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Appoint a Committee!

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Tags Other Schools of ThoughtPhilosophy and Methodology

06/17/2011Leonard E. Read

The practice of committees, boards, or councils presuming to represent the views of vast constituencies occurs in educational and religious associations, in trade and commercial organizations — indeed, in any segment of society where there is the propensity to organize.

While there are daily examples by the thousands of this "thinking by proxy," one that stood out, and about which many are aware, had to do with a debate between the National Council of Churches and its erstwhile National Lay Committee. Their debate brought into focus a fault that may well lie at the root of unpeaceful socialism. It had to do with the propriety of the NCC's seeming to speak for 35,800,000 Protestants on social, political, and economic questions. The NCC argued affirmatively, the Lay Committee negatively.1

Leo Tolstoy made the point I wish to examine:

From the day when the first members of councils placed exterior authority higher than interior, that is to say, recognized the decisions of men united in councils as more important and more sacred than reason and conscience; on that day began lies that caused the loss of millions of human beings and which continue their unhappy work to the present day.2

Tolstoy's is a striking statement. Is it possible that there is something of a wholly destructive nature which has its source in council, or in group, or in committee-type action? Can this sort of thing generate lies that actually cause the loss of "millions of human beings"? And, as I believe, aid and abet socialism in this bad bargain?

Any reasonable clue to the unhappy state of our affairs merits investigation. Two world wars that settled nothing, but added to the difficulties of avoiding even worse ones; men of doubtful character rising to positions of power over millions of other men; freedom to produce, to trade, to travel disappearing from the earth; everywhere the fretful talk of security as insecurity daily becomes more evident; suggested solutions to problems made of the stuff that gave rise to the problems in the first place; the tragic spectacle, even here in America, of any one of many union labor leaders being able, at will, to control a strategic part of the complex exchange machinery on which the livelihood of all depends; these and other perplexities of import combine to raise a tumultuous "why," and to hasten the search for answers.

Strange how wide and varied the search, as though we intuitively knew the cause to lie in some elusive, hidden, unnoticed error; thousands of not-too-well-tutored folks trying to find light in difficult and erudite tomes, other thousands groping in quiet reflection for answers.

Yes, the search is on for the errors and their answers — for the affair is serious; the stake is life itself. And the error or errors, it is agreed at least among the serious-minded, may well be found deep in the thoughts and behaviors of men, even of well-intentioned men. Anyway, everything and everyone is suspect. And, why not? When there is known to be a culprit and the culprit is not identified, what other scientifically sound procedure is there?

"… on that day began lies …" That is a thought which deserves reflection. Obviously, if everything said or written were lies, then truth or right principles would be unknown. Subtract all knowledge of right principles, and there would not be chaos among men; there would be no men at all.

If half of everything said or written was lies, what then?

Principled Behavior

Human life is dependent not only on the knowledge of right principles; it relies, also, on actions in accord with right principles. However, the nearest that any person can get to right principles — truth — is that which his highest personal judgment dictates as right. Beyond that, one cannot go or achieve. Truth, then, as nearly as any individual can express it, is in strict conformity with this inner, personal dictate of rightness.

The accurate representation of this inner, personal dictate is intellectual integrity. It is the expressing, living, acting of such truth as any given person possesses. Inaccurate representation of what one believes to be right is untruth. It is a lie in the high-level sense of the word, the type of lie Tolstoy vetoed and deplored.

Attaining knowledge of right principles is an infinite process. It is a never-ending performance, a perpetual hatching, a goal to be pursued but never attained. Intellectual integrity — the accurate reflection of highest personal judgment — on the other hand, is undeniably within the reach of all. Thus, the very best we can ever hope to do with ourselves is to project ourselves at our best. To do otherwise is to tell a lie. To tell lies is to deny such truth as is known, and to deny truth is to destroy ourselves and others.

It would seem to follow, then, that if we would find the origin of lies, we might put the spotlight on the genesis of our troublous times. This is why it seems appropriate to accept Tolstoy's statement as a working hypothesis and to examine the idea that lies begin when men accept "decisions of men united in councils as more important and more sacred than reason and conscience." For, certainly, today, many of the decisions which guide national and world policy spring from "men united in councils."

In what manner, then, do the "decisions of men united in councils" tend to initiate lies? A long experience with these arrangements suggests to me that there are several ways.

