White Magic

Unimaginable Results Flow from Leaving Others Free to Act Creatively

Editor’s Note:

To mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of FEE founding president Leonard E. Read (1898–1983), The Freeman will publish a classic Read essay each month under the series heading “Anything That’s Peaceful.”

Leonard Read was born on a farm in Michigan. At 19, his formal education was interrupted by his entry into World War I as an airplane mechanic with the American Expeditionary Forces. After the war, he sold insurance, worked as a cashier, then opened his own produce business. In 1927, he began a career in Chamber of Commerce work as a secretary of one of the country’s smallest chambers. He was later manager of the Western Division of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States for ten years. In 1939, he became general manager of the world’s largest chamber in Los Angeles. His work her won him the executive vice-presidency of the National Industrial Conference Board. He left the NICB in 1946 to organize FEE.

As a tribute to Mr. Read in the September 1988 issue of The Freeman stated, “It is difficult to measure the full influence of Leonard Read. He wrote more than two dozen books and hundreds of articles, delivered over a thousand lectures, and changed more lives than any of us ever will realize. In trying to assess his personal impact, perhaps it is best to say that Leonard Read taught us what is important. Principles are important. Moral philosophy is important. And, as he showed by the example of his own life, courage and an abiding faith in one’s convictions are important.”

This month’s selection, excerpted from the January 1956 issue of The Freeman, extols the good “magic” peacefully wrought by free people and free markets.

Each person tends to satisfy his desires along the lines of least resistance. Those who really believe outright thievery or spoliation (political plunder) to be immoral are thereby bound to reject such so-called easy means to their ends. Why? They recognize that any injustice done others will backfire. To condone injustice is to endorse an evil principle—as applicable to oneself as to others—and such a system adds to the difficulty of all.

These persons with their moral scruples have not, however, cut themselves off from their daily bread but, on the contrary, have found that strict adherence to justice and good morals is the easiest way to satisfy basic needs. They have come upon one of the most remarkable material phenomena in all history, a veritable white magic: Simply leave everybody free to act creatively and in no way inhibit their exchanges! They have found this to be the line of least resistance, the manner of satisfying their desires with the most economical use of their own energies. They have discovered an intelligence.

Example: A 1955 dishwasher! Not one person on earth possesses enough knowledge to make one, yet we possess them by the millions. If this isn’t magic, what then can magic be?

To fully appreciate the efficacy of white magic in the economic area, one needs but turn the clock back to the beginning of the century, cast oneself in that period, and pose several simple questions:

  1. Given a description of the performance and style of a 1955 car, how would I go about making it a reality?
  2. What if someone were to give me the commission of developing a gadget that would carry the human voice in a fraction of a second over the face of the earth? Could I deliver?
  3. Suppose travelers of the future were to say, “Build a winged thing that will transport more than 100 passengers from Seattle to Washington, D.C., in less than four hours.” Could I meet the challenge?
  4. A voice from the 1950s speaks: “We are the airlines of the world. Figure out how a man on the ground can identify our planes in the air—through darkness, fog, rain, sleet, snow—speak to their pilots ten or twenty miles away, tell them precisely where they are, and guide them to a runway with a tolerance of ten feet.” What would I answer?
  5. Families in millions of homes ask, “Can you perfect an instrument that will permit us in our living rooms to witness a presidential inauguration or a football game or a stage performance while it is going on?”
  6. Can the human voice be amplified by power from the sun? How are we to minimize the ravages of pneumonia? Can clothing be made from sand?

The questions could be endless. And the answers by any one person, in 1900, or at any later time, would have been substantially the same, “I do not know. I cannot deliver. This that you ask is beyond my power.”

The Magic of Freedom

No one of the above accomplishments, all commonplace today, resulted from the ingenuity of any single person. All of these and numberless similar advances came about in a better climate of freedom than existed elsewhere—and they came as if by magic. The telephone is a good example of this miracle. Pick up the receiver and instantly there flow to one’s services the creative energies of Alexander Graham Bell, of tens of thousands of scientists, engineers, metallurgists, technicians, linemen, operators, miners, woodsmen, and countless others—creative energies flowing and exchanging through space and time to the waving of one’s own wand—that one may communicate with whomever one pleases across the nation in a matter of seconds!

Why does this qualify as white magic? Because of the unimaginable results that flow from leaving all others free to act creatively as they please and to exchange their insights or their thoughts or their products with whomever they choose. This market process of reciprocity and mutuality affords each person a vested interest in seeing that others are unmolested and unhandicapped, that no one minds anyone else’s business, and that society’s legal apparatus is confined to the inhibition of destructive energies.

White magic? I, for instance, devote myself to writing and talking. Yet, I am able to exchange my services for food, shelter, heat, clothing, transportation, literature—a daily and miraculous abundance that could not be produced by me in thousands of years. Imagine one person, doing so little, yet being able to obtain in willing exchange the services of millions of people! White magic literally serves as a means to higher ends by freeing me from the arduous confinement of wholly waiting on myself.

The alchemist’s dream of turning lead to gold? It is as nothing. So far has this white magic advanced that the production of diamonds synthetically scarcely received a press notice.

It has long been known that any general upgrading of ideas and insights—things of the intellect and spirit—requires freedom of thought and expression, freedom to create and to exchange. Apply the same principle to goods and services: Presto! As much abundance as is possible for any given society.