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The Biggest Thing That Separates Authoritarians From Supporters of Freedom

Leonard Read reminds us of how large the chasm is between utopian promises authoritarians offer and what they actually have the wisdom to provide.

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In today’s media, we are constantly being told of “new and improved” impositions that are needed to replace the “old hat” ideas of freedom and open competition. But the visions held by these proponents could hardly be further from reality.

Leonard Read wrote of this decades ago, in “Freedom: A New Vision,” Chapter 2 of his 1975 Castles in the Air. While the trend was not as pronounced then as it has become, Read’s vision is still worth serious reflection today, as it is much clearer and far more promising than authoritarianism disguised as utopianism.

Why speak of freedom as a vision? Freedom…is…an ideal way of life more ardently to be hoped for than seriously expected in our time.

Why the adjective “new”?…our opponents…continually refer to this way of life as “old hat” or words to that effect! Troubles in society, brought on by authoritarian mischief, they lay to freedom—quite innocently in most cases and for the reason that they have no understanding of what is meant by freedom in its higher sense.

But let us be charitable; how many on our side of the fence have been or are clear in their own minds about freedom, and manifest it in their actions?

The truth is that freedom as it has been approximated, first in England and then in the U.S.A., is the newest and most remarkable politico-economic achievement in the world’s history—enjoyed for five or six generations at most. The structures for this free way of life were erected in 1776: the simultaneous appearance of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and the Declaration of Independence.

The new “progressive” ideas in the air all around us are actually old, regressive, tyrannical and tired. The fact that their proponents don’t even know that tells us how much we trust we can put in their knowledge and judgement.

The issue is between two opposed ways of life. Our opponents’ way is the older, as old as mankind: authoritarianism in its numerous forms…which are contrary to natural law and prevent life from flowing. The newer is freedom, featuring unfixed, improving, flowing, creative concepts.

Only freedom allows us the possibility of growing to achieve our fullest potential.

Anyone who believes as I do that man’s earthly purpose is growth in awareness, perception, consciousness, has no choice but to side with individual liberty–freedom–and to look with disfavor on all forms of authoritarianism.

Human improvement or growth stems from an exercise of the faculties…Exercise is possible only as we are free to work on our individual selves and is diminished to the extent that we are worked over by others.

Growth without liberty, that is, without the freedom to exercise our faculties and to discover our creative potentialities, is out of the question. Given the goal of individual growth, authoritarianism is an utterly absurd way of life.

The freedom philosophy…differs from most philosophies in that it does not prescribe how any individual should live his life…It allows freedom for each to do as he pleases–live in accord with his own uniqueness as he sees it–so long as the rights of others are not infringed.

This way of life commends no controls external to the individual beyond those which a government limited to keeping the peace and invoking a common justice might impose. Each individual acts on his own authority and responsibility…It has nothing in it at all that calls on me or the government to run your life.

The immense personal and social benefits of freedom mean it should be the touchstone—the ideal—toward which we consistently orient ourselves.

Unless we have the ideal in our minds, we have no compass, no way of knowing in which direction our efforts should be pointed. Knowing the ideal is the first step in down-to-earth practicality.

I define the ideal—freedom in a refined state—as no man-concocted restraints against the release of creative human energy…its practice an aspiration. In the economic realm we call it the free market.

To understand the ideal of freedom, we must know not only what it is, but what it is not.

Not at all surprisingly, most people think of the free market as private enterprise. This, however, is not what we mean. All sorts of wholly objectionable enterprises are private: piracy… embezzlement, hi-jacking…[The same is true for] all governmental interventions that favor some and injure others.

The free market is so little trusted because so few are aware of what it is. Thinking of ourselves as if we were a free people leads us mistakenly to conclude that our present hodge-podge of intervention is a manifestation of the free market. Consequently, we imagine that a free and self-responsible people would behave no better than do the majority of us today. But what we mean and what most people think we mean are poles apart!

Read then turns to an interesting analogy between the light spectrum and the political spectrum.

Political-economic philosophy…is loosely analogous to the light spectrum…substitute the long and short arms of government for the long and short wavelengths. At the extreme left we observe the long arm of government reaching into nearly every phase of human existence–authoritarianism…Then as we move to the right on this spectrum, the arms of government become shorter, reaching into fewer and fewer facets of life. Finally…comparable to the ultraviolet lying just beyond the visible spectrum–we would find the arms of government so short that they could not reach into and have control over a single creative activity–no more than a peace-keeping arm of society. This ideal can only be imagined…beyond the right end of the visible spectrum where schemes to manage the lives of others would be nonexistent.

To understand why freedom holds out the prospect for the greatest possible human growth and development, Read focuses on its ability to utilize knowledge that not one person has by him- or herself, including those who would dictate to others based on the minuscule knowledge they have.

The market possesses a wisdom that does not exist, even remotely, in any discrete individual. For instance, because you cannot imagine how mail would be delivered ever so much more efficiently than now if turned over to the market, never…let your faith falter by reason of your infinitesimal know-how. To claim that the free market has a wisdom a million or billion times your own is a gross understatement.

From whence comes this enormous knowledge that does not remotely exist in any person…the miracle of the market…when men are free…What we must bear in mind is that the sole generative force at the human level stems from individual human faculties: intuition, insight, inventiveness, perception, awareness, consciousness, and the like.

To the extent that the free market prevails, to that extent is economic life featured by free entry and competition…In addition to the heritage of the ages…these features enormously stimulate and bring to the fore the genius potentially existing among our contemporaries. Thus, it is possible for us to be graced not only by the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the past but, also, by the considerably untapped ingenuity of the present. The best in everyone is brought forth when the best is required to succeed. The free market…works its wonders simply because the generative capacity of countless millions has no external force standing against its release.

Given the wisdom we can access and the growth in our own wisdom we can generate only by way of freedom and the incentives it creates, Read concludes by reminding us of how large the chasm is between the many utopian promises authoritarians offer and what they actually have the wisdom to provide us.

Authoritarianism…presupposes nonexistent gods, that is, politicians who naively believe that they know how to steer mankind aright and, thus, can run your, my, and everyone else’s life to humanity’s advantage…They haven’t taken the very first step in wisdom, namely, achieving an awareness of how little they know. While no wizard among them all can even make a pencil, each has little doubt that mankind, if made in his infinitesimal image, would be improved and that all of our millions of requirements would better prosper under his direction. Prosper? Preposterous!

The free market, on the other hand, is attuned to the little we know, it does not presuppose a nonexistent omniscience. Instead…the needed knowledge waits to be drawn upon. Everyone’s life is free to flow and grow–life’s fulfillment a possibility for each human being.

Freedom in this higher sense is indeed a vision; it is a castle in the air under which we are well advised to put foundations.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).