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Home | Mises Library | Find the Wrong, and There's the Right

Find the Wrong, and There's the Right

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Tags Big GovernmentFree MarketsWar and Foreign PolicyPhilosophy and Methodology

03/23/2010Leonard E. Read

[Chapter 2 of Accent on the Right (1968)]

As in most disagreements, the current politico-economic controversy revolves around what's right. And contrary to what a socialist or a libertarian usually thinks of his opponents, each is as convinced of his righteousness as the other. A consciously malevolent person is seldom found.

That this contest as to what's right in social relationships will ever be resolved is doubtful, for what's right is to be found only in what's true, and who among us is qualified to settle on that? As do most others, I have numerous views which I believe to be right and not even debatable. But to list or classify them? Far easier, I think, to define right actions as those which are not demonstrably wrong. For it is possible to bring within our purview and make some reasonable assessment of the wrong; what's right is so vast that it hardly lends itself to any such analysis.

Those actions which are wrong in social relationships are the ones we should aim to prohibit by personal endeavor, by education and, as a last resort, by society's formal agency of organized force: government. Thus, to analyze what should be prohibited is a means of opening to our vision the infinite realm of righteousness.

As an introductory thought, reflect on how misled we so often are when judging people by first appearances! To dramatize the fact that what first meets the eye is often deceiving, imagine identical twins. They do indeed look alike, but how they can differ in other respects! One brother can be an out-and-out collectivist, statist, mercantilist, interventionist; the other an ardent believer in individual rights, free-market practices, and private ownership of property. For reasons difficult to explain, one has a socialistic orientation while the other has a libertarian devotion.

But even these opposed designations — socialist and libertarian — do not accurately or revealingly stake out the significant differences between these two men. Such labels may have considerable emotional impact, but they do not precisely distinguish the conflicting philosophies. What really, in the ideological sense, marks the one from the other? Is there some one characteristic that can be identified and evaluated? Yes, I believe there is, and this brings me to my point: the difference between the socialist and the libertarian thinker is a difference of opinion as to what others should be prohibited from doing.

Let's use this claim as a working hypothesis, think it through, and test its validity. If the claim proves irrefutable, then we have come upon a fairly simple method of evaluating our own or anyone else's authoritarianism or, conversely, libertarianism.[1] Further, we shall, by identifying what should be prohibited, discover what's wrong and, thus, expand our awareness of what's right. But first, some reflections on prohibitions in general.

Rules for Survival

How many animal species have come and gone no one knows. Many thousands survive and the fact of their survival, whether guided by instincts or drives or conscious choices, rests, in no small measure, on the avoidance of specie-destructive actions. Thus, all surviving species have, at the very minimum, abided by a set of prohibitions — things not to do; otherwise, they would have been extinct ere this.

Certain types of scorpions, for example, stick to dry land; puddles and pools are among their instinctual taboos. There is some prohibitory force that keeps fish off dry land, lambs from chasing lions, and so on and on. How insects and animals acquire their built-in prohibitions is not well understood. We label their reactions instinctual, meaning that it is not reasoned or conscious behavior.

Man, on the other hand, does not now possess a like set of instinctual do-nots: built-in prohibitions. Instead, he must enjoy or suffer the consequences of his own free will, his own power to choose between what's right and what's wrong. In a word, man is more or less at the mercy of his own imperfect understanding and conscious decisions.

The upshot of this is that human beings must choose the prohibitions they will observe, and the selection of a wrong one may be as disastrous to our species as omitting a right one. Survival of the human species rests as much on observing the correct prohibitions as is the case with any other species.

But in our case, the observance of the correct must-nots has survival value only if preceded by a correct, conscious selection of the must-nots. When the survival of the human race is at stake, and when that survival rests on the selection of prohibitions by variable, imperfect members of that race, the wonder is that the ideological controversy is not greater than now.

