In 1958, Foundation for Economic Education guiding light, Leonard Read, presented a series of lectures in Argentina against the backdrop of an economy decimated by mis-government which shares a great deal with the same country six decades later. The lectures became a small book-- Why Not Try Freedom?—an excellent encapsulation of Read’s thought.
Particularly interesting is his first chapter, “Government—An Ideal Concept,” because in a world where “each man must actually live his own answer to the challenges posed by his existence,” knowing the appropriate ideal for government is an indispensable guide to growth and social cooperation. Sixty years later, that deserves revisiting, as the ideal is almost unrecognizably distant from current reality.
The problems of man, society, and government are approached most constructively…within a moral and spiritual frame of reference.
Man’s purpose is…to come as close as he can to the realization of those creative potentialities peculiar to his own person.
Any behavior, personal or collective, which tends to retard man in his pursuit of the ideal life is, in my judgment, ipso facto bad, evil or immoral. Any behavior, personal or collective, which tends to promote or complement this objective is, in my judgment, ipso facto good, virtuous or moral.
Any person has a moral right to inhibit the destructive action of another or others. However, no person has a moral right to forcibly direct or to control what another shall invent, create, or discover; no right to dictate where he shall labor, how long he shall work, what his wage shall be, what and with whom he shall exchange, or what thoughts he shall entertain. No single person has any such moral right. No combination of persons has any such moral right. No agency, political or otherwise, has any such moral right.
There are no moral sanctions for government to intervene in any manner whatsoever with productive or creative actions. The moral sanction for establishing government springs from the right of the individual to inhibit or prohibit or restrain the destructive actions of others.
It is necessary to know why government should exist--what it is for--in order to gain an awareness of what it is not for. We must know government and its purpose…to limit it to its purpose.
An ideal theory of government and liberty is to be derived from the necessity for the free, uninhibited flow of all creative human energy .
We are all dissimilar. However, we have …one common necessity if we are to live and progress. It is that prohibitions against, or restrictions upon, the release and exchange of our creative energies be at the lowest minimum possible…this removal of inhibitory influences--the kind imposed by man on men--serves to benefit all of us in common.
Each individual in his own upgrading…builds only upon free will and volition.
Inhibitory influences are fraud, violence, misrepresentation, and predatory practices. All are immoral, be they done legally or illegally. The problem here is to remove inhibitory actions. This can be accomplished by restraining aggressive force.
No individual has the moral right to use aggressive force against any other individual. He has the moral right to use only defensive or repellent force.
If a person has a right to life…he has a right to protect and to sustain that life, the sustenance of life being nothing more nor less than the fruits of one’s labor—one’s honestly acquired property…the rights to the fruits of one’s own labor involves the restraint or the removal of obstacles to…one’s own exchange, but also the obstacles to other people’s exchange.
If one has a right to life and livelihood, every other person has a similar right… the requirement that life and livelihood be protected are coterminous with society .
The source of all creative and variable human energy…rests in…the individual, in such voluntary and cooperative actions as he may freely choose to take. This is the province of the individual and not of society. This is the vast, unlimited area of liberty, of self-reliance, and of self-discipline.
If the purpose of man on earth is self-realization…it follows that the law, the book of rules and prohibitions for social administration, can logically serve only the purpose of deterring man’s destructive actions for the sake of giving full flower to his creative actions…no just object beyond removing social obstacles to the release of the human spirit. An organized arm of society, within its proper bounds, can be but the handmaiden of liberty; government, within its proper bounds, can be but the protective servant of all individuals equally against antisocial marauders.
Cooperation for creative purposes must be left to voluntary action. Men can cooperate to use force, but they cannot be forced to cooperate…However, cooperation for creative purposes requires, as an auxiliary, cooperation to annul destructive purposes. Cooperation for creative purposes requires that inhibitory influences against creative action be neutralized.
Society’s political apparatus…[is] to inhibit, repel, restrain, penalize. [Members] can do everything else better outside the apparatus than in it. What should be inhibited, restrained, penalized? Those actions of man which are characterized by aggressive force, namely, those actions which themselves inhibit, restrain, destroy, or penalize creative effort. Defensive force may be used to neutralize aggressive force, and such a use of forces serves a social end. This use of defensive force should be the guiding principle of the political agency.
Cooperation is required among members of society to perform the negative function of prohibiting obstacles to production, communication, and exchange… limited to those actions which have a common benefit to creative effort. Ideally, the only dissenters would be those who want to live by predation.
Any logical and just organization by society derives its existence from…the common need for every man to protect himself against those who would limit his creative opportunities. Every human being is born with as much right to live his life creatively as any other man. Man, however, is incapable of protecting his life as a personal, individual project, and at the same time of realizing his human potential…By reason of this social circumstance, he is committed, in principle, to cooperating with his fellow men in the protective project…that should make no distinction whatever as to persons…where all ought to be regarded as equal… where special privilege should be unknown.
In short, the law’s limitation inheres in its justification. Force is a dangerous thing. Therefore, society's organized arm is a dangerous instrument. It is not, as some assert, a necessary evil. When limited to its proper defensive scope, it is a positive good. When exceeding its proper limitations and becoming aggression, it is not a “necessary” but a positive evil.
Aggressive force…is always evil. There are no exceptions. No man has any moral right to use aggressive force against any other man. Nor have any number of men, in or out of societal organizations, any moral right to use it.
One of the most distressing fallacies having to do with government and liberty is the assumption that the State, an agency presumably of the people, has rights beyond those possessed by the people…no reasonable person can logically believe that any such control belongs to a multitude of citizens…It has no derivation. It is an arrogation.
Any person has the natural and moral right to use repellent or defensive force against any other person who would aggress against him. No person on this earth has any moral right of control over any other person superior to the defense of his own life and livelihood.
Every living human being…has a vested interest in the creative emergence of every other human being…in the free, uninhibited flowing and exchange of the energies thus released; the true interests of all, therefore, are in harmony…every individual has a vested interest in common with all other men in restraining all inhibitory influences to creative energy and creative energy exchanges. All else is individual, voluntary, and cooperative as individuals may choose; for all else is creative.
Leonard Read provides a valuable touchstone—the universal liberty to grow or emerge--to understand what should ideally characterize a government of self-owning individuals. That, in turn, reveals a sharp contrast with “What Is and What Should Never Be,” (apologies to Led Zeppelin) about government and its impositions in our lives. We have, in many ways, moved farther from the ideal in the 60 years since Read articulated it. But he continues to offer us the wisdom necessary to retrace our mis-steps and reopen “the vast, indeed, the infinite, area of emergence” that is possible to us. And we have a lot to gain if each of us would convert our “massive potential for growth,” as Bill Murray put it in Stripes, into reality.