Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc.
Liberty Fund, Inc.
ON WHAT TO DO
Part IX, Introduction
If you have stuck with me up to this point, you may be weary of one paragraph of despair after another, of one diagnosis after another of the ailments of present-day capitalism. If you share, in whole or in part, my conviction that capitalism is the only economic system consistent with the civilized life, you are probably anxious to move on from diagnosis to therapy. "What can I, as one person or as part of an organization, do about it? What would you have us do?"
As I say in the first paper of this section, "Frankly, I feel more at ease as the diagnostician than as the therapist." At the same time, I have discussed the question of what to do on various occasions, and three such discussion papers are presented here. The first paper was presented as an explicit follow-up to the Schumpeter-based "Can Capitalism Survive?" Various groups who were exposed to Schumpeter's analysis of things to come insisted that I come back with a message on how to keep those things from coming to pass. In Marxian language, in this paper I am trying to tell the bourgeoisie how to avoid being expropriated.
The second paper was written approximately a month before the presidential election of 1964. It is now clear that, at that time, I overestimated the damage that would be done to the conservative cause by a crushing defeat of Goldwater. At the same time, the course of events seems to me to have left my general conclusions on what to do largely untouched.
The final paper was given as a tribute to one man and the organization he created—to Leonard Read and the Foundation for Economic Education. It is with pleasure that I make public payment of my great debt to this man, but the paper is presented here because in writing it I found some ways of saying certain things on the practice of freedom that I have not been able to improve upon elsewhere.
Part IX, Chapter 1
The Businessman and the Defense of Capitalism
The question before this house is not whether the survival of capitalism is in doubt (this is admitted). The question for us, as it was for Lenin at an earlier time, is, What to do? His concern was how best to hasten the collapse of capitalism; our concern is how to postpone or ward off that collapse.
Frankly, I feel more at ease as the diagnostician than as the therapist. Cancer is still easier to identify than to cure and so is overexpanded government. Admittedly, diagnosis must usually precede therapy. After a lengthy diagnostic examination, the doctor looks up at the patient in some puzzlement and asks, "Have you had this before?" To this the patient replies, "Yes," and the doctor says, "Well, you've got it again." Quite obviously something more than this is needed. Proper therapy usually rests upon diagnosis of the specific problem, including some notion of how the patient got into his fix, whatever it might be.
I begin then with the question, "What is our problem?" In an earlier sentence, I identified the problem as that of overexpanded government. This is not really correct for the purposes of therapy. Overexpanded government is, in fact, but the most noticeable, objectively evident symptom of our problem. Our problem is in the form of a set of ideas whose implementation calls for the use of force, and government is that agency of society given a monopoly of the right to use force. For so long as those ideas are dominant in society, Behemoth will continue to grow. Nor is it useful for those who hold and espouse those ideas publicly to regret the associated growth in government and all its instrumentalities. Thus Senator Edward Kennedy has said recently that "one of the greatest dangers of government is bureaucracy," and Senator Gaylord Nelson has said, "The federal bureaucracy is just an impossible monstrosity." All well and good, but that growth in bureaucracy which they so rightly lament is the necessary and inevitable outcome of the ideas that these two (and others) have so well and so convincingly espoused.
What are these ideas that produce bureaus as larvae do moths? They can be expressed in various ways but their essence is to be found in the following related propositions:
(1) There exist individuals and groups in society who know not only what is best for them but what is best for others as well.
(2) This wisdom, when combined with the coercive power of the state, can be used to produce "the good society." An accurate verbalization of these ideas is to be found in the statement of Newton Minnow, who said as chairman of the agency controlling television in this country, "What is wrong with the television industry in this country is that it is giving the viewers what they (the viewers) want."
Compare this, for example, with these words from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations:
What is the species of domestic industry which his capital can employ, and of which the produce is likely to be of the greatest value, every individual, it is evident, can, in his local situation, judge much better than any statesman or lawgiver can do for him. The statesman, who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.
Some of you may see in other idea-systems (such as economic determinism, relativism, envy, or what have you) the real source of our malignancy. God, my wife, my children, and all of you know that I am fallible, and perhaps I have chosen poorly in this case. What I am prepared to argue in a more strenuous way is my conviction that our struggle is at the level of ideas and not that of men or institutions. In the words of the celebrated John Maynard Keynes,
The ideas of economists and political philosophers both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is generally understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.