Mob Action Analyzed

The first way has to do with a strange and what must be an unconscious behavior of men in association. Consider the lowest form of association, the mob. It is a loose and wholly emotional type of gathering. The mob will tar and feather, burn at the stake, string up by the neck; in short, murder! But dissect this association, pull it apart for a careful view, investigate its members. Each person, very often, is a God-fearing, home-loving, wouldn't-kill-a-fly type of individual.

What happens then? What causes persons in a mob to behave as they do? What accounts for the distinction between these persons acting as self-responsible individuals and these very same persons acting in mob-type committee?

Perhaps it is this: These persons, when in mob association, and perhaps at the instigation of a demented leader, lose the self-disciplines which guide them in individual or self-controlled action; thus, the evil which is in each person is released, for there is some evil in each of us. In this situation, no one of the mobsters consciously assumes the personal guilt for what is thought to be a collective act but, instead, puts the onus of it on an irresponsible abstraction — the mob.

I may appear to be unfair in relating mob association to association in general. In all but one respect, yes. But in this single exception there is a striking similarity.

Individuals support proposals in association that they would never propose on their own responsibility. Persons of normal veracity, by any of the common standards of honesty, will join as a board or a committee to sponsor legal thievery, for instance — they will urge the use of the political means to exact the fruits of the labor of others to benefit themselves, their groups, their community, or, to put it bluntly, their mob.

Joe Doakes Seeks Entry

Imagine this: Joe Doakes passed away, his spirit floating to the Pearly Gates. In response to a knock, Saint Peter appeared and inquired:

"Who are you, may I ask?"

"My name is Joe Doakes, sir."

"Where are you from?"

"I am from Robinhoodsville, USA"

"Why are you here?"

"I plead admittance."

Saint Peter scanned his scroll and said:

"Yes, Joe, your name appears on my list but I cannot admit you."

"Why not, pray tell?"

"You stole money from millions of others, including widows and orphans."

"You must have me confused with someone else; I had the reputation of being the most honest man in my community."

"You may have had that reputation among men, but they did not see through the nature of your actions. You see, Joe, you were a member, a financial supporter, and once on the Board of Directors of the Robinhoodsville Chamber of Commerce, the most influential committee in your town. You folks, gathered in council, advocated and obtained a municipal golf course. That project took from the livelihood of others, including widows and orphans, in order that a hundred or so golfers might enjoy the sport with little cost to themselves."

"But Saint Peter, the Robinhoodsville Chamber of Commerce took that action, not your humble applicant, Joe Doakes."

Saint Peter scanned his scroll again, slowly raised his head and said somewhat sadly:

"Joe, the Robinhoodsville Chamber of Commerce is not on my list, nor any foundation, nor any church, nor any trade association, nor any labor union, nor any PTA, nor any committee. All I have on my scroll are individuals, just individuals."

It ought to be obvious that we as individuals do stand responsible for our actions regardless of any wishes to the contrary and irrespective of the devices we try to arrange to avoid personal responsibility. Actions of the group — council or committee — insofar as they are not accurate reflections of the participating individuals, must be classified as lies.

The Art of Compromise

Another way that lies are initiated by the "decisions of men united in councils" inheres in commonly accepted committee practices. Here is a committee which has been assigned the task of preparing a report on what should be done about rent control. The first member is devoted to the welfare-state idea and believes that rents should forever be controlled by governmental fiat. The second member is a devotee of the voluntary society with its free-market economy, and a government of strictly limited powers. He, therefore, believes all remaining rent control should be abolished immediately. The third member believes that rent control is wrong but that decontrol should be effected gradually, over a period of years.


This not-uncommon situation is composed of men honestly holding three different and irreconcilable beliefs. Yet a report is expected and, under the customary committee theory and practice, is usually forthcoming. What shall they do? Is there some compromise not too disagreeable to any one of the three committeemen? For instance, why not recommend that landlords be permitted by government to increase rents by no more than 15 percent? Agreed!

In this hypothetical case — in no way at odds with common practice — the recommendation is a fabrication. Truth, as understood by any one of the three, has no spokesman; it has been miserably distorted. By any reasonable definition, a lie has been told.

This example (numberless variations could be cited) suggests only the nature of the lie in embryo. It is interesting to see what becomes of it.

