All Commentary
Friday, December 19, 2008

The Essence of Americanism

Abridged from a 1961 lecture at FEE.

Someone once said: It isn’t that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; it has been tried and found difficult—and abandoned. Perhaps the same thing might be said about freedom. The American people are becoming more and more afraid of, and are running away from, their own revolution. I think that statement takes a bit of documentation.

I would like to go back, a little over three centuries in our history, to the year 1620, which was the occasion of the landing of our Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth Rock. That little colony began its career in a condition of pure and unadulterated communism. For it made no difference how much or how little any member of that colony produced; all the produce went into a common warehouse under political authority, and the proceeds of the warehouse were doled out in accordance with the authority’s idea of need. In short, the Pilgrims began the practice of a principle held up by Karl Marx two centuries later: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”—and by force!

Now, there was a good reason why these communalistic practices were discontinued. It was because the members of the Pilgrim colony were starving and dying. As a rule, that type of experience causes people to stop and think about it!

And they did. During the third winter Governor Bradford got together with the remaining members of the colony and said to them, in effect, that this coming spring they would try a new idea: each individual has a right to the fruits of his own labor. And when Governor Bradford said that, he enunciated the foundation of private property as clearly and succinctly as any economist ever had. The next harvest was plentiful. Governor Bradford recorded that: “Any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”

It was putting those very principles of private property into action in this country that started an era of unprecedented growth. Sooner or later it had to lead to revolutionary political ideas. And it did lead to the American Revolution.

Up until 1776 men had been contesting with each other, killing each other by the millions, over the age-old question of which of the numerous forms of authoritarianism—that is, man-made authority— should preside as sovereign over man. And then, in 1776, in the fraction of one sentence written into the Declaration of Independence was stated this new idea, “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” That was it. This is the essence of Americanism, an idea which broke with the whole political history of the world. This is the rock upon which the whole “American miracle” was founded. This revolutionary concept was political in implicitly denying that the state is the endower of man’s rights, thus declaring that the state is not sovereign.

It was economic in the sense that if an individual has a right to his life, it follows that he has a right to sustain his life—the sustenance of life being nothing more nor less than the fruits of one’s own labor.

It is one thing to state such a revolutionary concept as this; it’s quite another thing to implement it—to put it into practice. To accomplish this, our Founding Fathers added two political instruments— the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These two instruments were essentially a set of prohibitions; prohibitions not against the people but against what the people, from their Old World experience, had learned to fear: over-extended government.

Benefits of Limited Government

The U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights more severely limited government than government had ever before been limited in the history of the world. And there were benefits that flowed from this severe limitation of the state.

First, there wasn’t a single person who turned to the government for security, welfare, or prosperity because government was so limited that it had no power to take from some and give to others. Then where did people turn? They turned where they should—to themselves. As a result of this discipline Americans developed an admirable quality of character that Emerson called “self-reliance.”

Second, when government is limited to the inhibition of the destructive actions of men, when it is limited to invoking a common justice—then there is no organized force standing against individual productivity and creativity.

This manifested itself among the people as individual freedom of choice. People had freedom of choice as to how they employed themselves. They had freedom of choice as to what they did with the fruits of their own labor. As a consequence the creative human energy was freed on an unprecedented scale.

But something happened to this remarkable idea of ours, this revolutionary concept. It seems that the people we placed in government office as our agents made a discovery. Having acquisitive instincts for affluence and power over others they discovered that the force which inheres in government, and which the people had delegated to them could be used to invade the productive and creative areas in society—one of which is the business sector. They also found that if they incurred any deficits by their interventions, the same government force could be used to collect the wherewithal to pay the bills.

The Lengthening Shadow

I would like to suggest to you that the extent to which government in America has departed from the original design of inhibiting the destructive actions of man and invoking a common justice; the extent to which government has invaded the productive and creative areas; the extent to which the government in this country has assumed the responsibility for the security, welfare, and prosperity of our people is a measure of the extent to which socialism has developed here in this land of ours.

Now then, can we measure this development? Not precisely, but we can get a fair idea of it by looking at individual freedom of choice to use the fruits of one’s own labor. Over a century ago the tax take of the government—federal, state, and local—was between 2 and 5 percent of the earned income of the people. It is now way over 35 percent and keeps growing.

Many of my friends say to me, “Oh, Read, why get so excited about that? We still have, on the average, 65 percent freedom of choice with our income dollars.”

True, on the average, we do have 65 percent freedom of choice with our earned income. But, please take no solace from this fact. Whenever the take of the people’s earned income by government reaches a certain level—20 or 25 percent—it is no longer politically expedient to pay for the costs of government by direct tax levies. Governments then resort to inflation as a means of financing their ventures. By “inflation” I mean increasing the volume of money by the national government’s fiscal policy.