My first point then is that we are involved in a war of ideas. My second is that our target is not the masses but those men and women in society who deal in ideas and who shape the thinking of the masses. In the words of one of the great idea men of this century, the late Ludwig von Mises, "The masses, the hosts of common men, do not conceive any ideas, sound or unsound. They only choose between the ideologies developed by the intellectual leaders of mankind. But their choice is final and determines the course of events. If they prefer bad doctrines, nothing can prevent disaster."
My third point is that the ideas that finally count are those that relate to such fundamental questions as the nature of man, his purpose here on earth, and the moral character of human action. Arguments on the basis of economic efficiency are not alone capable of saving capitalism.
In the words of Joseph Schumpeter: "It is an error to believe that political attack (on capitalism) arises primarily from grievance and that it can be turned by justification. Political criticism cannot be met by rational argument.... Utilitarian reason is in any case weak as a prime mover of group action. In no case is it a match for the extra-rational determinants of conduct. The stock exchange is a poor substitute for the Holy Grail."
I have now enumerated my assumptions as to the nature of the task in which we are involved. I have argued that we are really involved in a struggle for the souls of men, that in that struggle it is ideas that count, and that the questions that are relevant are largely ethical in nature. Moreover, I have argued that our target is not the masses but those who live by the spoken and written word and who thus largely shape opinion in society.
If these assumptions be even roughly valid, what then is implied as to the role of the businessman in the fight to save capitalism? Before attempting an answer to that question, let me consider one that seems to precede it. Should the businessman as businessman even get involved in the struggle?
A number of factors would seem to indicate a negative answer to that question. To begin with, the businessman is not typically hired by the stockholders to carry on programs of social reforms; he is hired to add to the net worth of the company. Admittedly the net worth of the company may be adversely affected by particular acts of government, and the stockholders would surely approve of management action in opposition to those specific threats to profits—for so long as the potential gain exceeded the cost. At the same time, the company may often stand to gain through specific acts of government, including actions that work against the principles of capitalism. Is it a tariff against foreign steel producers? or an export subsidy that would increase the demand for the company's products? or a government-enforced price or interest rate that adds to the profits of the company? How now the businessman? How can the president of the Mobil Oil Company be a convincing spokesman for free enterprise when his job seems to require that he oppose immediate decontrol of oil prices? How can the president of General Electric stand four-square for capitalism, yet support export subsidies for many of the products sold by his firm?
The fact is that there is hardly a businessman in this country who is not receiving favors from government in one way or another. The fact that this is true of most other elements in the society, including his critics in the ranks of the intellectuals, does not really change the nature of the businessman's dilemma. His job may seem to require of him that he support specific government intervention in the economy of precisely the kind that, in the fight for men's souls, he must condemn as general practice. Knowledge of Kant's Categorical Imperative—do only that which you would be willing to see done by all—may get you an A in a college course in philosophy but may get you fired if you attempt to practice it as a businessman.
In other words, his very position may seem to require of the businessman that, in the struggle against government intervention, he be as often a part of the problem as of the solution. Moreover, how can he face those he is attempting to persuade to hold the capitalist faith when his own hands are so obviously unclean?
A second reason for a possible negative answer to the question of whether the businessman should get into the fight to save capitalism is that he is usually an amateur in the practice of the arts required by that struggle. The art required is not that of making or selling men's suits or aircraft motors; the art is that of the dealer in abstract ideas, including and particularly systems of ethical judgment. Don't misunderstand me; it is not that the businessman is unintelligent. I yield to no one in my respect for the great practical and theoretical intelligence required for effective entrepreneurship. It is simply that his intelligence is not applied, day in and day out, to the kinds of questions and considerations that are at the center of the argument. Not only is this not his turf, but he is usually not adept at the word games that go on on that turf.
What I am saying in essence is that here, as in most of life, the prizes (in this case, the souls of men) will go largely to those who are specialists in the arts involved. Admittedly there are some such (I could name you a dozen or so) from the ranks of the businessmen, but their skills in the arena of ideas and words are not a product of their business experience but of what they have done on their own initiative to improve their own understanding of the ideas involved here and their skills in communicating those ideas.