When Homo sapiens first appeared he had little language, no literature, no maxims, no tradition or history to which he could make reference. In short, he possessed no precise and accurate list of things not to do. We cannot explain the survival of these early specimens of our kind unless we assume that some of the instinctual prohibitions of their animal cousins remained with them during the transition period from instinct to some measure of self-knowledge for, throughout many millennia, we know nothing of man-formalized prohibitions. Then appeared the crude taboos observed by what we now call "primitive peoples." These have survival value in certain conditions, even though the reasons given for the practice might not hold water.

Enforcing the Rules

If prohibitions are as important as here represented, it is well that we reflect not only on the man-contrived thou-shalt-nots but particularly on the several types of persuasion to make them effective. For it is self-evident that there can be no thou-shalt-not worth the mention unless it is backed by some form of persuasion. So far as this exploration is concerned, there are three forms of persuasion which make prohibitions effective or meaningful. I shall touch on the three in the order of their historical appearance.

The Code of Hammurabi, 2000 BC, is probably the earliest of systematized prohibitions. This is considered one of the greatest of the ancient codes; it was particularly strong in its prohibitions against defrauding the helpless. To secure observance, the persuasiveness took the form of organized police force. The Columbia Encyclopedia refers to the retributive nature of the punishment meted out as a "savage feature…an eye for an eye literally." Not only is this the oldest of the three forms of persuasion as a means of effectuating prohibitions, but it is today very popular and much employed all over the "civilized" world, in the United States as elsewhere.

The next and higher form of persuasion appeared about a millennium later — the form employed to effectuate the thou-shalt-nots known as the Decalogue. Here the persuasiveness was not organized police force but, instead, the promise of retribution: initially, the hope of tribal survival if the commands were obeyed and the fear of tribal extinction were they disobeyed and, later, the hope of heavenly bliss or the fear of hell and damnation. It may be said that the Decalogue was backed by moral rather than political law, that is, the persuasion advanced from a physical to a spiritual force. We witness in this evolutionary step the early emergence of man's moral nature.

"While there are many who will agree that they, personally, should not kill, steal, enslave, it is only the individual with a first-rate moral nature who will have no hand in encouraging any agency — even government — in doing these things for him or others."

The latest and highest form of persuasion is that which gives effectiveness to the most advanced prohibition, the Golden Rule. As originally scribed, around 500 BC, it reads: "Do not do unto others that which you would not have them do unto you." What persuasiveness lies behind this prohibition? Not physical force! And not even such spiritual force as hope and fear! This latest force is a sense of justice, perhaps the inmost law of one's being.

That this is a recently acquired human faculty is supported by its rarity. Ever so many people will concede the soundness of the Golden Rule, but only now and then is an individual to be found whose moral nature is elevated to the point where he can observe this do-not in daily living. The person who achieves mastery of this discipline moves beyond a satisfaction with external rewards and punishments to the profound conviction that virtue and excellence are their own reward. Doing what's right counts above all else.

The Emerging Moral Faculty

It is relevant to that which follows to reflect on what is meant by an elevated moral nature. To illustrate the lack of such a nature: we had a kitchen employee who pilfered, that is, she would quietly lift provisions from our larder and tote them to her own larder. This practice did no offense to such moral scruples as she possessed; she was only concerned lest anyone see her indulge in toting. Nothing was wrong except getting caught! My point is that this individual had not yet acquired what is here meant by an elevated moral nature.

What distinguishes the individual who has an elevated moral nature? For one thing, he cares not one whit about what others see him do. Why? He has a private eye of his own, far more exacting and severe than any force or fear others can impose: a highly developed conscience.

Not only does such a person possess a sense of justice but he also possesses its counterpart, a disciplinary conscience. Justice and conscience are two parts of the same emerging moral faculty. It is doubtful that one can exist without the other.

It seems that individual man, having lost many of the built-in instinctual do-nots of his animal cousins, acquires, as he evolves far enough, a built-in rational, prohibitory ethic which he is compelled to observe by reason of his sense of justice and the dictates of conscience. I repeat, proper prohibitions are just as important to the survival of the human species as to the survival of any other species.