Behind the Committee

Not all bodies called committees are true committees — a phase of the discussion that will be dealt with later. However, the true committee (an arrangement which calls for resolutions in accord with what a majority of the members are willing to say in concert) is but the instigator of fabrications yet more pronounced. The committee, for the most part, presupposes another larger body to which its recommendations are made.

These larger bodies have a vast, a very nearly all-inclusive, range in present-day American life: the neighborhood-development associations; the small town and big city chambers of commerce; the regional and national trade associations; the PTAs; labor unions organized vertically to encompass crafts and horizontally to embrace industries; farmers' granges and co-ops; medical and other professional societies; ward, precinct, county, state, and national organizations of political parties; government councils, from the local police department to the Congress of the United States; the United Nations; thousands and tens of thousands of them, every citizen embraced by several of them and millions of citizens embraced by scores of them; most of them resolving to act as groups, as "men united in councils."

These associational arrangements divide quite naturally into two broad classes: (1) those that are of the voluntary type, the kind to which we pay dues if we want to, and (2) those that are a part of government, the kind to which we pay taxes whether we want to or not. For the purpose of this critique, emphasis will be placed on the voluntary type.

Now, it is not true, nor is it here pretended, that every associational resolution originates in distortions of personal conceptions of what is right. But any one of the millions of citizens who participate in these associations has, by experience, learned how extensive these fabrications are. As a matter of fact, there has developed a rather large acceptance of the notion that wisdom can be derived from the averaging of opinions, provided there are enough of them. The quantitative theory of wisdom, so to speak!

The Deception Extended

If one will concede that the aforementioned committee characteristics and council behaviors are perversions of truth, it becomes interesting to observe the manner of their extension — to observe how the lie is compounded.

Analyzed, it runs something like this: An association takes a position on some issue and claims or implies that it speaks for its 1,000,000 members. It is possible, of course, that each of the million members agrees with the stand taken by the association. But in all probability, this is an untruthful claim for the following reasons:

  1. If every member were actually polled on the issue, and the majority vote were accepted as the association's position, there is no certainty that more than 500,001 persons agreed with the position claimed to be that of the 1,000,000.

  2. If not all members were polled, or not all were at the meeting where the voting took place, there is only the certainty that a majority of those voting favored the position of the association — still claimed to be the position of 1,000,000 members. If a quorum should be 100, there is no certainty that more than 51 persons agreed with the position.

  3. It is still more likely that the opinion of the members was not tested at all. The officers, or some committee, or some one person may have determined the stand of the association. Then there is no certainty that more than one person (or a majority of the committee) favored the association's position.

  4. And, finally, if that person should be dishonest — that is, untrue to that which he personally believes to be right, either by reason of ulterior motives or by reason of anticipating what the others might approve — then, it is pretty certain that the resolution did not even originate in a single honest opinion.

A personal experience will highlight the point I am trying to make. The economist of a national association and I were breakfasting, just after V-J Day. Wage and price controls were still in effect. The economist opened our dialogue:

"I have just written a report on wage and price controls which I think you will like."

"Why do you say you think I will like it? Why don't you say you know I will like it?"

"Well, I — er — hedged a little on rent controls."

"You don't believe in rent controls. Why did you hedge?"

"Because the report is as strong as I think our Board of Directors will adopt."

"As the economist, isn't it your duty and responsibility to state that which you believe to be right? If the Board Members want to take a wrong action, let them do so and bear the responsibility for it."

Actually, what did happen? The Board adopted that report as written by the economist. It was represented to a committee of the Congress as the considered opinion of the constituency of that association. Many of the members believed in the immediate abolishment of rent control. Yet, they were reported as believing otherwise — and paying dues to be thus represented. By supporting this procedure with their membership and their money, they were as responsible as though they had gone before the Congress and told the lie themselves.

In order to avoid the twofold dishonesty in this situation, the spokesman of that association would have had to tell the whole truth to the congressional committee. It would have been like this:

"This report was adopted by our Board of Directors, 35 of the 100 being present. The vote was 18 in favor, 12 against; 5 did not vote. The report itself was written by the association's economist, but he does not believe it is right."

Such honesty or exactness is more the exception than the rule, as everyone who has had experience in associational work can attest. What really happens is a misrepresentation of concurrence, a misorganized way of lying about how many of any group stand for what. Truth, such as is known, is seldom spoken. It is warped into a misleading distortion. It is obliterated by this process of the majority speaking for the minority, more often by the minority speaking for the majority, sometimes by one dishonest opportunist speaking for thousands. Truth, such as is known — the best judgments of individuals — for the most part, goes unrepresented, unspoken.