Where then does this leave us? Can the typical businessman do nothing but deplore the growth of government and go on about his task—which may have been made easier in some ways and more difficult in other ways by that self-same expansion of government involvement in economic life? I believe that the answer to that question is "no"—but I have some real sympathy with those businessmen (and this will be the great majority) who by their inaction say "yes." After all, as Henry David Thoreau put it, "I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad." Nor, as I have argued elsewhere, is it the administrator-businessman who has the most to lose from the passing of capitalism. Most of them will end up as administrators of socialist enterprises if and when full socialism arrives. It is the masses who have the most to lose—and who also have the least understanding of that fact.
But for those of you who are interested in doing something as business and professional people to counter the drift to collectivism, here is what I would suggest that might be both useful and consistent with the profit-oriented role for which you draw your pay.
(1) Work with your own staff members and employees. A work force that has some understanding of the marketplace and of where its own goodies come from may (and it is only a may) be a less troublesome, more effective work force over time. Any number of such programs, of varying effectiveness, are now in operation and available for general use.
(2) Work with the appropriate audiences in the communities where you have operations. Here again, there may be some payoff in terms of a better political environment in which to function. Again, there are a number of such programs now in operation.
Anything more? Frankly, I am not much impressed by the usefulness of business attempts to reach nationwide audiences with free-enterprise propaganda.
What else? The "else" is what the businessman shouldn't do rather than what he should do. Moreover, it requires that the individuals involved must have done their own homework.
In fact, let me say right now that even the first two steps I have identified can do more harm than good if the people selecting and authorizing the operations have not themselves taken the time and effort to decide exactly what it is they believe and why. There is nothing about being a successful businessman (even a very successful businessman) that automatically endows one with an understanding of or an attachment to the principles of freedom—a statement I could support with a hundred examples, if time permitted. In fact, some of the great fortunes of America have been made by those who have learned how to use government intervention to their own advantage.
I cannot emphasize too strongly that the very first thing each of you who wishes to be a truly effective part of this struggle must do is your own homework. This requires reading, thinking and, yes, writing. I challenge each of you to go home tonight and put down in brief form your guiding principles in life and their applications in this area of the relationship of the individual to his government. You might also find it interesting to follow that with a list of those things which you and/or your company or group are now doing that are clear or possible violations of those principles.
Am I asking you to immediately cease all ideological wrongdoing? to cut yourself off completely from all areas of government involvement? Were you to do so, there would be literally no way you could eat or move about or keep warm or survive—such is the extent of government's involvement in our lives. Each of you, in your professional role, must decide for yourself the limits of your compromise with the apparent demands of the moment.
Let me summarize:
(1) I am arguing that the first and indispensable step for any person who wishes to be a part of the effort to save capitalism is a determination of precisely what he believes and why. This will usually involve, not just putting down the already determined, but active study, reflection, and discussion. This is your intellectual and philosophical armor, and without it you are not only vulnerable but as likely to be a handicap as a help in the struggle.
(2) Try as best you can in this imperfect world to live by those principles.
(3) In using your professional role or your company in the struggle, do only those things that seem consistent with the long-run interests of those whose money you are using. Remember, not all stockholders will wish to have their money used in this or any other crusade.
(4) If you wish to play a personal role, apart from your company or professional connection, then you must dig deeper into what you believe and why; you must know even more fully the arguments and values of those with whom you disagree; you must continually seek to improve your skill in expressing your ideas and in demonstrating the errors in contrary positions. My guess is that only a few of you will carry through to this level of participation—but it is not a numbers game anyway; it is a game in which it is the quality of the few that finally counts.
I spoke earlier of the things that you should not do but didn't specify them. What are they?
(a) Don't make a pest of yourself by trying to force your free-enterprise ideas down the throat of every passerby—whether in your home, your office, or at the cocktail party. In the words of Leonard Read, founder and president of the Foundation for Economic Education, who has taught me everything I know on this and many other questions, "Go only where called—but do your damnedest to get good enough to be called."
(b) You may not be able to avoid involvement in departures from principle, but at least don't lend your voice or your money to the support of those departures. You may have to pay into social security or submit to a system of wage-price controls but you don't have to join committees or groups who support such programs.
