By Leonard E. Read
When they are asleep you cannot tell a good man from a bad one. – ARISTOTLE
The metaphor, “asleep at the switch,” means “not alert to a duty or opportunity,” the sense in which it is here used.
No one remembers falling asleep! The moment of dropping off is lost to us; we only remember coming awake-if indeed we ever do awake! As to duties and opportunities unlimited-no person has awakened to more than an infinitesimal few of them. Those of us now asleep at the switch either have never awakened or, if temporarily aroused by this or that, have since lost interest and fallen back into a lifelong slumber. This appears to explain why so many of us are dead to the world of wonders, to the exciting duties and opportunities of our earthly existence.
When it comes to liberty, all but a few are asleep at the switch, dead to this remarkable wonder that opens the door to opportunities unlimited. Why this plight? What should we do about it? These questions need serious examination.
John W. Burgess maintained that mankind did not begin with liberty but, rather, that mankind acquires liberty through civilization. Liberty is but the flowering of human ascendancy in virtures and principles. The first known civilization emerged in Sumer about 5,000 years ago. Liberty, as we think of it, was no more in the minds of earlier mankind than the free market or private property or limited government or air conditioning or harnessed electric energy or millions of recent phenomena. Prior to Sumer, mankind had not become civilized enough to acquire liberty.
A civilized person, according to my ideal, must recognize that man is at once a social and an individualistic being. Thus, he must not only be self-responsible but, at the same time, understand that he owes to others no infringements on their rights.
In a word, the truly civilized person is a devotee of freedom; he opposes all man-concocted restraints against the release of creative human energy.
The civilized person realizes how incorrect it is to think of freedom as synonymous with unrestrained action. Freedom does not and cannot include any action, regardless of sponsorship, which lessens the freedom of a single human being. To argue contrarily is to claim that freedom can be composed of freedom negations, patently absurd. Unrestraint carried to the point of impairing the freedom of others is the exercise of license not freedom. To minimize the exercise of license is to maximize the area of freedom.
Ideally, that is, in a civilized society, government would restrain license, not indulge in it; make it difficult, not easy; disgraceful, not popular. A government that does otherwise is licentious, not liberal-and a people who permit this are not quite civilized.
To illustrate uncivilized actions: Those in “the Third World,” that is, the people in the impoverished or underdeveloped countries, with a few notable exceptions, are asleep at the switch. As a consequence they starve by the millions. Asleep to what? Not only to how the free and unfettered market works its wonders but also to the reasons why government should be limited. They are miserable. That’s one side of the uncivilized coin.
The other side is just as uncivilized. American politicians observe the plight of these people. Their conclusion: “We must save them!” By demonstrating how to overcome their poverty? By teaching them how to save and accumulate capital and to freely trade and compete? No, for these dictocrats haven’t the slightest idea themselves as to this, the only remedy. They are unaware of the differences between liberty and slavery. So, what is their solution? Confiscation! They coercively acquire dollars by the hundreds of billions, every dollar taken from the fruits of our labors and gratuitously passed on to these victims of underdevelopment. By any reasonable definition, such action is uncivilized. Merely bear in mind that mankind acquires liberty through civilized actions, and it is obvious that such give-away programs destroy the very foundations of liberty.
Examples abound of smaller but comparable “programs” emanating from federal, state and local governments. Observe this sequence:
1. Governments, having no money of their own, must first coercively take away in order gratuitously to give away.
2. That which is coercively taken away is the source of our livelihood.
3. There cannot be life without livelihood.
4. To the extent that livelihood is taken, to that extent are citizens deprived of life.
5. These deprivations diminish individual liberty-liberty being the flowering of civilized individuals.
6. Give-away “”programs” quite obviously put the cart before the horse-cause and effect in reverse.
7. Those thus engaged are not awake to the duties and opportunities liberty opens to human beings. They are, indeed, asleep at the switch!
