by Leonard E. Read
Note – Frequent readers of BANKNOTES are aware of my relationship with Leonard E. Read and my admiration for his works during his lifetime. In the following issues I will be sharing his book, VISION, one chapter per month. It was written in 1978. What a privilege it was for me to know this great man! — R. Nelson Nash
To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian. — JOSEPH A. SCHUMPETER
Having spent several hours with this remarkable economist at his home in 1946 following his retirement from Harvard, I know what he meant by “one’s convictions.” He embraced freedom in precisely the same sense as we at FEE mean it – freedom to act creatively as anyone pleases. This is what Schumpeter stood for, and in my view he ranks among the top economists of all time. What a thinker and scholar!
On one point, however, I disagree with him. He contended that our ideal way of life had gone so far down the drain that there was no hope of recovery. His assessment of the future was pessimistic. Mine is the opposite. I have faith that we are going to win! True, winning will be a miracle but I believe with Goethe that “Miracle is the darling child of Faith.”
The barbarian is defined as “a man in a rude uncivilized state.” Barbarism is composed of specific acts. Only rarely in our time is there anyone whose every action is barbaric – in the common use of that term. The lowest form of barbarism is practiced by those who feast on their fellows – cannibals. For all we know, there may be a few among such tribes who refuse to so indulge – a step away from such inhumanity.
However, let not the citizens of today’s U.S.A. bask unduly in their civility. Reflect on the many millions who feast, not on human flesh, but on life-sustaining goods and services – private property – taken from others. Feasting on others has, to our disgrace, become a way of life. Is this any less barbaric than cannibalism? Only less apparent, that’s all. Feasting on others without their consent, here or wherever, is not civilized!
What does it mean to be civilized? It means “to give order, law and culture to; humanize, reclaim from savagery; to transfer from military to civil jurisdiction.”
To give order, law and culture to – Culture, as defined by Matthew Arnold – “acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world” – can grace only the exceptional few, unless there be law and order. Those of us devoted to the good society – the freedom way of life – cherish everyone’s freedom to grow, emerge, evolve. The extent to which others are growing in awareness, perception, consciousness dramatically enlarges your and my cultural opportunities.
It should be obvious that there can be no order without law. In a “civilization” featured by cave dwellers, cannibal, vigilantes or anarchists, all is helter-skelter – confusion reigns! The good society requires legal restrictions against destructive actions, which leaves all citizens free to act creatively as they please. The law, in an ideal society, is strictly limited to keeping the peace and invoking a common justice. The free and unfettered market reigns, with its remarkable wisdom, and culture blooms!
Humanize, reclaim from savagery – The definition of humanize is “to make human; give a human nature or character to. To make humane; make kind, merciful, considerate, civilize, refine.” Thus does mankind emerge from savagery.
When the primitive, barbaric notion of government – “to exercise authority over; direct; control, rule; manage” – prevails as it now does, our “civilization” is in a state of savagery. Political cannibals – little know-it-alls – control our lives!
The ascent from savagery reached its apogee in the U.S.A. when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights limited government more than ever before. Result? Law and order!
In that glorious step toward the ideal society responsibility for self replaced political barbarism. Not only did self-responsibility engender self-reliance but it inspired humans to become humane. Such virtues as kindness, mercy, charity and consideration for others became a way of life. Civilized!
It is an observed fact that when government preempts any activity, be it welfare or whatever, nearly everyone gives up all thought as to how he or she would behave were self-responsibility the mode. If a neighbor is starving, they shrug their shoulders – “That’s the chore of the government.” What if there were no political barbarism? These very persons would share their last loaf of bread! However, in the absence of savagery – when freedom reigns – there would be no starving neighbors!
To transfer from military to civil jurisdiction – Until 1776 men had been killing each other by the millions over the age-old question as to which form of authoritarianism – military jurisdiction – should preside as sovereign. The argument had not been military versus civil jurisdiction, but only between this or that military form. And then, in 1776, the greatest wisdom ever written into political document:
That all men are… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
By unseating government as sovereign – resting sovereignty in the individual as endowed by the Creator – the new nation experienced a transfer from military to civil jurisdiction. This act, and this alone, explains the American miracle – the greatest outburst of creative energy ever known – truly a civilized act!