In a hundred different ways and forms, the American businessman is aiding and abetting the enemy by continuing his involvement in organizations and programs which are as likely to propose as to oppose extensions of government. Don't let this reciprocity game you people of substance play with each other or your desire to be a good guy lead you to give your money and/or your name (and hence, by implication, your support) to activities or organizations that are working the other side of the freedom street.
To return to Thoreau:
It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no longer thought, not to give it practically his support.
Forgive me if I seem to blaspheme, but even your church and your college should be examined with some care before you bless them with your dollars and your support. You don't have to prove you are a nice, broad-minded guy by providing the devil with the coal for your own burning.
Again to be specific, you needn't insist that every professor on your old campus think exactly as you do, but I believe it completely appropriate for you to find out if the general idea system that you believe to be best is well and ably represented in the ranks of the faculty.
I close this sermon with these words: Avoid anger, recrimination, and personal attack. Those with whom you are angry are probably (taken by and large) at least as filled with or as empty of virtue as you. Moreover, they are the very ones you might wish later to welcome as your allies.
Avoid panic and despair; be of good cheer. If you're working in freedom's vineyard to the best of your ability, the rest is in the hands of a higher authority anyway. If you can see no humor in what's going on (and even at times in your own behavior) you'll soon lose that sense of balance so important to effective and reasoned thought and action.
Finally, take comfort in the thought that the cause of freedom can never be lost, precisely because it can never be won. Given man's nature, freedom will always be in jeopardy and the only question that need concern each of us is if and how well we took our stand in its defense during that short period of time when we were potentially a part of the struggle.
Notes for this chapter
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern Library, 1937), p. 423.
John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1936), p. 383.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1963), p. 864.
Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 3rd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), pp. 144, 137.
Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience," in Walden and Other Writings (New York: Modern Library), p. 645.
End of Notes
Part IX, Chapter 2
Reflections on the Election of 1964
By the time this is in print, the election will be over and conservatism as a potent political force will be dead. A fine man will have suffered a humiliating defeat, and the liberals in his party will be planning a ruthless purge of all those who were closely associated with his candidacy. The stage will have been set for the specter of the "Goldwater debacle" to haunt the candidacy of every conservative for years to come.
In the meantime, his most passionate supporters will be using their special journals of opinion to vent their disappointment and bitterness in angry explanations of why it happened. Some will say that the campaign was badly conducted (which it was); some, that Goldwater was sabotaged by the liberals of the press, radio, and television (which he was); some, that he was defeated by one of the most effective, ruthless, and corrupt politicians of the modern era (which may or may not be true). The Minutemen will be laying in more rifles and the president of the John Birch Society will be proving to his own satisfaction that Goldwater's defeat was engineered by members of his own party, acting as conscious agents of the Communist conspiracy.
The truth, I suspect, lies quite elsewhere, and it is that possibility I wish to explore. My own interpretation of the election can be simply stated: In a democratic society, under normal circumstances, no radical reorientation of social policy can be achieved by simple political organization and political action. Or to put it another way: As a general rule, for groups concerned with ultimate principles, elections just don't matter!
Let me put it still another way: Given the absence of any feeling of crisis in the American society and given the general acceptance of modern liberalism by most Americans who count, Goldwater was foredoomed to crushing defeat. All of this was perfectly evident long before Goldwater was nominated. The great mistake was made, not during the campaign, but precisely when those conservatives who pride themselves on being activists and on "knowing how to get things done" decided that conservatism could be brought to America by what would amount to a political coup. Goldwater's own clear, good sense in thinking that the time was not ripe and that he could serve the cause better by continuing as senator from Arizona was overpowered by the passion of the leaders of the Draft Goldwater group and by their assurance that they had the know-how to get the job done.
This assurance was bolstered by the ease with which the organization swept through the San Francisco convention. But of course it is no great task for a well-organized minority to take over a committee (and that is what a political convention most resembles); in fact, it is done every day. It is a much more difficult task to get a man elected, particularly one for whose ideas the time is far from ripe.
Goldwater might have won, had the country been plunged in a deep crisis of some kind at the time of the campaign. The victories of the Erhard "social market economy" in Germany in the late forties and more recently of the conservatives in Brazil were both made possible by the widespread sense of impending disaster in the societies involved. As John Maynard Keynes wrote, with such excellent foresight, in 1936, "At the present moment people are unusually expectant of a more fundamental diagnosis; more particularly ready to receive it; eager to try it out, if it should be even plausible." Certainly the philosophical and political success of the ideas he presented in the book in which these words appear would attest to the significance of timing in attempts at radical change.
