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Wednesday, May 1, 1996

The Case for the Free Market

Mr. Chamberlain (1903-1995) wrote the lead book review for The Freeman for more than thirty-five years.

Every fourth year we get involved in the frenzied madness of a presidential election. Watching the quadrennial show, Leonard E. Read correctly estimates that politicians are powerless of themselves to change things. The politico, when he is running for office, is a mere resultant of forces. The way to move society on its axis is not to play politics. It is to persuade teachable people to think as you do. and the best way to do this is to be a good personal living example of the philosophy you hope to spread.

Leonard Read is not running for office, so he can freely say what some people would describe as the damnedest things. His book, Anything That’s Peaceful: The Case for the Free Market wouldn’t get him through the New Hampshire primary. He believes that government should be limited to such things as keeping the peace, preventing fraud, dispensing justice, and fending off attacks by foreign powers. He says it is violent coercion to force Social Security on anybody. He thinks that Robin Hood, who advocated taking money from one set of people to give it to another, should properly be called Robin Hoodlum. He argues that any type of government economic intervention forces human energy into shapes that are marketable only at the end of the police club. He doesn’t consider that people think well in committee. He refuses to vote when the choice is between two trimmers. He challenges the idea that the government is peculiarly fitted to run the post office, or to maintain schools, or to plan the coming of either a good or great society. In short, his opinions are such that he couldn’t be elected to the office of dog catcher, let alone win a state primary.

Nevertheless, Mr. Read, by insisting that the state should not intervene to keep people from doing anything at all that’s peaceful, is beginning to shake up American society as no political figure has ever managed to do. I know this because I have witnessed the come-back of the freedom philosophy over the past twenty years. Mr. Read began in the nineteen forties as a still, small voice. He had a few accomplices then. There were a couple of emigrant economists of the Vienna neo-liberal school taking issue with the dominant Keynesian hosts. Three women—Ayn Rand, Isabel Paterson, and Rose Wilder Lane—were wondering what had gotten into men to make them think that the way to release energy was to deliver everybody to the dictates of a public planning authority. The columnists, radio commentators, and magazine writers who believed in economic freedom could be counted on a couple of hands. When the writer of this review teamed up with Henry Hazlitt and Suzanne La Follette to start The Freeman, he was told by an old friend, his first night city editor, that he had better consult a psychiatrist, for surely he was sick, sick, sick.

All of this was scarcely a generation ago. Mr. Read still sounds extreme to the conventional way of thinking when he says that education would be improved if there were no tax-supported public schools. But private schools throughout America have started to come back in recent years with a rush.

Mr. Read doesn’t think you necessarily have to forbid socialistic enterprise by law to restore freedom. Take this matter of the federal monopoly of mail delivery, for instance. Mr. Read is satisfied that if the law were changed to permit private corporations to undertake the delivery of mail, and if an unsubsidized Post Office were to be put on an accounting basis comparable to that forced on private industry, some ingenious free enterprisers would soon compete the government out of the mail business. For what, so Mr. Read asks, is so difficult about delivering mail? The telephone company, in transporting the human voice three thousand miles from New York to San Francisco, does something that takes much more ingenuity. And, so Mr. Read adds, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company showed a profit of $22 billion when the Post Office was losing $10 billion.

That the climate has changed since Mr. Read, with a handful of confederates, started to preach the freedom philosophy is proved by the lip service that is now being paid to libertarian generalities. A candidate for vice president resigns as co-chairman of the socialistic Americans for Democratic Action and makes a sudden appearance before a number of important businessmen to assure them that he isn’t anti-business. An occupant of the White House invites a prominent publisher to Washington to assure him he is all for self-made men. The TVA may still be regarded as sacrosanct, even when it burns coal to add to the electricity that is made by use of water power, but it is getting tougher to sell huge river development schemes to the public.

During the twenty years I’ve known him, Mr. Read has not, to the extent of my knowledge, ever argued for or against any specific Congressional bill as such. He has not attacked or supported specific men for specific public office. This is not because he values tax exemption for his foundation, for it is part of his fundamental creed. He can’t have voted very often in his lifetime, for he believes that it is just as wrong to vote for a small-scale trimmer as it is to vote for a big one. As this country reckons things, he is the completely nonpolitical man. He even argues that we might do better if we were to choose our Congressmen for non-recurring terms by lot, for by such a method we would get representatives who would have no stake in buying voters with their own money. Such obliviousness to the emotions that are unleashed in most breasts in a campaign year is a marvel to behold.

Yet I do not doubt that Mr. Read will one day be a chief architect of a change in this country that will have a profound effect on our philosophy of government. He is a positive force, and, being such, he shapes the adaptation of other people without buttonholing them, or demanding that they vote for this or that bill or this or that man.

I say this with profound admiration, even though I have often, in my lifetime, voted for the man whom I have regarded as the “lesser evil.” I have always been hopeful that a “lesser evil” might, in office, be more likely than a “greater evil” to see the light on the Road to Damascus. Almost invariably I have been disappointed, yet I persist in coming back for more. But contact with Mr. Read has done much to make me serene in the face of continual disappointment in the electoral process. Even “greater evils” can be forced, by changes in the intellectual climate, to slow the pace toward socialist goals. And when the natural listeners and followers in the middle begin to listen to the intellectuals of the right instead of the intellectuals of the left, even the greatest of “evils” will begin a new career of trimming in the right direction.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.