All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 1996

The Literature of Liberty

The Reverend Mr. Opitz, a contributing editor of The Freeman, was a senior staff member of the Foundation for Economic Education until his retirement in 1992. He was book review editor of The Freeman for many years.

      In addition to editing the book review section of The Freeman, Dr. Batemarco is a marketing research manager in New York City and teaches economics at Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York.

Part I

Words were the tools of Leonard Read’s trade—spoken words, and words written. He was a gifted platform man, and starting in the mid-1930s became much in demand as a speaker before all kinds of audiences, large and small, in all parts of the nation. The Chamber of Commerce was his primary base of operation until he established the Foundation for Economic Education in 1946. Lecture engagements multiplied, and he continued to speak at FEE functions until shortly before his death, four months before his 85th birthday.

Despite Leonard’s facility with words and his knack for establishing an empathic bond with audiences, he would often say that “public speaking is just about the most useless activity I know of.” He put a speech in the same category as an advertising pitch or the spiel of the barker outside the sideshow—an inducement to buy a product or a ticket. Or it’s a morale booster or a locker room pep talk.

Leonard’s point was that a speech is little more than entertainment unless it persuades listeners to head for the library and hit the books. The main tool of the spoken word is rhetoric, which engages the imagination, the emotions, and the will. The written word, when seriously employed, also does this and much, much more. A good book aims at the intellect, relying mainly on reason and logic, using rhetorical devices only to buttress the argument, and employing examples from history and common experience to drive a point home.

An ordinary speech, after thirty or forty minutes, vanishes into thin air, except for the fragments which linger in the memory. And memory is fallible, as every speaker is painfully aware when reading the reconstruction of his remarks by a reporter, even by a reporter who is both trained and sympathetic. Once the speech is ended, a listener cannot easily refresh his memory of a specific point or a marvelous illustration that faded in an over-extended attention span.

The written word is different. A book may become a permanent possession which you can turn to again and again to better grasp the argument used by the writer to reach his conclusion—which so impressed you at the time, but which you now cannot recall! Find the right page, the matter becomes clear and the author’s point clicks into the right slot in your memory bank.

Thus did Leonard, in the course of a very successful career as a public speaker, reach the conclusion that The Book is the most successful tool of genuine education. He decided to found an institution whose major purpose would be the publishing of books expounding the freedom philosophy in the contemporary American idiom.

Some of the great classics of liberty were available in the mid-1940s: The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, The Federalist Papers, and some of the writings of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—all in eighteenth-century prose, which differs somewhat from twentieth-century American! John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty was available, but Herbert Spencer’s Man versus the State was almost impossible to obtain in the 1930s in this country. Late in that decade Jim Gipson, the dedicated publisher in Idaho, read Albert Jay Nock’s essay on Spencer and persuaded Nock to re-edit Man versus the State and provide a new introduction. The book got one appreciative review in a nationally syndicated column, but sales were meager. And then came an order for 500 copies from the Los Angeles Chamber! Thenceforth, as Leonard relates, he took cartons of the book to every meeting of the Chamber members and laid them under heavy persuasion to buy a copy of Spencer’s classic collection of essays.

In 1943 three dauntless women, friends of Leonard, wrote challenging books on their own, opposing collectivism and upholding the ideal of individual liberty. In alphabetical order they were Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom; Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine; and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. This last, a novel, has attracted a large following and—together with Ms. Rand’s later writings—constitutes the cement binding together a significant movement of our time. The God of the Machine was remaindered in 1946, but is now back in print with an excellent and comprehensive new introduction. The Discovery of Freedom was reincarnated by Henry Grady Weaver, and self-published as Mainspring. FEE bought the rights to this book, expanded the title to The Mainspring of Human Progress, and has sold about a million copies. Lane turns first to the ancient Israelites, the people of the Old Testament, who planted the first seeds of freedom. Her final section explores our own sector of the planet where those early seeds came to fullest expression in America’s founding documents and the political institutions they projected. These two sections of Lane’s book cover ground fairly familiar to most readers, but chapter ten on the Saracens is an eye-opener. Islam is one of the three great monotheistic religions; it is world-wide, and has made contributions to western art, philosophy, literature, and science, especially during the Middle Ages. The Holy Qu’ran offers spiritual guidance for all Muslims, and it also deals with the laws, morals, and customary practice incumbent in every Islamic society. It has much to teach members of other faiths as well.