Of the two questions to be answered the first is, why this devastating plight? Why are so many dead to the wonders of liberty? These persons cannot remember falling asleep. Perhaps they never were awake and, thus, are sound asleep to mankind’s high purpose-individual evolution and the liberty to act creatively as one pleases. They are in the same plight as were the ancients prior to Sumer, the first known civilization. Nor should we be surprised at this seeming delinquency, and for at least two reasons:
1. Evolution is a very slow process, gracing only a relative few since Cro-Magnon man of some 35,000 years ago.
2. Were we to collapse the eons of time since life first appeared into a single year-a comprehensible span of time-human liberty had its inception only 3Y2 seconds ago. It is the newest of all politico-economic concepts, opening the way to duties and opportunities: creation at the human level. Little wonder that only a few have the slightest idea as to what liberty is all about. The millions-and understandably-asleep at the switch!
There are, of course, numerous levels or depths of sleepiness. They range from sound asleep to drowsiness to catnaps to half awake. By the same token, awareness of liberty ranges from zero to brief glimmers to rather profound understanding.
What do people do when asleep? A few are sleepwalkers but, mostly, they do no more than dream. And a dream, as related to this thesis, is a pipe dream: “a fantastic idea, vain hope, or impossible plan….” I must conclude, therefore, that all the “plans” or any fraction thereof which are inconsistent with civilized actions-the fountain of liberty-are no more than thrusts from primitive antiquity. They are imagined utopias or paradises-various forms of Shangri-La!
Wrote Goethe: “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” The millions who are asleep at the switch and who dream and unknowingly pave the road to their own slavery actually think they are as free as the few who are partially awake and have some understanding of liberty. The millions who falsely believe they are free are enslaved by a dreadful ignorance: not knowing their plight but not knowing that they know not! Attempts to sell liberty to these millions are as fruitless as trying to sell a course in physical fitness to a corpse.
The second question would seem to be, what are we to do about this plight? However, this is neither a we nor a wee problem. Instead, it is an I and an Infinite problem.
What, then, am I to do? Spend my time and energy trying to awaken those who are asleep at the switch as most freedom devotees are doing? Or, shall I take that seldom traveled uphill road that leads to my own awakening? These are my choices; it’s one or the other! My decision to take the latter course is founded on several observations.
1. Who among all the people inhabiting this earth have I been commissioned to save? Only yours truly, an answer with which no one will disagree. Try to find an individual in this or any other country who believes my role is that of his savior. Not one, and that’s the way it should be!
2. What if I were to take the other course-awaken a person asleep at the switch? What is his reaction to being yelled at, to setting him straight?
3. Get off my back!” U Shut up!” “Leave me alone!” “Mind your own business!” “Who do you think you are?” ‘These reforming tactics spawn adversaries and antagonists, never friends or seekers of one’s light. Again, this is the way it should be. Erroneous methods only multiply existing errors.
4. What is the right method? Rather than wasting one’s energy vainly trying to improve others, it is to better one’s self! Why is this a civilizing procedure that spawns liberty? Because coming awake to liberty is exclusively a personal achievement. Human betterment in this aspect of life has as many points of origin as there are human beings. I cannot originate improvement in you or you in me.
5. Wrote Edmund Burke: “Example is the school of mankind; they will learn at no other.” This wise observation applied no less to Burke or Socrates or Emerson than it relates to you and me.
Merely note how many of us still seek the tutorship of these seers, and of numerous other individuals who have been and are way out front in their intellectual, moral and spiritual enlightenment. Those who seek truth are attracted to exemplars. All history attests to this law of attraction the drawing power of excellence. The school of mankind to which Burke refers issues no degrees and has no graduates. It is, instead, perpetual progression-self-dedication for life!
The few who really count in advancing civilization and liberty are those who are alert not only to their duties but to opportunities unlimited. They are those rare persons not asleep at the switch. May their tribe increase, for your sake and mine!