This, then, is the thread out of which much of local, national, and world policy is being woven. Is it any wonder that many citizens are confused?

Three questions are in order:

  1. What is the reason for all these troubles with truth?

  2. What should we do about these associational difficulties?

  3. Is there a proper place for associational activity as relating to important issues?

The Reasons Examined

Pointing out causes is a hazardous venture; as one ancient sage put it, "Even from the beginnings of the world descends a chain of causes." Thus, for the purpose of this critique, it would be folly to attempt more than casual reference to some of our own recent experiences.

First, there appears to be no widespread, lively recognition of the fact that conscience, reason, knowledge, integrity, fidelity, and other virtues are the distinctive and exclusive properties of individual persons.

Somehow, there follows from this lack of recognition the mischievous notion that wisdom can be derived by pooling the conclusions of a sufficient number of persons, even though no one of them has applied his faculties to the problem in question. From this premise, the imagination begins to ascribe personal characteristics to a collective — the committee, council, association — as though the collective could think, judge, know, or assume responsibility. With this as a notion, there is the inclination to substitute the "decisions of men united in councils" for the reason and conscience of persons. The individual feels relieved of personal responsibility and thus gives no real thought to the matter in question.

Second, there is an almost blind faith in the efficacy and rightness of majority decision, as though the mere preponderance of opinion were the device for determining what is right. This thinking is consistent with and a part of the "might-makes-right" doctrine.

Third, we have carried the division-of-labor practice to such a high point in this country, and with such good effect in standard-of-living benefits, that we seem to have forgotten that the practice has any limitations. Many of us, in our voluntary associational activities, have tried to delegate moral and personal responsibilities to these associational abstractions.

As a consequence, our policies and public positions are void of reason and conscience. These massive quantities of unreasoned, collective declarations and resolutions have the power to inflict damag3e but are generally useless in conferring understanding. So much for causes.

Do Not Participate!

Next, what can be done about these associational difficulties? I can give only my own answer. I do not know what our attitude should be, but only what mine is! It is to have no part in any association whatsoever which takes actions implicating me, for which I am not ready and willing to accept personal responsibility.

Put it this way: If I am opposed, for instance, to spoliation — legal plunder — I am not going to risk being reported in its favor. This is a matter having to do with morals, and moral responsibility is strictly a personal affair. In this and like areas, I prefer to speak for myself. I do not wish to carry the division-of-labor idea, the delegation of authority, to this untenable extreme.

One friend who shares these general criticisms objects to the course I have taken. He argues that he must remain in associations which persist in misrepresenting him in order to influence them for the better. If one accepts this view, how can he avoid "holing up" with every evil to be found, anywhere? How can one lend support to an agency which lies about his convictions and avoid living a lie in the process? If to stop such evil in others one has to indulge in evil, it seems evident that evil will soon become universal. The alternative? Stop lending a hand to the doing of evil! This at least has the virtue of lessening the evildoers by one. Furthermore, were there a record of the men who have wrought the greatest changes for good in the world, I am certain that the ones who acted on their own responsibility would top the ones who acted in committees.

How Associations May Help

Now the third question, "Is there a proper place for associational activity as relating to important public issues?" There is.

The bulk of activities conducted by many associations is as businesslike, as economical, as appropriate to the division-of-labor process, as is the organization of specialists to bake bread or to make automobiles. It is not this vast number of useful service activities that is in question.

The phase of committee activities which I see as the cause of so much mischief has to do with a technique, a plausible but insidious method by which reason and conscience — the repositories of such truths as we possess — are not only robbed of incentive for improvement but are actually used for fabrications, which are then represented as the convictions of persons who hold no such convictions. No better device for the promotion of socialism was ever invented!

It was noted above that not all bodies called committees are true committees, a true committee being an arrangement by which a number of persons bring forth a report consistent with what the majority is willing to state in concert. The true committee is part and parcel of the "majority is right" line of thought — or lack of thought.