The Foundation “opened for business” in mid-1946; its first publication followed shortly. This was a book on wage theory by the head of the economics department at Yale, Fred Fairchild, a founding trustee of FEE. Fairchild’s name is well remembered as one of the authors of the most widely used economic texts of the 1920s and early 1930s, Principles of Economics, in two fat blue volumes, by Fairchild, Furness, and Buck.

A series of pamphlets began to roll off FEE’s presses, on economic topics of importance: tariffs, inflation, price controls, and the like. These were staff-written, in excellent prose, timely, and attractively printed. Nothing quite like them was available and the after-market orders came in by the tens of thousands.

Leonard had accumulated a small mailing list of friends and acquaintances from his years with the Chamber, and people who had been impressed with one or more of his speeches and left a card. They responded to his modus operandi: FEE would be a small group of scholars doing independent research and writing which, after surviving peer criticism, would be issued as a pamphlet. Each publication would be sent to those on the mailing list, and to others on request. Leonard had faith that if FEE’s work was worthy, it would arouse interest, which would lead to financial support (a neat bit of symbiosis), and it worked. Leonard wrote a pamphlet with an intriguing title, “Students of Liberty.” It was part confession, along the lines of: We of the FEE staff set out to be teachers, but the more deeply we delved into the complex issues of human freedom the more we realized that we were only learners—at best! We will do our best to learn, and we invite anyone interested in this learning process to look over our shoulders and share our results. At the first indication of your interest your name will be added to our mailing list without cost or obligation. . . .

Leonard abhorred fund-raising, but he did have a low key way of informing the FEE readership that FEE depends on voluntary contributions. For example, he’d enclose a reply envelope with this typical colloquy: “How’s The Foundation doing financially, Leonard? . . . We’re doing as well as you want us to do; if you want us to do better, tuck your check in the attached reply envelope!” This seemed to work well for the first thirty or so years of FEE’s operation; but time, and the mores, change.

FEE got into the book business early on. Henry Hazlitt, a founding trustee, had written Economics in One Lesson, which was published by Harper and has been one of the best-selling economics texts ever—well over a million copies world-wide, in twelve languages, with about a third of these sold by the Foundation.

Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French politician and economic journalist. Leonard came under Bastiat’s spell, especially his essay on The Law, which carefully elucidates the proper role of government in society. The mid-nineteenth-century British translation was unsatisfactory, so a FEE staffer was asked to put The Law into modern American idiom. Dean Russell’s lively prose transformed the book into a best seller, with sales of more than half a million copies.

In the early 1950s FEE published four books: F.A. Harper’s Liberty: A Path to Its Recovery; W. M. Curtiss’s The Tariff Idea; Dean Russell’s The TVA Idea; and Read’s Government: An Ideal Concept. During this same period, FEE began to anthologize material previously published as pamphlets, (and, later included selections from The Freeman). Thus began the series of volumes, of about 400 pages each, called Essays on Liberty, volumes I through XII, published from 1952 to 1965.

Dr. Paul Poirot assumed editorship of The Freeman with the January 1956 issue. Every month for thirty years Paul Poirot sifted through a pile of manuscripts, published the essays and reviews consistent with FEE’s purpose, and wrote graciously to those whose manuscripts he rejected. Bound volumes of The Freeman have appeared annually since 1965, each carefully indexed: a veritable encyclopedia.

The literature produced by the Foundation—pamphlets, books, its journal—plus its hundreds of seminars and summer schools began to affect public opinion. Here and there a professor, or a clergyman, began to feel a kinship with our “freedom philosophy.” More and more young people began to question the collectivist consensus. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (then called the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists) began its operation from an office on FEE’s third floor, circulating FEE’s literature to college students. The word continued to spread; new journals appeared, thinkers of our persuasion began to teach and write; and the intellectual climate began to change, to the point where even some mainstream publishers produced an occasional book “of our kind.” Now FEE’s book catalogue stocks more than 400 titles! Under President Sennholz’s energetic publishing program, FEE continues to expand its own releases.

