Leonard Read is not a household name today. That is unfortunate, because, according to biographer Mary Sennholtz, he was “one of the most notable social philosophers of our time. His name will forever be associated with the rebirth of the freedom philosophy.” In Gary North’s words, “The libertarian movement…can be traced to Read and Read’s vision.”
Read’s most formative moment came in a 1933 meeting with W.C. Mullendore, who taught Read his “best lesson ever” in liberty. In response, Read wrote his first book—The Romance of Reality (1937)—to develop and clarify the belief in self-ownership and the solely voluntary arrangements it enabled, which he would hone for over four decades.
Read developed into a pro-freedom crusader, which led him to leave a lucrative career to create an organization promoting freedom in 1946, when its prospects in the world were bleak. The Foundation for Economic Education became “The granddaddy of all libertarian organizations,” according to Gary North, inspiring many others throughout the world.
As FEE’s founder and leader, Leonard Read wrote prolifically and traveled widely to advance individual liberty. Bettina Bien Greaves described his core message:
He reasoned that if it is moral to respect the life and property of individuals, then it is immoral to violate their rights to life and property; if it is moral to deal peacefully with others, then it is immoral to use force, fraud, or threat of force to impose one’s wishes on others; if voluntary transactions among private-property owners are moral, then to hinder or prevent voluntary transactions among willing traders is immoral. No one… should take property by force or coercion from one person for the benefit of another.
As Jacob Hornberger put it:
He argued that man’s purpose on earth, whatever it is, requires the widest possible ambit for human growth and maturation. Therefore, he believed, a person should be free to do whatever he wants in life as long as it is peaceful.
On his September 26 birthday, an excellent place to begin understanding Leonard Read’s wisdom is with “The Promotive Effects of a Good Government,” in The Romance of Reality.
[A] good government…is a servant of all the people. It takes no sides.
A government cannot be good when its officers and administrators feel that their interests are different from those of the people, any of the people, they represent.
A good government recognizes that the best interests of the people are served when government keeps itself to the very minimum compatible with actual necessities.
A good government will resist to the utmost the efforts of any groups to use the government as a vehicle to their own ends.
A good government will be a government of laws and not of men. A people must never be subjected to a “Do this. Do that” order, insured in a government of men, impossible in a government of laws.
A good government does not meddle in the legitimate affairs of any or all of its citizens. It merely keeps the arena in good shape for playing the game.
Certainly, no good government…would usurp any powers or prerogatives not specifically delegated to it by its citizens.
Government intervention into the fields of private enterprise would not be so much as entertained.
[In] good government…Everyone would have to engage…in the production and distribution of goods and services. These being the only elements of wealth, everyone would be engaged in producing and distributing wealth.
A good government…engages in no practices that either unjustly absorb or take away from the citizen that which he has earned for himself. Thus… man’s energies are released…
[E]conomic voluntarism, under which so many other factors absolutely essential to economic welfare are nestled, can exist at its fullest only under a good government
The United States, today, is the wealthiest nation all history has ever known, not because government created the wealth but because… several hundred millions of individuals, working competitively and cooperatively, have made contributions to a startling aggregate of wealth. They have left as their heritage to succeeding generations an amazing array of…essential instruments to future welfare.
[American] free spirits, protected against the ravages of criminal individuals and predacious governments, built our national edifice.
“[W]hat plan have you to offer in its stead?”…The answer is, “We do not want nor can the people prosper under any form of governmental planned economy.”…all we want in the way of a plan is…to release to the fullest the potential productive capacities, the energies, the enterprising attributes, the virtues and the genius of the individual.
Politicians today define good government as whatever they want to do. Leonard Read recognized good government as very different, doing only those things that made it “a servant of all the people,” with all else left to “economic voluntarism.” That would “release to the fullest the potential productive capacities, the energies, the enterprising attributes, the virtues and the genius of the individual.” There is no better time than Read’s birthday to adopt his wisdom.
Adapted from Gary Galles, The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read, Laissez Faire Books, 2013