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Friday, July 9, 2010

Leonard Read and The Ideal of Freedom

In the April 1975 issue of Reason magazine Tibor Machan interviewed the Foundation for Economic Education’s president, Leonard E. Read. At the time, Read was in his late 70s but his answers seem as sharp as any of his writings. The interview is well worth a read as it is chalk full of information about Read’s ideas and the history of the free market movement.

One extremely interesting point is that Read claims to be originator of the term libertarian. As he said in the interview, “I’m the one who brought out and popularized the word ‘libertarian’ and it’s gone all over the world.” Those who favored the free market and were against the tyranny of the state against the individual were originally called liberals; for example, the classical economists, such as Adam Smith, were considered liberals. But in the modern age, the word, as one can see, has come to mean something else. Read also abandoned the term libertarian for the same reasons. When asked “what are you, Read?” he would respond, “Leonard Read.”

Read often referred to his ideology as the freedom philosophy. It stressed the importance of education for the advancement of freedom. In this interview, Read highlighted the importance of this by arguing that the problem of getting people to understand and accept freedom was a problem of learning and not selling. Being against the welfare state and central planning is not enough; you must also be for something! Advocates of liberty should have a healthy dose of misarchy, as Mises said, “Government is the negation of liberty,” but we must also have a strong defense and love for what will replace it, namely the free market.

The above is a lesson we should keep in mind today. As Read said in the interview, he believed no one has adequately come up with a way to logically, persuasively, attractively describe the functioning of the market so that other people will fully understand. Not Mises, Hayek, Rand, Friedman, and certainly not Read himself, as he admitted, “In other words I’m aware of how little I know.” But this does not mean it is impossible, far from it, it just means we must continue to work as hard, if not harder, than Read, and those other giants of liberty, to educate the world about the benefits of freedom and the market.

This interview is worth the read simply to remind us how important and powerful Read’s work was to the free market movement. We could not have come as far along as we have without Leonard Read. Not bad for a guy whose books apparently sold as well as the great Ludwig Von Mises.

Download the Reason magazine interview with Leonard E. Read here.

  • Nicholas Snow is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College in the Department of Economics, and previously a Senior Lecturer at The Ohio State University Economics Department. His research focuses on the political economy of prohibition.