Governments resort to inflation with popular support because the people apparently are naive enough to believe that they can have their cake and eat it, too. Many people do not realize that they cannot continue to enjoy so-called “benefits” from government without having to pay for them. They do not appreciate the fact that inflation is probably the most unjust and cruelest tax of all.

What precisely is this disease that causes inflation and all these other troubles? It has many popular names, such as socialism, communism, state interventionism, and welfare statism. It has some local names: New Deal, Fair Deal, New Republicanism, New Frontier, and the like.

A Dwindling Faith in Freedom

If you will take a careful look at these so-called “progressive ideologies,” you will discover that each of them has a characteristic common to all the rest: a cell in the body politic that has a cancer-like capacity for inordinate growth. This characteristic takes the form of a rapidly growing belief that the function of government is not to carry out its original purpose of inhibiting the destructive actions of men and invoking a common justice, but to control the productive and creative activity of citizens in society.

Here is an example of what I mean: I can remember the time when, if we wanted a house or housing, we relied on private enterprise. In fact, Americans built more square feet of housing per person than any other country on the face of the earth. Despite that remarkable accomplishment, more and more people are coming to believe that the only way we can have adequate housing is to use government to take the earnings from some and give these earnings, in the form of housing, to others.

As this belief in the use of government as a means of creative accomplishment increases, the belief in free individuals—acting freely, competitively, cooperatively, voluntarily—correspondingly diminishes. Increase compulsion, and freedom declines.

Now then, why is this happening in America? I don’t know all the reasons. I am not sure that anyone does. If pressed, however, for the most profound one, it would be this: we have forgotten the real source of our rights and are suffering the consequences.

Therefore, the solution to this problem must take a positive form: the restoration of a faith in what free men can accomplish.

Leadership for Liberty

The important thing to realize is that ours is not a numbers problem. Were it necessary to bring a majority into a comprehension of the freedom philosophy, the cause of liberty would be utterly hopeless. Every significant movement in history has been led by one or just a few individuals with a small minority of energetic supporters.

The real problem, then, is developing a leadership, identifying and supporting individuals from different walks of life who care about, understand, and can explain liberty.

Let us personalize leadership.

The first level of leadership requires an individual to achieve that degree of understanding which makes it utterly impossible for him to have any hand in supporting or giving encouragement to any form of socialism whatever misleading labels and nicknames it takes.

This level of attainment requires no “original” thinking, writing or talking, but we should not underestimate the enormous influence set in motion by an individual who does absolutely no ideological wrong. His refusal to sanction or promote unsound actions and his faithfulness to free-market ideals— even if he is silent—has a radiating effect and sets high standards for others to follow.

The second level of leadership is reached when an individual achieves that degree of understanding and exposition which makes it possible for him to clearly explain the fallacies of socialism and the principles of freedom to those who come within his own orbit. Not only can such an individual interpret ideas conceived by others, but he also can conceive ideas himself. In short, he becomes a creative thinker, writer, and spokesman for liberty and the free market.

It is at this level that one’s attitude toward others becomes of great importance. If the individual is patient until others are ready to listen and share his views, closed minds will open and become receptive.

The third level of leadership requires the individual to achieve that degree of excellence in understanding and exposition of the freedom philosophy that will inspire others to seek him out as a tutor.

I am not at this level but I am aware of it and know some of its imperatives. One imperative is the awareness that the higher the objective is, the more dignified the method must be. If we aspire to such a high objective as advancing individual liberty and the free market, we can resort to no lesser method than the power of attraction, the absolute opposite of using propaganda, indoctrination, and half truths. A good way to test how well one is doing on the objective we have in mind is to observe how many are seeking his counsel. If none, then one can draw his own conclusions!

The sole force that will turn indifference into acceptance is the power of attraction. And this can be achieved only if the eye is cast away from the remaking of others and toward the improvement of self. This effort demanded of each individual is not at all a sacrifice, but rather the best investment one can make in life’s highest purpose.

Well, where can we find such individuals? I think we will find them among those who love this country. I think we will find them in this room. I think that one of them is you.

Raised on a Michigan farm, Leonard E. Read (1898–1983) became an entrepreneur and, eventually, General Manager of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. His commitment to truth and to the principles of liberty led him to found the Foundation for Economic Education in 1946. For the next 37 years he served as FEE president and labored tirelessly to promote and advance liberty. He was a natural leader who, at a crucial moment in American history, roused the forces defending individual freedom and private property.

Read was the author of 29 books and hundreds of essays— including the classic “I, Pencil.” His life is a testament to the power of ideas. As John Stossel of ABC News has commented, “Leonard Read said so much, so well, long before any of us began to try to think clearly about it.”

When Leonard E. Read died, FEE received the following telegram from President Ronald Reagan: “We share your sorrow at the loss of a man whose dedication to our cherished principles of liberty burned brightly throughout his life. Our nation and her people have been vastly enriched by his devotion to the cause of freedom, and generations to come will look to Leonard Read for inspiration.”