The Free Market
The Wisdom of LeFevre
The Free Market 19, no. 7 (July 2001)
In 1957, a businessman and radio personality named Robert LeFevre (1911-1986) founded a very special institution in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In his private studies, he had discovered the libertarian intellectual tradition. He noted the dire need for an institution that would educate people from all walks of life in the philosophy of freedom. He took it upon himself and named it the Freedom School, later changing the name to Rampart College before it shut down in 1968. Afterward, he carried on his work in South Carolina under the patronage of business giant Roger Milliken.
The Freedom School in Colorado was one of the most important institutions for teaching free-market economics in its day. Among its rotating faculty were Rose Wilder Lane, Milton Friedman, F.A. Harper, Frank Chodorov, Leonard Read, Gordon Tullock, G. Warren Nutter, Bruno Leoni, James J. Martin, and even Ludwig von Mises. Among its graduates were Roy Childs, Fred and Charles Koch, Roger MacBride, and many other intellectual activists still working today.
It is a testament to the power of ideas-and the fruit of the personal initiative of this intellectual entrepreneur-that Robert LeFevre could have sought to create a new teaching institution devoted to liberty and succeed in so many ways.
He wanted to be remembered for what he believed. The individual actor was at the heart of his political worldview. He saw that civilization stemmed from the voluntary actions of men, not the laws of the state. Through their interactions in voluntary associations, of which the free market is only one of many, people build the structures of security and prosperity. That is the basis of cultural flourishing. Once created, civilization "breeds further desire and necessity for voluntary individual action. The one aids and abets the other."
He recounted how legions of historians have failed to understand this fundamental point. They write about the rise and fall of civilizations, of prosperity and famine, of peace and war. While noticing that government is often responsible for bad things, they incorrectly conclude it must be credited for all good in society as well. This leap of logic is what keeps the truth of freedom under wraps.
Crediting government for the good in society was, to his mind, like crediting the criminal class whenever it leaves us alone to go about our affairs. If we build a house, landscape it perfectly, and raise a wonderful family, we don't say: thanks be to the criminals who didn't interfere with our family's domestic bliss! Neither should the state be praised for the flowering of civilization, which is always and everywhere the result of individual action.
So important was this truth to him that he founded a school to explain it and apply it. He was an expert teacher with a razor_sharp understanding of the ways of government. He liked to distinguish between its true and artificial forms. True government is made up of the customs (habits, manners, folkways) and institutions (family, workplace, church) that regulate our daily life. Artificial government (the state) is the institution that steals our property, restricts our freedom, and endangers our lives in the name of protecting us.
He saw his main role as a teacher as dislodging the false conscientiousness that keeps so many from seeing artificial government as a parasite. Whether the form is democratic or autocratic, the state adds nothing to the development of civilization but rather hinders it. The extent to which it hinders freedom and prosperity depends on its size and its reach, which in turn depends on how much abuse people are willing to tolerate.
He astutely observed that all states are prone to expansion and always at the expense of liberty. Neither did he see socialism as a special form of social organization. It is just a word that indicates control of society by the state instead of individual actors. "All governments tend to move toward socialism," he said. "The larger and more vigorous they become, the more surely are they practicing socialism."
His views on patriotism (and remember that he was writing during the cold war) followed logically: "Patriotism cannot be a love of government. Patriotism rises above the government as a mountain towers above a blade of grass. When we think of our country and a feeling of love and devotion wells up within us, it should spring from the reality of what our country is and means, and not from the government, which is the least of all our blessings."
The most obvious retort to the LeFevreian vision is that the state may be an unfortunate institution but it is nonetheless necessary to provide protection. But LeFevre had great faith in the power of the market to provide every service that is usually monopolized by government. He applied the Austrian insight concerning entrepreneurship to see that defense and protection services, precisely because they are so necessary, can also be provided by the market.
How? He spoke about the role of insurance companies as businesses that have a strong incentive to secure insured property against invasion. He talked about the possibilities of private security police and private arbitration. In our own time, when the failure of the state to protect us is so obvious, we see that he was remarkably prescient: there are more police and court services available in the private sector than the state sector.
But LeFevre also understood the limitations of looking for examples of private services that equal that of government. "Whenever a government invades any normal field of human endeavor," he wrote, "the tendency of human beings is to surrender that field and to make no further effort in it. Had market entrepreneurs been free all these ages to examine and explore adequate means of defense rather than relying upon the government to provide it, who can tell what marvelous means of protecting ourselves and our property might now be available to all?"
LeFevre did not believe that all states are morally equivalent. He had a particular admiration for the American system, and he became an outstanding interpreter of American history. Whereas most others view the Constitution as the event that marks the "founding," he saw the American separation from Britain as the decisive event for liberty. It was the Declaration of Independence that firmly established the right of a people to resist and secede from state control.
"So important is the right and duty of the people to dispense with despotism," he wrote, "this great Declaration contains the sentence not once, but twice. In its final utterance, the choice of words does not call for the formation of a government. Rather, it calls for `new guards' which may or may not entail such a unit as an artificial agency."
He further said that "the bill of grievances contained in the immortal Declaration of Independence could be extended by our own citizens in modern times, had they the stomach for it."
He went so far as to draft an excellent preamble to a new Declaration. He included this witty and wise sentence: "That to secure these rights, each man is qualified to select for himself that agency or those agencies which seem to him best suited to protect his life and his property, to maintain his freedom, and which lie within his ability to afford."
To underscore the voluntarism at the heart of individual rights, he added: "that whenever any agency evinces characteristics of tyranny, he is well within his rights and his powers to discharge that agency and find another more suitable to his inclinations and finances."
Though he was concerned with political topics, his hope was a world without politics, which to him meant a world without the coercion inherent in all collective action. It was his own creative interpretation of the message of his intellectual mentors, among which he counted Ludwig von Mises.
The Mises Institute is honored and thrilled to be entrusted with the literary legacy of Robert LeFevre and the Freedom School, and grateful to Ross and Charlotte Anderson for making it possible. There are 10,000 books, and among the papers are transcripts of lectures by many giants of the libertarian cause, Mises among them. What a collection it is. Come visit us in Auburn and see the new Freedom School. Here is one piece of his legacy.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Mises Institute (rockwell@ mises.org).
Cite This Article
Rockwell, Llewellyn H. "The Wisdom of LeFevre ." The Free Market 19, no. 7 (July 2001).