Liberty and voluntary relationships evoke the best in individuals and, therefore, society. That makes it painful to see willing arrangements blamed for virtually everything someone can think to object to in favor of coercion of some by others via government for some unattainable utopian vision.
But why are unattainable utopian visions more attractive to so many more people than liberty, which can achieve the best society that is actually attainable? Leonard Read considered that issue carefully and offered useful insight in his “Free Market Disciplines.” On the 50th anniversary of Let Freedom Reign, in which it appeared, it is worth reconsidering.
Read showed that liberty’s failure to gain more adherents than utopian statism can be, in part, traced to the fact that it is the ends envisioned, rather than the means involved, that often motivate people. Unlike utopian visions, which gloss over grubby, real-world problems of not just implementation but internal contradictions, freedom—an “amoral servant”—cannot be proven to have no objectionable results to anyone. That can saddle liberty with an inspirational deficit.
However, attributing disliked results to markets misplaces blame. Therefore, restricting voluntary arrangements beyond preventing the use of force and fraud cannot solve the real problems. However, such efforts can hobble the market’s ability to coordinate people’s mutually beneficial productive efforts, causing a great deal of harm through misguided attempts to accomplish good.
Leonard Read's Thoughts on the Matter
"The free market is the only mechanism that can sensibly, logically, intelligently discipline production and consumption. For it is only when the market is free that economic calculation is possible. Free pricing is the key."
"[But] it is necessary to recognize the limitations of the free market. The market is a mechanism, and thus it is wholly lacking in moral and spiritual suasion…it embodies no coercive force whatsoever."
"Given a society of freely choosing individuals, the market is that which exists as a consequence—it is a mechanism that is otherwise non-definitive. It is the procession of economic events that occur when authoritarianism…is absent."
"In a word, the free market is individual desire speaking in exchange terms...When the desires of people are depraved, a free market will accommodate the depravity. And it will accommodate excellence with equal alacrity. It is 'servant alike to good...and evil.'"
"It is because the free market serves evil as well as good that many people think they can rid society of evil by slaying this faithful, amoral servant. This is comparable to… breaking the mirror so that we won't have to see the reflection of what we really are."
"The market is but a response to—a mirror of—our desires."
"Instead of cursing evil, stay out of the market for it; the evil will cease to the extent we cease patronizing it. Trying to rid ourselves of trash by running to government for morality laws is like trying to minimize the effects of inflation by wage, price, and other controls. Both destroy the market, that is, the reflection of ourselves…attempts not to see ourselves as we are."
"To slay this faithful, amoral servant is to blindfold, deceive, and hoodwink ourselves… denying the market is to erase the best point of reference man can have."
"The market is a mechanism and is neither wise nor moral…The market is an obstacle course; before I can pursue my bent or aptitude or obsession, I must gain an adequate, voluntary approval or assent…My own aspirations, regardless of how determined, or lofty, or depraved, do not control the verdict. What these others…will put up in willing exchange for my offering spells my success or failure, allows me to pursue my bent or not."
"Eventually, in a free society, the junk goes to the junk heap and achievements are rewarded."
"I believe that anyone should follow his star; but let him do so with his own resources or with such resources as others will voluntarily supply. This is to say that I believe in the market, a tough, disciplinary mechanism."
"[An] individual, in the free market, considers how much of his own property he is willing to put on the line…the free market gives short shrift to projects that are at or near the bottom of individual preferences."
Read saw that defenders of liberty must face the fact that markets enable people to do whatever they wish better—i.e., that it is an amoral servant. It cannot be relied upon to produce only good and inspirational things. But when they better enable doing ill, they do so only by reflecting what some people desire. If we reformed ourselves, markets would do no such harm. And Leonard Read had great faith such improvements were possible. In contrast, coercively “reforming” us does not eliminate the causes of such harm and so does little to actually stop it, but it does throw away the amoral servant of the greater good that cannot be accomplished through any other means.
Leonard Read recognized that liberty—the voluntary arrangements that are created when rights to ourselves and our production are protected—provides the means of achieving what is actually achievable in advancing society. As we develop ourselves, we each have more to offer others. That, plus what freedom has historically accomplished beyond anyone’s ability to envision, extended to further, as-yet-unknowable possibilities, were at the heart of his inspirational vision.
To follow in Leonard Read’s path toward increasing liberty, we, too, must develop our ability to “see” the unseen (and often unimagined) good that can only be accomplished by freeing people’s ability to peacefully create and innovate. We must also be able to see the inherent failings of coercion. With such binocular vision, we can still recognize liberty as far more inspirational than any statist pipedream.