In any case, it was precisely those who pride themselves on their practical wisdom who launched this most impractical of all modern political actions. The country was simply not yet prepared to accept the conservative position. Goldwater's campaign could not build on any solid foundation of widely accepted ideas on society, economics, and the state.
This became apparent the moment Goldwater made the slightest threatening gesture in the direction of any specific element in the welfare state, e.g., social security. The response was so immediate and frightening that his campaign strategy made an obvious switch, to concentrate on corruption in the Johnson administration and to promise a rather mystical rebirth of honesty and integrity in government and of "morality" in society.
As Hayek pointed out to us long ago, honesty and integrity in government are not a function of which party is in power but of the power over economic decisions possessed by those in government. But the people were not ready to reduce the power of government, and Goldwater and his advisors had no place else to go. The basic argument over principles had to be abandoned because most of the people weren't ready to accept the Goldwater principles. When the debate turned to who could do better what we're now doing, the man in the saddle in a period of relative prosperity had a crushing advantage.
Nor could much be made out of foreign policy issues. Goldwater's interventionist posture in foreign affairs was just like Johnson's, only more so. The Goldwater principles of nonintervention and limited government on the domestic scene mixed poorly with his promise of aggressive, interventionist action on the foreign scene. Whether he was more or less right than Johnson on foreign policy is not at issue. The question is whether there was any fundamental difference between the two in principle, and no such difference could be made to stick (not even the charge that Johnson was "soft on communism"). Again it became a question of who could better do what we are now doing, and again the man in the saddle had an overwhelming advantage.
Let me repeat: Goldwater lost because those who count in America weren't prepared to accept his ideas. The lesson would seem to be that the real function of conservatism in America is not to try to win elections but to try to win converts. The real battle is, as always, a battle of ideas.
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "It matters less what name I drop into the ballot box on election day than what kind of man I drop from my chambers into the street each morning." I would paraphrase this to read, "It matters less what name I drop into the ballot box on election day than what ideas I drop into the common pool during my lifetime."
Not a single one of the principles of limited government and individual freedom has been proved wrong by the Goldwater defeat (just as not a single one would have been proved right by a Goldwater victory). Not a single principle of the interventionist, welfare state has been proved right by the Johnson victory.
Ideas are still evaluated by a different and more fundamental process, and perhaps it is time that we got back to work on that process. Let us forget for awhile all attempts to be clever at political organization. Let us return to our problems of understanding, analysis, and clarity of exposition of the ideas of freedom. If we do our work well, we may some day be rewarded by the only lasting kind of political victory—a situation in which the ideas of freedom are so generally accepted in both parties that it will make little difference which one wins.
Notes for this chapter
See William A. Rusher, "Suite 3505: The Inside Story of How, When and Where the Goldwater Candidacy Was Conceived and Launched," National Review, August 11, 1964, pp. 683-86.
J. M. Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1936), p. 383.
F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944), particularly the chapter on "Why the Worst Rise to the Top."
End of Notes
Part IX, Chapter 3
The Foundation for Economic Education: Success or Failure?
The question before us is this: Has the Foundation for Economic Education, in its first twenty-five years, succeeded in its mission? Most speakers on such occasions are capable of supplying only one answer to such a question. Tonight, at no extra cost to you, I intend to give you four answers to this question. They are in order: yes, probably no, almost certainly no, and unqualifiedly yes. Are there any questions?
The reason I can give you four answers to this one question is that the phrase, "succeeded in its mission," is capable of at least four meaningful interpretations, each calling for its own answer.
One possible interpretation is that the mission of any organization, at first instance, is quite simply to survive. That FEE has survived is testified to by our presence here tonight. Nor should any of us think lightly of this accomplishment. Given the general social and economic climate of the immediate postwar period, the survival chances of any organization committed to individual freedom and limited government could well have been described in 1946 as two in number: slim and none.
So much, you might think, for the criterion of mere survival—but survival is not as "mere" as you might think. Never underestimate the significance of the simple fact of the continuing existence of an island of sanity in an increasingly insane world. Whether this sanity can eventually turn the battle is still moot and will be discussed in a moment, but its simple existence is a very present help in time of trouble.