The alternative arrangement, on occasion referred to as a committee, may include the same set of men. The distinction is that the responsibility and the authority for a study is vested not in the collective, the set of men, but in one person, preferably the one most skilled in the subject at issue. The others serve, not as decision makers, but as consultants. The one person exercises his own judgment as to the suggestions to be incorporated or omitted. The report is his and is presented as his, with such acknowledgments of assistance and concurrence as the facts warrant. In short, the responsibility for the study and the authority to conduct it are reposed where responsibility and authority are capable of being exercised — in an individual. This arrangement takes full advantage of the skills and specialties of all parties concerned. The tendency here is toward an intellectual leveling-up, whereas with the true committee the tendency is toward irresponsibility. The first principle of any successful organizational arrangement is: always keep responsibility and authority commensurate and in balance.

On occasion, associations are formed for a particular purpose and supported by those who are like-minded as to that purpose. As long as the associational activities are limited to the stated purpose and as long as the members remain like-minded, the danger of misrepresentation is removed.

It is the multipurposed association, the one that potentially may take a "position" on a variety of subjects, particularly subjects relating to the rights or the property of others — moral questions — where misrepresentation is not only possible but almost certain. Merely keep in mind the nature of a committee.

The remedy here, if a remedy can be put into effect, is for the association to quit taking "positions" except on such rare occasions as unanimous concurrence is manifest, or except as the exact and precise degree and extent of concurrence is represented. Were the whole truth told about the genesis of and the concurrence in most committee reports, their destiny would be the wastebasket.

The Strength of the Individual

The alternative to associational "positions" is individual membership positions, that is, using the associational facilities to service the members: provide headquarters and meeting rooms where members may assemble in free association, exchange ideas, take advantage of the knowledge of others, learn of each other's experiences and thoughts. In addition, let the association be staffed with research experts and a competent secretariat, having on hand a working library and other aids to learning. Then, let the members speak or write or act as individual persons! Indeed, this is the real, high purpose of voluntary associations.

The practical as well as the ethical advantages of this suggested procedure may not at first be apparent. Imagine Patrick Henry having said:

"I move that this convention go on record as insisting that we prefer death to slavery."

Now, suppose that the convention had adopted that motion. What would have been its force? Certainly almost nothing as compared to Patrick Henry's ringing words:

"I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" (Italics mine)

This was not a case of Patrick Henry's trying to decide for anyone else. His listeners were invited to consider only what he had decided for himself, and thus could weigh, more favorably, the merits of emulation. No convention, no association, no "decisions of men united in councils" could have said such a thing in the first place; and second, anything the members might have said in concert could not have matched the force of this personal declaration. Third, had the convention been represented in any such sentiments, it is likely that misrepresentations would have been involved.

A moment's reflection on the words of wisdom that have come down to us throughout all history, the words and works that have had the power to live, the words and works around which we have molded much of our lives, must reveal that they are the words and works of persons — not of collectives or sets of men, not what men have uttered in concert, not the "decisions of men united in councils."

In short, if advancement of what's right is the objective, then the decision-of-men-united-in-council practice could well be abandoned on the basis of its impracticality — if for no higher reason. Conceded, it can do mischief; it is also an utter waste of time in the creative areas, that is, for the advancement of truth.

The reasons for the impracticality of this device in the creative areas seem clear. Each of us when seeking perfection, whether of the spirit, of the intellect, or of the body, looks not to his inferiors but to his betters, not to those who self-appoint themselves as his betters, but to those who, in his own humble judgment, are his betters. Experience has shown that such perfection as there is exists in individuals, not in the lowest common-denominator expressions of a collection of individuals. Perfection emerges with the clear expression of personal faiths — the truth as it is known, not with the confusing announcement of verbal amalgams — lies.

"… on that day began lies that caused the loss of millions of human beings and which continue their unhappy work to the present day." The evidence, if fully assembled and correctly presented, would, no doubt, convincingly affirm Tolstoy's observation. We have, in this process, the promoter of socialism and the enemy of peace.

How to stop this type of lie? It is simply a matter of personal determination and a resolve to act and speak in strict accord with one's own inner, personal dictate of what is right — and for each of us to see to it that no other man or set of men is given our permission to represent us otherwise.

  • 1. U.S. News and World Report, February 3, 1956, pp. 43–46.
  • 2. Leo Tolstoy, The Law of Love and the Law of Violence (New York: Rudolph Field, 1948), p. 26.
  • 3. This determination of mine does not refer to membership in or support of either of the two major political parties. What I consider to be an appropriate role concerning partisan politics is reserved for the next chapter.
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