A sampling, herewith, of the current FEE catalogue:

Ludwig von Mises is acknowledged by many as the greatest economic thinker of our time; perhaps of all time. Before coming to the United States in 1940, Mises had made a name for himself with his Theory of Money and Credit, Socialism, and other volumes of like stature. After arriving on these shores he contacted Henry Hazlitt, who had reviewed Socialism in the New York Times, and with whom he had corresponded. Hazlitt introduced Mises to Leonard Read, who later enlisted Mises as an adviser for the Foundation.

Mises’ masterpiece, Human Action, was in gestation at this point, and in 1949 it was published by Yale University Press, but only after FEE had agreed to buy a sufficient number of copies to cover publication costs. The FEE catalogue lists fourteen Mises titles in addition to Human Action.

Hans Sennholz earned his doctorate under Mises at New York University, as did FEE Trustee Israel Kirzner, who is now a professor at that university. Selections from both appear in the catalogue.

Adam Smith’s 1776 The Wealth of Nations is also listed, along with two seminal eighteenth-century works of political philosophy: Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and our own classic, The Federalist Papers. During the latter part of the nineteenth century there appeared two books which, taken together, represent the fountainhead of the Austrian School: Carl Menger’s The Principles of Economics, and Bohm-Bawerk’s three-volume Capital and Interest (English translation by Sennholz).

Nobel Prize Laureate Hayek studied with Mises in Vienna, and is represented in the catalogue with The Road to Serfdom, The Constitution of Liberty, and eight other titles. Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson is there, along with eight other titles and a 350-page anthology of his writings. And there’s the late Murray Rothbard’s comprehensive Man, Economy and State in two hefty volumes.

When a revived Freeman was launched in New York in 1950, John Chamberlain was one of its three editors, and was writing most of the book reviews. The Foundation took over the journal in 1955 and moved its offices to Irvington. Chamberlain, one of the nation’s finest book critics, continued his brilliant Freeman reviews until his death in 1995. Four of his books are in the catalogue.

George Roche left the FEE staff to become President of Hillsdale College. His Legacy of Freedom was written while he was at FEE. It is carried by FEE along with eight other titles. Veteran FEE staffer Bettina Bien Greaves has spent a lot of time with her typewriter (now computer), and in research. She spelled out basic Austrian economics in two folio volumes: one, a book of theory, listing activities for classroom or personal instruction, and the second, a collection of readings. She spent years of research in completing Mises: An Annotated Bibliography. I myself, a long-time FEE staffer, am represented in the catalogue with two books dealing with those sectors of society where economics, political theory, and theology interact.

In the early days of FEE some words of Albert Schweitzer were at work in the hinterland of Leonard’s mind: “Civilization can only revive when there shall come into being in a number of individuals a new tone of mind independent of the one prevalent among the crowd and in opposition to it. . . . A new public opinion must be created privately and unobtrusively.” This was the tactic of liberty as Leonard expounded it. Behold how it works!

Leonard Read’s dream of a library of books expounding the literature of liberty has been fulfilled . . . and more. His own contribution to that library began in 1937 with his first book, The Romance of Reality. Twenty-seven more books followed, books of essays in the Emersonian vein, distilling the wisdom he had gained in a lifetime of work in the vineyard. Leonard left the body in 1983, but his inspiration lingers on in the thousands of people who live now at higher levels of achievement because of their encounters with him. —EAO

Part II

My initial encounter with The Freeman took place in the fall of 1974 when I saw an issue in the magazine display case at Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library. It was a memorable time for partisans of liberty. For us, 1974 was that darkest part of the night which comes before the dawn. The year in which Richard Nixon was forced from office for the least of his misdeeds marked the end of a decade in which government made stepping beyond its proper bounds into an art form.

The most conspicuous encroachments of that era included the welfare state programs of the so-called Great Society, the sending of half a million conscripts to fight a war having no direct bearing on our national security, spoiling the achievement of eliminating government-sanctioned constraints based on race (Jim Crow) by establishing others (affirmative action), creating government agencies like OSHA and the EPA to micromanage the affairs of private businesses, the explicit adoption of Keynesianism as a guide for management of the economy, abandonment of the last vestiges of the gold standard, and the imposition of wage and price controls.

By 1974, the effects of these policies were starting to manifest themselves: the emergence of an underclass typified by welfare dependency and unprecedented rates of illegitimacy, rising unemployment, high inflation, a plummeting dollar, and long waiting lines for gasoline. The one bright note in this rhapsody of ruination was that more fingers were pointing at government as the culprit than at any time since the reign of George III.