I am reminded of Tolstoy's description of the role of the Russian commander, Prince Bagration, in the battle of Schön Grabern. Although himself in doubt of the outcome and aware of how little he really knew of the battle's progress, the Prince stood serene and confident in the view of all, answering each report of the action, whether encouraging or discouraging, with a sonorous, "Very good!"—as if even the local defeats were part of an overall pattern of events that foretold ultimate victory. As Tolstoy put it:
Prince Andrew noticed that ... though what happened was due to chance and was independent of the commander's will, his (Bagration's) presence was very valuable. Officers who approached him with disturbed countenances became calm; soldiers and officers greeted him gaily, grew more cheerful in his presence, and were evidently anxious to display their courage before him.
As with these soldiers, we grow more cheerful in the presence of FEE and Leonard Read, more anxious to display our limited courage. Believe me, this is something; even though the battle itself were to be already lost, as it well may be, FEE, as the island of sanity to which we repair for warmth and comfort, may still be counted a great and significant success.
A second way to evaluate an organization is to examine its chances for survival in the long run. Do we have here an organization so significant and successful that it will live through the centuries (or at least the decades) ahead?
Not only do I answer, "Probably no," to this question but I add "and I hope not" to that answer. The real danger to an organization of this kind is not that it will simply disappear, but that its form will long survive its soul.
Do not misunderstand me; I am not forecasting an early end to FEE. It is true that even Leonard Read is not immortal, but Read's leaving will not mean the end of this organization. It will carry on, and for x number of years, continue to be a center of strength in the cause of freedom.
But times change, and people change, and institutions change; it is as certain as death itself that sooner or later FEE will be, in spirit, something quite different from what it now is. Moreover, the chances are that that spirit will be significantly alien to the spirit that now moves this organization.
When that day comes, if any of us are still around, let us have the courage and good sense to give FEE a decent burial, rather than yield to a pagan attachment to a body from which the spirit has already fled. The world of organizations is cluttered with deformed and defaming relics of noble causes; let FEE not be one of them.
We turn now to a third possible interpretation of success as it relates to the work of FEE. Has FEE succeeded in its mission in the sense of being a part of an action that promises to actually turn the tide of battle in the direction of freedom? My answer to this is, "almost certainly no."
I offer this not as a criticism of the work of FEE but as what seems to me to be the only realistic appraisal of where the current of events is tending in this world. The situation in this world, as it relates to individual freedom, is almost certain to become much worse, before and if it ever becomes any better. Why must I adopt this apparently defeatist line and on this should-be gladsome occasion in particular?
My own none-too-original analysis of the trend of events tends to bring me into agreement with the many friends and foes of capitalism alike who believe that the odds are very much against the survival of capitalism in the decades immediately ahead of us.
This is not the time or the place for a detailed presentation of the analysis that leads me to this conclusion. Moreover, my thesis has been more cogently reasoned and more ably presented in the works of Schumpeter, Mises, Hayek, Popper, and others.
I offer only the following straws in the wind. First, there is the incredible recrudescence of the most primitive forms of utopianism. Young people (and old) possessed of superior intellectual equipment (as measured by aptitude tests) are every day repeating to me, in one form or another, the chiliastic musings of Marx in his German Ideology:
In communist society, where nobody has an exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.
I am not surprised to find that the young are enchanted by visions of a do-your-own-thing New Jerusalem, complete with almost continuous love-play; after all, even the brightest of the young tend to think largely with the heart and the loins. What shocks me is that supposedly mature scholars either encourage them in their daydreaming or hesitate to bring their schemes to full and vigorous and rational challenge.
Nowhere is this denial of reason, of process, of rational choice more clearly revealed than in the approach of the more demented environmentalists. In one of the best critiques of this approach I know, an article in The Public Interest, the author writes as follows: "Those who call for immediate action and damn the cost, merely because the spiney starfish and furry crab populations are shrinking, are putting an infinite marginal value on these creatures. This strikes a disinterested observer as an overestimate."
But the voice of reason is rarely raised and is shouted down by the new romantics (and the new barbarians) as soon as it is raised.
