Those who know me from these pages and others might be surprised that I share this Leonard Read essay with you; the three assumptions he declares towards the end of the essay are in my view very “new-age”-type hokum. Perhaps I have not emphasised enough another of my principles – I find partisan extremes distasteful. It’s as if we have no power of discrimination and will somehow be contaminated by exposure to the other side. There are conservatives who will not read a word written by a liberal, and atheists who spurn all that is written by believers, and vice versa. Partisans imagine that those who hold an opposing opinion thereby develop demonic horns and the devil’s tongue. This kind of blind fervour in the sanctity of one’s own opinions is what drove me to write Socks, and motivates me to put before you Read’s philosophical piece (below). Whilst I reject his assumptions, I nevertheless learn a great deal from what he says. I hope you can too.
A Break with Prevailing Faith
by Leonard Read, “A Break with Prevailing Faith.” In Anything That’s Peaceful, 1–9. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The
Foundation for Economic Education, 1998.
Galileo was called on the carpet, tried by the Inquisition, and put in prison because he affirmed the theory of Copernicus that the solar system does not revolve around our earth. The truth as he perceived it was a break with the prevailing faith; he committed the unpardonable sin of affronting the mores. This was his guilt.
Americans—enlightened as we suppose ourselves to be—are inclined to view with scorn that illiberal attitude of some three centuries ago which sought to keep the light of new evidence away from the fallacies of that time. Fie on such childish intolerance; we are not afraid of truth; let the light shine in!
Perhaps we should pause for a moment and carefully scrutinize what our own mirror reveals. A letter in the morning mail highlights my point: this woman had visited the librarian of the high school to which she had made a gift of The Freeman, a monthly journal that presents, dispassionately but consistently, the rationale of the free market, private property, limited government philosophy, along with its moral and spiritual antecedents. She discovered that the journal was not among the periodicals displayed for student perusal, that it had been discreetly relegated to the teachers’ reading room. What was the reason for this under-the-rug procedure? The librarian explained, “The Freeman is too conservative.” My correspondent, distraught by this illiberal attitude—by this attempt to keep students from knowing about the freedom philosophy—asked of me, “What can we do about this?”
The answer to this question is to be found in an old English proverb, “Truth will out!” As it did with Galileo’s theory, so it will do with the ideology of freedom! However, if we would conserve our energies and act in the best interests of the freedom philosophy, we will do well to reflect on the most effective way to lend a hand to the philosophy. Suppose, for instance, Galileo had exerted pressure on the Inquisitors to purvey that fragment of truth he had come upon. The folly of such a tactic is clear: His truth in the hands of his enemies; heaven forbid! Likewise, it is folly for us to exert influence on those of the collectivistic faith—be they librarians, teachers, book reviewers or bookstore owners, politicians, or whoever—to carry the message of individuality and its essential concomitant, freedom in exchange. If one wishes to win, never choose teammates who are intent on losing the contest. Indeed, such folks should be scrupulously avoided as partners.
The way to give truth a hand is to pursue a do-it-yourself policy. Each must do his own seeking and revealing. Such success as one experiences will uncover and attract all the useful, helpful, sympathetic teammates one’s pursuit deserves. This appears to be truth’s obstacle course—no shortcuts allowed.
A Dark Age is followed by an Enlightenment; devolution and evolution follow on each other’s heels; myth and truth have each their day, now as ever. These opposites—action and reaction—occur with the near regularity of a pendulum, here as elsewhere, the vaunted “common sense of the American people” notwithstanding.
The Faith in Collectivism
Our time, as did Galileo’s, witnesses an enormous intolerance toward ideas which challenge the prevailing faith, that faith today being collectivism—worldwide. Americans during the past three or four decades have swung overwhelmingly toward the myths implicit in statism; but, more than this, they have become actually antagonistic to, and afraid of identification with, free market, private property, limited government principles. Indeed, such is the impact of the collectivistic myth, they shy away from any idea or person or institution which the political welfarists and planners choose to label as “rightists.” I have laboured full time in this controversy for more than thirty years and, having a good memory, these shifts are as clear to me as if they had occurred in the last few moments, or I’d just viewed a time-lapse movie of these events. Were I unaware that such actions and reactions are inevitable in the scheme of things—particularly when observing such behaviour by businessmen as well as by teachers, clergymen, and labour officials—I would be unable to believe my eyes.
Yet, truth will out! While myth and truth contend in their never-ending fray, truth inches ahead over the millennia as might be expected from the evolutionary process. My faith says that this is ordained, if we be worthy, for what meaning can truth have except our individual perception of it?
This is to say that among the numerous imperatives of truth is that many individuals do their utmost in searching for it and reporting whatever their search reveals. Worthiness also requires of those who would don her mantle a quality of character which I shall call incorruptibility. The more individuals in whom this quality finds refinement the better, and the sooner more truth will out. This quality is too important to suffer neglect for brevity’s sake; so let me spell it out.
If my claim for incorruptibility is to hold water, the notion of corruption will have to be refined beyond its generally accepted identification with bribery, stealing, boldfaced lying, and the like. Deplorable as are these specimens, they wreak but minor havoc compared to the more subtle corruptions of the intellect and the soul which, unfortunately, are rarely thought of—or even felt—as corruption.