Do not do unto others that which you would not have them do unto you. There is more to this prohibition than first glance reveals. Nearly everyone, for instance, will concede that there is no universal right to kill, to steal, or to enslave — because these practices cannot be universalized, if for no higher reason. But only the person who comprehends this ethic — the Golden Rule in its wholeness, who has an elevated sense of justice and conscience, will conclude that such a concession denies to him the right to take the life of another, to relieve any person of his livelihood, or to deprive any human being of his liberty. Without an elevated moral nature, he'll miss the point.

And, one more distinction: while there are many who will agree that they, personally, should not kill, steal, enslave, it is only the individual with a first-rate moral nature who will have no hand in encouraging any agency — even government — in doing these things for him or others. Anyone who gets the whole point of the Golden Rule sees that there is no escape from individual responsibility by resort to the popular expedient of collective action.

Where Will Each Stand?

Let us now return to the question this chapter poses: What shall be construed as wrong and, thus, prohibited? For, I repeat, it is the difference of opinion as to what should be denied others that highlights the essential difference between the collectivists — socialists, statists, interventionists, mercantilists — and those of the libertarian faith. Take stock of what you would prohibit others from doing and you will accurately find your own position in the ideological lineup. Or, this method can be used to determine anyone else's position.

Consider the following statement:

Government has a positive responsibility in any just society to see to it that each and every one of its citizens acquires all the skills and the opportunities necessary to practice and appreciate the arts to the limit of his natural ability. Enjoyment of the arts and participation in them are among man's natural rights and essential to his full development as a civilized person. One of the reasons governments are instituted among men is to make this right a reality.[2]

It is significant that the author uses the term "its citizens," the antecedent of "its" being government. Such a conception is basic to the collectivist philosophy: We — you and I — belong to the state. We are "its" wards! Of course, if one accepts this statist premise, the above position is sensible enough: it has to do with a detail in the state's paternalistic concern for its charges.

Inhibited Choices

But we are, in this chapter, on another tack, namely, examining what a person would prohibit others from doing. The writer of the above statement does not imply, at least to anyone who cannot read below the surface, any prohibitions. He dwells only on what he would have the state do for the people.

"There is something better! But the improvement must take the form of man's growth, emergence, hatching — the acquisition of higher faculties such as an improved sense of justice, a refined, exacting, self-disciplinary conscience; in brief, an elevated moral nature."

Where, then, are the prohibitions? The program he favors would cost X hundred million dollars annually. From where come these millions? The state has nothing except that which it takes from the people. Therefore, this man favors that we be prohibited from using the fruits of our own labor as we choose in order that these fruits be expended as the state chooses. And take note of the fact that this and all other socialist-designed prohibitions have police force as the method of persuasion.[3]

One phase of socialism is the state ownership and/or control of the results of production. Our incomes are the results of production. That portion of our incomes is socialized which the state turns to its use by its prohibition of our use. It follows, then, that a person would impose prohibitions on the rest of us to the extent that he supports governmental projects which would socialize our income.

Areas of Control

Only a few, as yet, favor the socialization of the arts and the consequent socialization of our incomes for that "far-out" purpose, but there are ever so many who favor prohibiting our freedom of choice in order to

  • pay farmers for not growing peanuts, tobacco, and other crops;
  • support socialist governments all over the world;
  • put men on the moon;
  • subsidize below-cost pricing in air, water, and land transportation, education, insurance, loans of countless kinds;
  • socialize security;
  • "renew" downtowns that consumers have deserted, build hospitals and other local facilities;
  • give federal aid of this or that variety, endlessly.


We have not, however, exhausted the prohibitions that the socialists are imposing on us. For another phase of socialism is the state ownership and/or control of the means of production. Included among the existing prohibitions of this type are

  • the planting of all of a farmer's own acreage to wheat, cotton, peanuts, corn, tobacco, rice — even to feed his own stock;
  • the quitting of a business at will;
  • the taking of a job at will;
  • the selling of a citizen's own product at his own price, for instance, milk, steel, and others;
  • the free pricing of services (wages);
  • the delivery of first-class mail for pay.


Again, the listing of prohibitions is endless. Harold Fleming, author of Ten Thousand Commandments (1951), having to do with prohibitions of just one federal agency, the Federal Trade Commission, is presently bringing his book up-to-date, entitling it Twenty Thousand Commandments.