Lady Chatterley's lover, once a hero of the young and the teachers of English literature for his sexual acrobatics, is now their hero as the man who said, "It's a shame, what's been done to people these last hundred years: men turned into nothing but labor-insects, and all their manhood taken away.... I'd wipe the machines off the face of the earth again, and end the industrial epoch absolutely, like a black mistake."
It is symptomatic of the times that a call like this for over 90 percent of those now living in the Western world to be wiped out (for such would be the effect of such a proposal) is hailed as a voice of humanitarianism and love, while those who dare to offer even gentle caveats are derided as gross and disgusting materialists.
So much for the treason of the intellectuals, a treason that Mises and Hayek and Schumpeter forewarned us of, and one that is now largely a fact. If FEE is to be judged by its success in swinging the intellectual vote, then it has failed indeed.
What of the businessman? Surely FEE and its companion organizations have been able to make secure for freedom this section of the American public! At this point, it is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. There is not one piece of lunacy put on paper by some academic scribbler or spoken by some public demagogue that is not to be found in at least one, if not more, of the published statements of the self-designated spokesmen for the business community. For reasons that I don't have time to develop here, it is also clear that the larger the firm, the more certain is its leaders' commitment or at least lip service to the philosophy of statism. Study the changing character of the business firms that have contributed to FEE over the last twenty-five years. In the first years, at least a dozen of the largest, best-known firms in this country were making direct contributions to FEE. Less than a handful are still on the list of donors. Those socialists and those defenders of capitalism who expect the average American businessman to put up a desperate fight in defense of the system are simply out of touch with the situation as it really is.
Yes, even the businessman is more likely to be a part of the problem than a part of the solution, and FEE's failure, so judged, could not be more obvious or complete. But of course, contrary to the popular impression, there is no reason to expect the businessman to be more committed to the system of economic freedom than anyone else. Not only is he not the greatest beneficiary of that system—he is not even the principal beneficiary. Again contrary to the popular impression, it is the "little man," the member of the masses who, far from being the exploited victim under capitalism, is precisely its principal beneficiary. Under all other arrangements, those possessed of intelligence, high energy, and a strong desire to achieve (i.e., precisely those who tend to become the entrepreneurs, the businessmen under capitalism) get ahead by using their positions in the political or caste or religious hierarchy to exploit the masses. Only under capitalism can the stronger get ahead only by serving the weaker—and as the weaker wish to be served! (Ralph Nader to the contrary.)
The strong tend to survive and prosper under any system, and strength does not necessarily carry with it a sophisticated understanding of systems. The American businessman has probably been, on balance (wittingly or unwittingly), the most important single force working against the capitalist system.
This brings us to another of the straws in the wind. If further evidence of where we seem to be headed is needed, I offer you the current [Nixon] administration in Washington, D.C. It is manned by a number of intelligent, capable public servants of roughly conservative outlook and headed by an intelligent, well-meaning man of sound conservative instincts [sic]. Yet I am prepared to wager that history will reveal that no administration in modern times did more to move the country away from freedom and toward socialism and authoritarianism than the one now in power. I say this in sorrow, not anger, sorrow at the fact that the prevailing ideology of the day traps even the apparent foes into serving its cause, once they acquire political power. If the prevailing climate is interventionist, a conservative administration will not only be compelled to serve that climate of opinion but will be able to command a larger consensus for interventionist actions than an openly left-wing administration could ever command. In addition, the man on the street (who, in my opinion, also has generally conservative instincts) is less on his guard when a group identified as conservative is in power—and is thus largely unaware as one socialist scheme after another is imposed upon him.
In other words, wherever we look—to the intellectuals, to the businessmen, to the political leaders—we find the score to be Lions, 100; Christians, Zero. If FEE's mission has been to win such games in the here and now, then it is indeed a one-hundred carat failure. Not only has FEE not turned the tide of battle, the situation in this country has gotten steadily worse in every one of the last twenty-five years and promises to get even worse in the next twenty-five.
Am I predicting that we are inevitably headed for a great, all-encompassing crisis at some time in the next few decades? I am not. In the first place, nothing is inevitable. What has happened has happened because of decisions made by human beings and could be undone by the decisions of human beings in the years ahead. I am simply saying that if things continue to go as they have been going (as seems likely), we are going to move further and further away from reasonable prosperity and substantial freedom, and toward stagnation and authoritarianism.
If any of you have seen FEE's mission as that of winning now and winning big, then you have no choice but to label it a failure. But as I have understood him, his thinking, and the organization he brought into being, I have always believed that Leonard Read saw his mission as something quite different from (and quite superior to) that of winning tomorrow's election or next week's idea popularity poll. He seems little interested in triumphs as spectacular and as short-lived as the hula hoop.
Again let us be honest with each other. I suspect (I know) that this aspect of FEE's thinking has been occasionally irritating to many of you and particularly to the more activist-minded of you. Read must have been about as satisfying to you at times as would be a football coach at your alma mater who asked for fifty years to do a rebuilding job with the team. Who knows, they might not even be reporting the scores to the local papers where Rogge and Read and many of you will be fifty years from now. You would like to see (and in person) the old scoreboard light up and read, Christians, 100; Lions, Zero. If that really is your goal, then you are at the wrong dinner for the wrong man.
Not only does Read not promise us a win in the near future; not only does he not guarantee us a win in the distant future; he has the unmitigated gall to tell us that we still don't even fully understand the game or how to recognize a win when we see one. Finally, he refuses us even the consolation of the assurance that while we may not know the full truth, he does and will tell us all about it. Stop worrying about such things, he tells us; "the readiness is all." Here are some typical statements from this strange and difficult man:
Not a man among us is entitled to look down his nose at any other; scarcely anyone has more than scratched the surface. And there are reasons aplenty: the complexities of this subject are akin to the mysteries of Creation.
Always skeptical of activist efforts, I have, until this moment, agreed that our own work has only long-range prospects—preserving the remnant, as it were. Now I see it the other way around; the chance of getting results here and now lies exclusively in the study and exposition of ideas on liberty.
The freedom idea is in fact a recent, idealistic, elevated acquisition of the human mind. Not being rooted in tradition and having little in the way of second-nature behaviors working for its security, it lacks stability; it is easily lost; freedom concepts are fragile, wonderful ideas, few of which we've yet embraced by second nature within our relatively unconditioned consciousness.
Freedom will always be insecure; it will forever be touch-and-go. Even eternal vigilance and devoted effort can do no more than to set the trend aright, as high an aim as we should embrace. And this expectation is warranted only if we view our problem realistically, see it as profound and difficult as it really is. To assess it superficially, to think of it as requiring anything less than practices consonant with freedom becoming second nature, is to waste our time and energy, to spin our wheels, as the saying goes.
Is this too dismal a prospect? Not to those among us who enjoy a challenge; it's magnificent!
How can he call magnificent a challenge where the odds-makers have installed the Lions as 100-point favorites? Because, he tells us, "it is the effort, not the outcome, that counts in the life of the human being." "Cervantes' 'The road is better than the inn,' should serve to remind aspiring men that there isn't any inn for them, but only the road, now and forever. It is the effort along the trail that matters."
And now the final interpretation of the phrase "succeeded in its mission": Leonard Read's own definition of how the success of a FEE (of a Leonard Read) should be measured:
"To measure a teacher's success, to evaluate his work, one must ask: Does the teaching induce in others what Aristotle termed 'activity of soul'?"
It is to this question that the final and unqualified and only significant "yes" can be given. Throughout this country, throughout the world there is "activity of soul" underway that would never have been undertaken but for the work and the inspiration of Leonard Read and the Foundation for Economic Education. Some of it all of us in this room know about and can identify with FEE; some of it is known to only one or two of those in this room; the greater part, and probably the most important part, is totally unknown as yet to any of us (including Leonard Read) and will come to light only in the decades and centuries ahead—and much of it will be done by people who will never have heard of this foundation and will have no awareness that the activity of soul in which they are involved is the last link in a long chain that goes back to something that was started by this foundation in the middle of the twentieth century.
I close with a piece of verse that seems to me to capture what I have been trying to say. It is from the remarkable poem by W. H. Auden, "September 1, 1939," written at another dark moment in the history of the Western world. Here is the final stanza:
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros, and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
For these twenty-five years of showing a brilliant and never-failing and affirming flame, our most serious and total appreciation, Mr. Leonard Read.
Notes for this chapter
Tolstoy, War and Peace, Inner Sanctum ed., p. 193.
Larry Ruff, "The Economic Common Sense of Pollution," The Public Interest, Fall 1970, p. 74.
End of Notes
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