At this same time, Austrian Economics was starting to re-emerge after three decades of undeserved obscurity. A conference on Austrian Economics held in South Royalton, Vermont, in June 1974 was a major event in the formation of a new generation of Austrian economists. Later that year, F.A. Hayek was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics, reviving interest within the economics profession at large.

Conferences and prizes are all well and good, but neither compares with books in terms of laying the groundwork for a deep understanding of what is meant by a free society, how far we have strayed from that ideal, and how to return to it. Certainly books were what did it for me. Let me share with you some of the books that were instrumental in shaping my development as an economist and an adherent of FEE’s freedom philosophy. Although my initiation into the literature of liberty is a mere sampling of an exhaustive body, I hope other developing expositors of freedom will find this list helpful.

The first steps of my transformation from a college graduate who had but an inchoate feeling that something was wrong with the Keynesian economics he had recently learned to a full-fledged Austrian were taken under the guidance of Henry Hazlitt. I read his The Failure of the “New Economics” side-by-side and chapter-by-chapter with Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, which Hazlitt’s work so brilliantly took to task. Not only did Hazlitt make clear to me what a powerful engine of analysis Austrian economics was, he even permitted me to understand Keynes more clearly than the English inflationist’s own murky prose was capable of doing.

Another book which not only deepened my economic understanding, but also channeled it in directions far afield of anything I had heard in a university classroom was The Foundations of Modern Austrian Economics, edited by Edwin G. Dolan. This book contained the papers presented by Murray Rothbard, Israel Kirzner, and Ludwig Lachmann at the aforementioned South Royalton conference. I was already aware, through Hazlitt, that the Austrians had their own theory of business cycle. This book, with its many discussions of methodology and the role of values in economic science, set me to thinking about a whole new set of issues distinguishing the Austrian approach from the standard fare served up in most universities’ economics departments.

The case for the free market does not rest on economics alone. The moral case for capitalism is even more important, especially in a century where interventionists and socialists of every stripe have had so much success in usurping the moral high ground. Ayn Rand’s greatest appeal to me is that she refused to let them get away with it. Never much drawn to novels, I made my acquaintance with her powerful ideas through two of her books of essays: The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Her smiting of collectivism root and branch and her defense of reason versus the adulation of emotion, which so dominates our culture, made an immediate and lasting impression. She and her other contributors, especially Robert Hessen and Alan Greenspan, put a revisionist spin on such issues as antitrust legislation, the gold standard, and American economic history. I was fortunate to have read her works, and doubly fortunate to have done so when I was old enough not to have been infected by her hostility to religion and personal charity, as were many who first read her in their impressionable teen years.

Indeed, the more I understood about free market capitalism, the more I realized that it ultimately rested on the biblical injunction “Thou shalt not steal.” One author who hammered this point home to me most effectively was Frederic Bastiat. His Selected Essays on Political Economy contains such classic essays as “The Law,” “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen,” “The State,” and “Property and Plunder.” With ineluctable logic, he strips away the pretensions which delude people into believing that pillage is “less criminal because it is carried out legally and in an orderly manner,” by the state, of course.

While the religious basis of Bastiat’s moral case for capitalism was implicit, Edmund Opitz spelled out the relationship between revealed religion and economics in Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies (1970). The confusion of Christian charity with the welfare state has not only caused too many Christians to reject free-market economics, but has also caused too many free-market economists to reject Christianity. By spelling out the unbridgeable nature of the chasm between Christian charity and the welfare state, Opitz helped to reduce both types of rejections. He also showed the inadequacy of purely materialistic conceptions of the production process, citing Mises’ claim that, “[p]roduction is a spiritual, intellectual, and ideological phenomenon.”

The spiritual side of production was also emphasized by George Gilder in his influential paean to the supply side, Wealth and Poverty. While somewhat flawed in its macroeconomics, this book put the future-oriented, risk-taking behavior of the entrepreneur in its rightful place as the key to economic prosperity. The sheer creativity of entrepreneurs precludes either modeling and describing an economy accurately with the contents of the econometrician’s toolbox or of running it from the command post of the central planners. With a plethora of irresistible examples to flesh out the sources of wealth and poverty, Gilder brings to life the entrepreneurs who make prosperity possible.