Those who favor the socialization of the means of production would, of course, frown on the profit motive and prohibit profit.

Which of all the prohibitions listed above and implicit in socialism do you or others favor? This is the appropriate question for rating oneself or others ideologically.

Those among us with a libertarian devotion would, it is true, impose certain prohibitions on others. They quite accurately note that not all individuals have acquired a moral nature sufficient strictly to observe such fundamentally sound taboos as "Thou shalt not kill" and "Thou shalt not steal." There are those who will take the lives of others, and those who will take the livelihood of others, such as those who will pilfer and those who will get the government to do their pilfering for them. Most libertarian believers would supplement the moral laws with social laws aimed at prohibiting any citizen from doing violence to another's person (life) or another's livelihood (extension of life).[4] Thus, they would prohibit or at least penalize murder, theft, fraud, misrepresentation.

In short, they would inhibit or prohibit the destructive actions of any and all, and that is all! Asserts the libertarian,

Freely choose how you act creatively, productively, for this is in the realm of what's right. I have no desire to prohibit you or others in this respect. I have no prohibitory designs on you of any kind except as you or others would keep me and others from acting creatively, productively ourselves, that is, as we freely choose. I do not classify any creative action as a wrong action.

Observe that the libertarian in his hoped-for prohibition of destructive actions does no violence to anyone else's liberty, none whatsoever. The word liberty is a social term; it would never be used by an individual completely isolated from others. We must not, therefore, think of liberty as being restrained when fraud, violence, and the like are prohibited, for these destructive actions violate the liberty of others and, therefore, they are not in the composition of liberty. Destructive actions are the negations of liberty; it is self-evident that liberty cannot be made up of its negations. An accomplished libertarian would never prohibit the liberty of another.

There we have it: the all-out collectivists at one end of the ideological spectrum who would completely prohibit individual liberty and, at the other end of the spectrum, the libertarians whose prohibitions are not opposed to but are in support of individual liberty. And their prohibitions are few and as simple as the two commandments against assaults on life and livelihood.

There Is Something Better

Finally, libertarians, as the socialists, do not believe the human situation to be in apple-pie order; imperfection is rampant. The libertarian, however, observing that human frailties are universal, balks at halting the evolutionary process which is the ultimate prohibition implicit in authoritarian schemes. Be the political dandy a Napoleon or Tito or one of the home-grown variety of prohibitionist, how can the human situation improve if the rest of us are prohibited from growing beyond the level of the prohibitionist's imperfections? Is nothing better in store for us than this?

The libertarian's answer is affirmative: there is something better! But the improvement must take the form of man's growth, emergence, hatching — the acquisition of higher faculties such as an improved sense of justice, a refined, exacting, self-disciplinary conscience; in brief, an elevated moral nature. Man-concocted prohibitions against this growth stifle or kill it. Human faculties can flower, man can move toward his creative destiny, only if he be free to do so; in a word, where liberty prevails.

What should be prohibited? Actions which impair liberty! Let us find these and be rid of them, for they are wrong. As this is done, the infinite realm of righteousness will hove into view.


[1] Some will make the point that the authoritarian employs compulsions as well as prohibitions. My thesis is that all compulsions can be reduced to prohibitions, thus making it easier to assess authoritarianism. For instance, we say that a Russian is compelled to work in the sputnik factory. But it is more accurate to say that he is prohibited from any other employment; he builds sputniks or starves, and freely decides between the restricted choices left to him. So-called compulsions by government are, in fact, prohibitions of freedom to choose.

[2] See The Commonweal, August 23, 1963, p. 494.

[3] If anyone doubts that the US brand of police force is not an eye for an eye, see the chapter "Violence As A Way of Life" in Anything That's Peaceful (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1964).

[4] How prohibited? Unfortunately, by organized police force or the threat thereof, the only form of persuasion comprehensible to those lacking a developed sense of morality and justice. Be it noted, however, that this is exclusively a defensive force, called into play only as a secondary action, that is, it is inactive except in the instances of initiated, aggressive force.

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