But, if that action was an upward step toward a civilized U.S.A, what shall be said of recent developments? Military jurisdictions again, that is, countless edicts – Federal, state and local-backed by armed forces: barbarism! How are we to reverse this latest trend? Let us reflect in Schumpeter’s way of drawing the distinction between a civilized man and a barbarian, for the remedy is exclusively in the hands of civilized men.
“To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions,” in Schumpeter’s case, meant a personal commitment to the validity of private ownership, the free and unfettered market and government strictly limited to keeping the peace and involving a common justice. He was ramrod straight!
It is the absence of such convictions, as exhibited by people in every walk of life, that presently plagues “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” By and large, the freedom way of life has few champions and a small following. Finding a Schumpeter among economists is as difficult as finding a statesman among officeholders!
Who are the beneficiaries of successful enterprises – those businesses, large and small, that supply goods and services? We, the consumers, all of us! Were enlightened self-interest to prevail, the benefactors – the suppliers, — no less than the beneficiaries would stand ramrod straight for freedom. The distressing fact. Most individuals in either capacity are befuddled – confusion reigns! What, pray tell can the remedy be?
In what occupational category might we expect the largest percentage of individuals standing foursquare for such ideas as private ownership, the freedom of exchange, the right to cooperate or compete, plus all the other virtues related to entrepreneurship? Would it not be among entrepreneurs themselves – businessmen? Yet, it is almost in vain that one searches for a champion or exemplar.
Why? Perhaps no one knows all the answers. It may be that the competitive struggle so distracts them that they give little thought to the principles underlying the market economy. This is regrettable, for we know that good practice stems exclusively from good ideas, that is, freedom ideas.
There is only one remedy; the ascendency of good ideas. As Arthur Shenfield wrote:
If the businessman does not learn to understand the importance of ideas, he will find himself the slave of the ideas of his enemies. But on the other hand he is fatally ready to accommodate himself to his enemies’ ideas, and even to finance their propagation, if they are presented with an attractive varnish …. And see how readily he swallows the fraudulent concept of the “social responsibility of business,” which is one of his enemies’ best weapons for breaking down his defenses. See also how he will make munificent gifts to universities and foundations whose faculties or staffs are busily engaged in undermining the free enterprise system.
The remedy – good ideas – however, applies not only to businessmen but to all of us. So let us hear and heed Schumpeter’s way for distinguishing a civilized from a barbaric person.
Those who earnestly espouse the freedom way of life are a tiny fraction of our present population, and even among these many do more to harm our cause than to help it! In what manner? Lacking the understanding and courage to proclaim and stand for their convictions they “leak,” that is, they bend to popular opinion which currently rejects freedom.
As Ovid wrote, “We are tardy in believing when belief brings hurt.” What hurts weaklings? It is disapproval, neighborhood or social ostracism, being frowned upon, unpopularity, avoidance and the like. “Silence is golden, sometimes yellow.” How golden it would be if such persons remained silent, for in their half-hearted efforts they do more harm to freedom than those who openly support the command society.
Schumpeter’s standing unflinchingly – ramrod straight for freedom – is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian. Is “the welfare state” way of feasting off others any less barbarous than direct cannibalism!
To stand unflinchingly for what one believes is integrity; the accurate reflection in word and deed of what one believes to be righteous. Indeed, cannibalism would quickly disappear were the opponents of freedom to reflect is word and deed the nonsense they presently espouse. Even they would find the process revolting.
Intellectual honesty is the formula for a return to freedom in society, precisely because it is the formula for individual growth and achievement. It is far more joyous to seek praise from God—righteousness – than from men. So, let us side not only with Joseph Schumpeter but with the Gather of our country, George Washington:
I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.
Comment by R. Nelson Nash – Leonard wrote this book in 1978. Consider the changes in human behavior have occurred since that time. To me, the erosion is rather frightening. How long can this continue?