I already mentioned that even in my undergraduate days, I knew that something was wrong with the Keynesian macroeconomics I was taught, even if I could not quite put my finger on precisely what. It was not until a few years later, when I was on the other side of the desk as a college professor, that I could no longer sidestep the inadequacies of standard microeconomic theory. The book which most clearly elucidated the nature of the problem to me was Friedrich Hayek’s Individualism and Economic Order. It was here that I read the clearest explanation I’ve seen to date of how the standard model of pure competition actually justifies the suppression of competition in the name of competition. His incisive treatment of the nature and role of knowledge in economic activity permitted me to understand the workings of the economy in a totally different way. His chapters on the socialist calculation debate provided a classic application of his theoretical insights.

Clearly, if these books are right, a great portion of the economics profession is wrong. And if those trained in economics can’t get it right, one might expect noneconomists to be totally at a loss. But not in the case of Paul Johnson. That journalist’s monumental history of the twentieth century, Modern Times, explains much of the tragedy that has befallen those years as the inevitable consequences of moral relativism. It is one of the few histories I have ever read which embraces sound economics. Finding his chapter on the depression of the 1930s to lean heavily on Murray Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression was a pleasant surprise. In laying bare the ties that link socialism and fascism, in showing how Third World despots ravaged their homelands while pinning blame on a West only too eager to plead guilty, and even in rehabilitating the tattered image of President Warren G. Harding, who with seventy years of hindsight turns out to have been a surprisingly tough act to follow, Johnson is at once informative, entertaining, and iconoclastic.

While Johnson looks at some of the root causes of this century’s worldwide plunge into statism, Robert Higgs takes a different approach. He wields public choice theory with consummate skill to show the opportunistic nature of the state in Crisis and Leviathan. His theme of government growth feeding upon crisis helps us to understand not only how government arrogates ever more power to itself, but also why it seldom relinquishes that power once the precipitating crisis is over. The historical record he thus analyzes illustrates this process occurring regardless of the party in power. In so doing, it makes clear how much more important are the similarities which bind such presidential pairs as Hoover and Roosevelt and Johnson and Nixon than the differences which distinguish them.

Of course, saying that there are tendencies for the government to grow is not the same as saying that such growth is automatic. Government cannot grow without many people choosing for it to grow. The recent demise of various socialist regimes around the world indicates more and more people choosing for it not to grow. In this country, the headlong rush to grant ever more power to the state has been, if not stopped, at least slowed. Perhaps the ideas in the aforementioned books have had some consequences which were not unintended. More people, including some in positions of power, seem to possess sound economic ideas, strong convictions regarding the sheer immorality of the redistributive apparatus of the state, and the ability to foresee the inevitable results of the state extending its tentacles into myriad activities where it does not belong than was the case in that pivotal year of 1974. All of the books whose influence I have cited have helped contribute to that outcome.

And the Foundation for Economic Education has helped by disseminating these books and others. Henry Hazlitt was a founding trustee of FEE, which published the most recent edition of his Failure of the “New Economics.” The Foundations of Austrian Economics features contributions by Israel Kirzner and Murray Rothbard. Kirzner long served as a trustee of the Foundation and has contributed many articles to The Freeman over the years, while Rothbard has also had a number of pieces grace the pages of FEE’s monthly. The translation of Bastiat’s Selected Essays in Political Economy that I read was published by FEE. Edmund Opitz, author of Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies, served many years on the Foundation’s staff; and Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan’s author, is a contributing editor of The Freeman. While neither Gilder, Hayek, Johnson, nor Rand had any official relationship with FEE, those works of theirs which I mentioned are currently carried in the FEE book catalogue.

May FEE’s next fifty years build upon the framework it has laid in its first fifty. —RB

  • Robert Batemarco teaches economics on an adjunct basis at Fordham University and Manhattan College. He was formerly book review editor of The Freeman. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.
  • The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz (1914-2006) was a Congregationalist minister, a FEE staff member, who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. A man of wide reading and high culture, Opitz was for many years on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. He was one of the few voices in the 1950s through the 1990s calling for an integrated understanding between economic liberty and religious sensibility. He was the founder and coordinator of the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers.