The Digitization of Leonard Read

The collected works of FEE's founder are now online

The collected works of FEE’s founder are now on FEE.org! We are super excited about this development because it gives new and permanent life to some of the wisest writings on freedom you will ever read.

Here is the background.

At the height of the New Deal, and four years before US entry into World War II, a new intellectual voice appeared on the national scene. His name was Leonard E. Read, head of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. His book was Romance of Reality. It was a large book on economics published by Dodd, Mead, & Co., a prestigious publishing house, and it came out in 1937, just as hope that government planning would end the Depression was waning.

Read’s approach to economics was different from almost anything else you could get your hands on at the time. It completely dismissed FDR’s New Deal in all its forms, but it went much further. It rejected all forms of control of people’s right to peacefully create, bargain, and associate. It saw government intervention, which he saw as the policy application of the principle of violence, as contributing nothing positive but only draining human energy from the project of creating prosperity.

It was a defense of free enterprise on different grounds than most people would expect. It sounded different, and it felt different. There was nothing “reactionary” about it. His prose was humane, with an emphasis on the future. His focus was on ethics. It traced the roots of the national problem to a failure of imagination. His proposed reform was not a political program but an intellectual and spiritual enlightenment.

“The United States, today, is the wealthiest nation all history has ever known,” he wrote, “not because government created the wealth but because, during the past three centuries, several hundred millions of individuals, working competitively and cooperatively, have made contributions to a startling aggregate of wealth. They have left as their heritage to succeeding generations an amazing array of productive farms, efficient factories, unrivaled transportation and communication facilities, homes, office buildings and other essential instruments to future welfare.”

In this realm of economics, he said, we find true romance, the embodiment of the many facets of relationships people develop with each other, even those whom we do not know. But he warned that this progress cannot continue so long as bureaucracies were on the march against human creativity.

“Changes, almost too extensive to comprehend, have already overtaken America,” he said. “The people have voted for stability and security as though voting for these age-long desires would automatically result in their fulfilment. They have, willingly and gleefully, unburdened themselves of individual responsibility and tossed it, en masse, into a centralized, authoritarian government from which the millennium is supposed to emerge.”

His answer was that people should reject this path for themselves and for everyone else too. He proposed not a political crusade but a new crusade for wealth and human well-being. It would be focussed on learning, and it would be driven by intellectual leaders together with principled merchants and other professionals. It would put its trust in ideas and inspiration. It would exhibit a deep love of liberty and a faith in the capacity of a free people to solve their own problems rather than depend on a mighty state.

Romance of Reality appeared nearly a decade before that great moment in 1946 when Leonard Read would take the dramatic step of founding the Foundation for Economic Education. This was the realization of the dream he mapped out in this marvelous 1937 book. FEE was the nation’s first market-oriented think tank. In the postwar environment, FEE became a sanctuary for dissident European intellectuals like Ludwig von Mises, a platform for journalists like Henry Hazlitt, and a publishing venue for emergent geniuses like Milton Friedman.

Read took his mission very seriously. His institution brought the wisdom of Frederic Bastiat to Americans. He put into print new books by previously unknown scholars. The periodical the Freeman has inspired many generations with a vision of freedom and the economic, legal, and ethical principles of a free society. As for Mises’s own books, FEE made the publication of Human Action possible by buying nearly the entire first printing. Indeed, it was FEE that paved the way for everything that followed.

Throughout all his years at FEE, Leonard remained an active writer and intellectual force. His most famous essay on the division of labor, “I, Pencil,” is a timeless classic, but his writings include so much more, on every topic you can imagine. His works were pored over by a generation of businesspeople and professionals who so badly needed inspiration in dark times. He provided it with his continuing themes: celebrating human creativity, warning against all forms of control, calling for individual improvement as a path toward freedom, eschewing politics as a workable solution, and pursuing the path of peace in all aspects of life.

The result was a small library of books. You will find remarkable insights here, such as this passage on the alternative to government control:

The alternative to violence is love. Love, as here used, refers to the application of the kindly virtues in human relations such as tolerance, charity, good sportsmanship, the right of another to his views, integrity, the practice of not doing to others what you would not have them do to you, and other attributes which result in mutual trust, voluntary cooperation, and justice.

As you read these works, you will find something striking. They don’t feel dated. Their themes speak to us today just as much as when they were written, which is quite the accomplishment for any writer in our fast-changing times.

Why is this? I suspect it has something to do with the purity of his vision. Read sought only the best for human community: no violence, no malice, no acts of vengeance, no impositions of anyone’s grand plan. He trusted freedom, which is another way of saying that he trusted people to work out a beautiful life for themselves.

In that same spirit, very much alive at our beloved institution, FEE is very pleased to present:

The Complete Works of Leonard Read