In 1933, Leonard Read had a conversion experience that was, in a very broad sense, similar to that of St. Paul. Paul experienced his “Damascene conversion” while en route to Damascus, where he intended to persecute recalcitrant Christians. And Read was converted to the ideas of liberty while trying to “straighten out” a recalcitrant libertarian as an ideological enforcer for the New Deal.
As Edmund Opitz wrote:
“The New Deal, with its myriad alphabet agencies, was sending its tentacles in every direction. The Chamber of Commerce would have nothing to do with the communists or socialists, but Chamber policy tended to favor national recovery programs, which seemed to be lending a helping hand to some sectors of business, as well as offering aid to farmers. And Chamber policies were, for young Read, gospel truth. If the Chamber favored some New Deal policies, so did Read!
But there was in the Los Angeles area a small cadre of businessmen who were critical of all New Deal policies. The most articulate man in this group was W. C. Mullendore, an executive with Southern California Edison. Leonard journeyed to Los Angeles to meet with this man Mullendore and straighten him out. As Leonard tells this story, he spent ten minutes explaining Chamber policies, and the next few minutes trying to rationalize them. And began to stumble! His sound instincts began to send up warning signals. At which point Mr. Mullendore took over, ripped the Chamber’s position to shreds, and went on to demonstrate that the New Deal was riddled with fallacies and fantasies. Money is unjustly taxed away from those who earn it and unjustly given to those who lobby for it. And in effecting these transfers government itself becomes rich and powerful while the country at large suffers a drop in productivity, as well as an impairment of personal freedom.
Whatever the words uttered by Mr. Mullendore, they had an overwhelming effect on Read; they changed his life by altering his thinking.”
Converts often become more ardent champions of the truth as they see it than those who were brought up in a given tradition. Indeed, both Paul and Read took up “missionary” work with the zeal of a convert. Paul became the most activist of all the apostles and Read became a tireless teacher of the ideas of liberty.
Once Blind, but Now I See
The Bible speaks of Paul figuratively recovering his sight, as if scales fell from his eyes. Read’s favorite metaphor also involved sight. As Bettina Bien Greaves wrote:
“Read was not above a little showmanship. When he wound up a lecture, he often had the lecture room darkened. Then he would light a small electric candle. The eyes of everyone in the audience would be riveted to that small flame. “No amount of darkness,” he said, “can extinguish that tiny light.” Then, gradually, Read would turn up the intensity of the candle until the whole room was flooded with light. “A good idea,” Read said, “is similar. Once abroad in the world it lives; it cannot be extinguished or put back in a bottle. And an idea whose time has come can spread in time to encompass the entire world.” And so it would be, Read believed, with the freedom idea. In spite of the refusal of the general public to accept the freedom philosophy, Read remained eternally optimistic, convinced that freedom would win in the end.”
When Read took to nurturing the flame of freedom, it was a dark time indeed. In the era of the New Deal and World War II, the magnificent world-changing tradition of liberalism was forgotten by all except a tiny “remnant” as Albert Jay Nock had called it.
But Read had confidence in the ability of truth to spread: especially the illuminating power of economic understanding. Another one of Read’s favorite sight-based metaphors was Bastiat’s notion of “the seen and the unseen”: how the opportunity costs of economic interventions can only be seen through economic theory. Read single-handedly reintroduced Bastiat’s powerful works of economics education to America. As Opitz wrote:
“And now Bastiat enters the picture. Thomas Nixon Carver, distinguished professor of economics at Harvard who championed the free-market economy during the ’20s and ’30s, had retired to southern California. Carver attended a luncheon at which Leonard was the speaker. After the talk Carver approached Leonard and said, “Mr. Read, you sound like Frederic Bastiat.” “Who is Bastiat?” inquired Leonard. Carver responded and promised to mail Bastiat’s booklet titled “Communism versus Free Trade.” Leonard loved it and soon issued it under the imprint of Pamphleteers, Inc., a small group of friends of liberty within the Chamber orbit who, in their “ninth-floor underground,” occasionally chipped in to print short works that otherwise might be neglected, like Rose Wilder Lane’s Give Me Liberty and Ayn Rand’s Anthem. Not long after this, Mr. Hoiles reprinted three of Bastiat’s books in the English translation of about 130 years ago. Several years after founding FEE, Leonard published Dean Russell’s robust translation of Bastiat’s The Law. Well over 500,000 copies have been circulated.”
Read shed light on the unseen in his own educational writings as well. For the mind’s eye, he vividly painted the unseen order and connectivity underlying the free market in his classic essay, “I, Pencil.”
The Light of Liberty
…thousands upon thousands of little candles, passing their light to hundreds more every year.
Founding FEE (the Foundation for Economic Education) was Read’s greatest masterstroke of educational entrepreneurship. FEE connected the scattered “remnant” and turned it into a community. FEE supported and promoted the great Ludwig von Mises, the “last knight of liberalism,” providing an educational connection between the old liberal tradition and the budding new one; FEE was pivotal in bringing Mises’s magnum opus Human Action into the world. FEE first connected the great Murray Rothbard to Mises and to the libertarian movement in general. And FEE’s publications and seminars have been formative to a huge portion of the modern libertarian movement in America.
Leonard Read and FEE not only kept the flame of freedom alive, but they built it up. Had they not, it might have been either extinguished or so weak that it wouldn’t have been able to spread so rapidly following Ron Paul’s first presidential campaign.
Now, the days are not nearly so dark. There are growing libertarian communities all across the country and the world, thousands upon thousands of little candles, passing their light to hundreds more every year, just as Mullendore passed the light onto Read and Read passed the light onto countless others. Moreover, FEE—Leonard’s great brainchild—with its tremendous new digital reach and life-changing in-person programs like the wildly successful new annual event FEEcon, has for several years been undergoing a splendid renaissance and is primed to help spread the light of liberty more widely than ever.
Dan Sanchez is Managing Editor of FEE.org. His writings are collected at DanSanchez.me.