The level of corruption I wish to examine was suggested to me by a friend’s honest confession, “I am as much corrupted by my loves as by my hates.” Few of us have succeeded in rising above this weakness; indeed, it is difficult to find one who has. Where is the individual who has so freed himself from his affections for or prejudices against persons, parties, creeds that he can utterly disregard these passions and weigh each and every act or proposal or idea strictly on its own merits—as if he were unaware of its source? Where is the man who can say “yes” or “no” to friend or foe with equal detachment? So rare are such individuals that we run the risk of concluding that no such person exists.
However, we must not despair. Recently, I was presented with an idea by an unknown author—in these words: “There is no such thing as a broken commitment.” Observing on many occasions that people do actually go back on their bond, I thought this to be at odds with the facts of life. Later, its meaning was explained to me: An unbroken commitment in this context means something more than paying debts, keeping promises, observing contracts. A man has a commitment to his own conscience, that is, to truth as his highest conscience discerns truth, and every word and deed must be an accurate reflection thereof. No pressure of fame or fortune or love or hate can even tempt such a person to compromise his integrity. At this level of life there can be no broken commitment.
Incorruptibility in its intellectual and spiritual sense refers to a higher order of men than is generally known to exist. It relates to men whose moral nature is such that infidelity to conscience is as unthinkable to them as stealing pennies from a child’s bank is to us. Folks who would deviate from their own highest concept of righteousness simply are not of this order nor are they likely to be aware that there is such an order of men.
An interesting sidelight on the individual whose prime engagement is with his own conscience and who is not swerved by popular acclaim or the lack of it, is that he seldom knows who his incorruptible brothers are. They are, by their nature—all of them—a quiet lot; indeed, most of us are lucky if we ever spot one.
Signs of Corruption
At this moment in history, this order of men must be distressingly small. The reason for this opinion is the “respectability” which presently attends all but the basest forms of corruption. Almost no shame descends upon seekers after office who peddle pure hokum in exchange for votes; they sell their souls for political power and become the darlings of the very people on whom their wiles are practiced.
Business and professional men and women, farmers and workers, through their associations and lobbies, clergymen from their pulpits, and teachers before their students shamelessly advocate special privileges: the feathering of the nests of some at the expense of others—and by coercion! For so doing they receive far more pious acclaim than censure. Such are the signs of widespread corruption.
As further evidence of intellectual corruption, reflect on the growing extent to which excuses are advanced as if they were reasons. In the politico-economic realm, for example, we put an embargo on goods from China because they are, in fact, competitive. But professing to favour free, competitive enterprise, and hesitating to confess that we are against competition, we corrupt ourselves and offer the excuse that these goods are “red.” Caviar from Russia—noncompetitive—is imported by the ton but is just as “red” as a linen tablecloth from China. This type of corruption occurs on an enormous scale, but is shrugged off as “good business.” Things would be otherwise if incorruptibility were more common. If I am not mistaken, several rare, incorruptible oversouls have passed my way during these last three decades.
For one thing, they were different. But it cannot be said that they stood out from the rest of us for, to borrow a phrase from a Chinese sage, they all operated in “creative quietness.” While not standing out, they were outstanding—that is, their positions were always dictated by what they believed to be right. This was their integrity. They consistently, everlastingly sought for the right. This was their intelligence. Furthermore, their integrity and intelligence imparted to them a wisdom few ever attain: a sense of being men, not gods, and, as a consequence, an awareness of their inability to run the lives of others. This was their humility. Lastly, they never did to others that which they would not have others do to them. This was their justice.
Truth will out, with enough of these incorruptible souls!
The Truth about Freedom
Now, having staked out the ideal, it behoves me to approximate it as best I can, which is to say, to present the truth as I see it, in this instance, as it bears on the free market and related institutions. By my title, Anything That’s Peaceful, I mean let anyone do anything he pleases that’s peaceful or creative; let there be no organized restraint against anything but fraud, violence, misrepresentation, predation; let anyone deliver mail or educate or preach his religion or whatever, so long as it’s peaceful; limit society’s agency of organized force—government—to juridical and policing functions, tabulating the do-nots and prescribing the penalties against un-peaceful actions; let the government do this and leave all else to the free, unfettered market!
All of this, I concede, is an affront to the mores. So be it!
One more point: discussion of ideological questions is more or less idle unless there be an awareness of what the major premise is. At what is the writer aiming? Is he doing his reasoning with some purpose in mind? If so, what is it?
I do not wish to leave anyone in the dark concerning my basic point of reference. Realizing years ago that I couldn’t possibly be consistent in my positions unless I reasoned from a basic premise— fundamental point of reference—set about it by asking one of the most difficult of questions: What is man’s earthly purpose?
I could find no answer to that question without bumping, head on, into three of my basic assumptions. The first derives from the observation that man did not create himself, for there is evidence aplenty that man knows very little about himself, thus:
1. The primacy and supremacy of an Infinite Consciousness;
2. The expansibility of individual consciousness, this being demonstrably possible; and
3. The immortality of the individual spirit or consciousness, our earthly moments being not all there is to it—this being something I know but know not how to demonstrate.
With these assumptions, the answer to the question, “What is man’s earthly purpose?” comes clear: It is to expand one’s own consciousness into as near a harmony with Infinite Consciousness as is within the power of each, or, in more lay terms, to see how nearly one can come to a realization of those creative potentialities peculiar to one’s own person, each of us being different in this respect.
This is my major premise with which the reader may or may not agree but he can, at least, decide for himself whether or not the following chapters are reasoned logically from this basic point of reference.
The ideas offered here have been brewing for several years. Many of them, though slightly rephrased, have appeared elsewhere as separate essays. My aim now is to gather those fragments into an integrated, free market theme.