[Published in What’s Past Is Prologue: A Commemorative Evening to the Foundation for Economic Education on the Occasion of Leonard Read’s Seventieth Birthday (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1968), pp 37-43. The speech on which this essay was based was given on October 4, 1968, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York.]
The institution Leonard Read has built up, and through which he has wielded such great influence, bears the modest and prosaic name of a Foundation for Economic Education. I am sure that with his unfailing flair in such things he has chosen the name under which it was most likely to succeed. Yet, I want to suggest that this name describes the aim of this institution – and of Leonard Read’s work – much too narrowly; that he has really set his goal much higher.
It seems to me that on an occasion like this we ought to try to spell out more fully what it really is that he and, I think, all of you who are here tonight are chiefly concerned about. I cannot do so adequately in a few words, but I will try to put it in less than the time allocated to me. Indeed, I believe I can put the central idea into eight words. I will first give you the formula and then briefly comment on the various parts of it. I believe that what the Foundation for Economic Education, with Leonard Read at its head, and all his co-fighters and friends are committed to is nothing more nor less than the defence of our civilisation against intellectual error.
I do not mean this as the kind of high-flown phrase that one is apt to coin for an occasion such as this. I mean it literally, as the best definition of our common task. I have chosen every one of these eight words advisedly and will now try to explain what I mean by them.
In the first instance I wanted to emphasise that what is threatened by our present political trends is not just economic prosperity, not just our comfort, or the rate of economic growth. It is very much more. It is what I meant to be understood by the phrase “our civilisation.”
Modern man prides himself that he has built that civilisation as if in doing so he had carried out a plan which he had before formed in his mind. The fact is, of course, that if at any point in the past man had mapped out his future on the basis of the then-existing knowledge and then followed this plan, we would not be where we are.
We would not only be much poorer, we would not only be less wise, but we would also be less gentle, less moral: In fact we would still have brutally to fight each other for our very lives. We owe the fact that not only our knowledge has grown, but also our morals have improved – and I think they have improved, and especially that the concern for our neighbor has increased – not to anybody planning for such a development, but to the fact that in an essentially free society certain trends have prevailed because they made for a peaceful, orderly, and progressive society.
This process of growth to which we owe the emergence of what we now most value, including the growth of the very values we now hold, is today often presented as if it were something not worthy of a reasonable being, because it was not guided by a clear design of what men were aiming at. But our civilisation is indeed largely an unforeseen and unintended outcome of our submitting to moral and legal rules which were never ‘invented’ with such a result in mind, but which grew because those societies which developed them piecemeal prevailed at every step over other groups which followed different rules, less conducive to the growth of civilisation.
It is against this fact to which we owe most of our achievements that the rationalist constructivism so characteristic of our times revolts. Since the so-called Age of Reason it seemed to an ever-increasing number of people not worthy of a rational being that he should be guided in his actions by moral and legal rules which he did not fully understand; and it was demanded that we should not regard any rules obligatory on us except such as clearly and recognizably served the achievement of particular, foreseeable aims.
It is, of course, true that we only slowly and gradually begin to understand the manner in which the rules which we traditionally obey constitute the condition for the social order in which civilisation has arisen. But in the meantime, uncomprehending criticism of what seemed not ‘rational’ has done so much harm that it sometimes seems to me as if what I am tempted to call the destruction of values by scientific error were the great tragedy of our time. They are errors which are almost inevitable if one starts out from the conception that man either has, or at least ought to have, deliberately made his civilisation. But they are nevertheless intellectual errors which bid fair to deprive us of values which, though we have not yet learned to comprehend their role, are nevertheless indispensable foundations of our civilisation.
This has already brought me to the second part of my definition of our task. When I stressed that is genuine intellectual error that we have to fight, what I meant to bring out is that we ought to remain aware that our opponents are often high-minded idealists whose harmful teachings are inspired by very noble ideals. It seems to me that the worst mistake a fighter for our ideals can make is to ascribe to our opponents dishonest or immoral aims.
I know it is sometimes difficult not to be irritated into a feeling that most of them are a bunch of irresponsible demagogues who ought to know better. But though many of the followers of what we regard as the wrong prophets are neither just plain silly, or merely mischievous troublemakers, we ought to realise that their conceptions derive from serious thinkers whose ultimate ideals are not so very different from our own and with whom we differ not so much on ultimate values, but on the effective means of achieving them.
I am indeed profoundly convinced that there is much less difference between us and our opponents on the ultimate values to be achieved than is commonly believed, and that the differences between us are chiefly intellectual differences. We at least believe that we have attained an understanding of the forces which have shaped civilisation which our opponents lack. Yet if we have not yet convinced them, the reason must be that our arguments are not yet quite good enough, that we have not yet made explicit some of the foundations on which our conclusions rest. Our chief task therefore must still be to improve the argument on which our case for a free society rests.
But I must not allow this to degenerate into a lecture. I referred to these purely intellectual problems in order to say that while there are quite a number of us who devote ourselves exclusively to these intellectual problems – and often express our results in a manner that is intelligible only to our fellow specialists – and quite a number of practical men who clearly and rightly see that there is something wrong in the now dominant beliefs, there is hardly anyone who at the same time sees the great issues of our time as intellectual problems and also is so familiar with the thinking of the practical man that he can put the crucial arguments in a language which is meaningful to the man of the world.
If Leonard Read’s position is probably unique today, it is precisely because he possesses both capacities. I will frankly admit that I have only slowly and gradually discovered this. When twenty-one year ago some friends helped me to organise that meeting on Mont Pèlerin in Switzerland, some of them told me that there was in the United States a man extremely good in interpreting libertarian ideas to the public. And as it had from the beginning been the aim of that group not to confine itself to theoreticians, but to include persons who would interpret its conclusions to the general public, Leonard Read seemed to be an ideal person to invite. He certainly has fulfilled this expectation, but having considered him from the beginning chiefly from that angle, I continued for a while to regard him as an interpreter rather than as an original thinker – after all, somebody who can put ideas in simple words often is.
I want to use this occasion, however, publicly to admit that in that view of Leonard Read I was mistaken and that in the course of these twenty-one years my estimate of him progressively changed. I found not only that he knew much more than most of the rest of us about the opinions governing current policies, and was therefore much more effective in meeting the errors in them: I had rather hoped that, though I did not know how well it could be done. But I found also that he was a profound and original thinker who disguised the profundity of his conclusions by putting them into homely everyday language, and that those of us who for a time, and perhaps somewhat condescendingly, had seen in him mainly a populariser found that they had a great deal to learn from him.
Leonard Read has indeed become in our circle, in which the nonacademics are still a small minority, not only one of the best liked but one of the most respected members, one on whom they rely not only to spread the gospel, but as much to contribute to the development of ideas. Nothing, therefore, gives me greater pleasure than to be able to join in this celebration of his achievement. And, if one who is his junior only by a few months may conclude on a personal note, the greatest pleasure in this is that on this occasion one may still expect even more from him in the future than he has already done in the past.