own uniqueness. This, in turn, has made all of us interdependent. We have here a flowering of the simple life, the continuation of which requires a moral conduct, namely, an observation and practice of the Golden Rule — the way it should be!

Recall that no one knows how to make an ordinary wooden pencil, let alone an automobile or a jet plane. But, then, no one understands a cell, a molecule, an atom. You name it! Yet, the dictocrats do not know that they know not. In their behavior they attempt to go beyond their finite minds, which is to say that they are out of their minds, regardless of how brilliant they may appear. It is this coercive intrusion, this unreasonable force, that threatens man’s survival.

The way to strive for the simple life is to gain an awareness that the wisdom implicit in its observation is trillions of times greater than exists in you or me or any other discrete individual. Every discovery, invention, insight, intuitive thought, think-of-that since the dawn of human consciousness — the overall luminosity — flows to your and my benefit if we can avoid its nemesis: the complexities of coercive intrusions.

Why should we lose that highest form of moral and economic life —each to his own uniqueness —which we have had the privilege of sampling! Truly, it is a life whose plot is simple.  

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