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The Works of Leonard E. Read

  • Leonard Read Bust

Tags BiographiesFree MarketsEntrepreneurshipPrivate Property

03/31/2009Jeffrey A. Tucker

The works of Leonard E. Read, who founded the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in 1946, are now online at the Mises Institute. It is probably not the complete collected works, but it is all that he collected in book form. These are books that shaped several generations of activists, donors, writers, and intellectuals. They are the books that kick-started the libertarian movement after World War II. The sons of FEE went on to do great good for the world, and FEE is often called the father of all libertarian think tanks — institutions that work outside official academia to advance radical ideas.

Read did more than merely sponsor lectures and publish. As a matter of fact, others were doing the same. So far as I know, no one has yet noticed that he used a secret weapon in his struggle, something that made him truly different and unusually effective. He eschewed the use of exclusive copyright. That is to say, he encouraged the widest possible distribution of his work and did not forbid others from copying his infinitely reproducible ideas.

Pick up any book or publication from FEE before the 1990s. You will see a remarkable and visionary sentence on the copyright page:

Permission to reprint granted without special request.

This one sentence is what made it happen. Any newspaper could print a column. Any publisher could include an essay. Indeed, he invited any publisher to take any FEE book and publish it and sell it, owing no royalties and asking no permissions.

"He was an evangelist spreading the news. He wanted to be pirated so that he could see that he was making a difference."

The publisher was not even asked to acknowledge its source! So, in this sense, he was even more radical than the Creative Commons attribution license. A FEE book was copyrighted solely so that someone else couldn't copyright it, and then maximum permissions were granted. In effect, Read was putting all of the scholarship of FEE in the public domain as soon as it was published.

This saved on the grueling bureaucratic struggle involved in granting permissions and keeping up with the permissions granted. Asking no fees or royalties meant saving on accounting bureaucracy as well.

Read was no anarchist. He was a believer in "limited government," but regardless, this much is true: he hated the state beyond its most limited form. He saw it as the great enemy of freedom, creativity, and social progress. In fact, he was even more radical: he loathed all restrictions on information. He must have seen that restricting the flow of information through conventional copyright relies upon state interference to make a nonscarce thing — information — artificially scarce. This went against his entire temperament.

As he wrote, "Freedom works its wonders simply because the generative capacity of countless millions has no external force standing against its release!"

But there is a more important point that Read understood. He understood that the critical problem faced by what he called the "freedom philosophy" was not piracy. From his point of view, the ideas of liberty were not "stolen" nearly enough. The problem that he sought to overcome was not too much copying; it was not enough copying. He saw that his number-one goal had to be busting up the obscurity of these ideas and getting them out to the public. Conventional copyright was not a help in this respect; it was a hindrance.

Never forget that Read had a background in business. He was head of the Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles before founding FEE. He must have seen countless businesses start and fail, not because they didn't have a good product, but because people didn't know about the product enough to go and buy it. The critical problem that every innovator faces, after coming up with the innovation, is getting the word out.

Think of a new hamburger stand in Los Angeles. It doesn't matter how great the burgers are; if people don't know about it, it will not succeed. Imagine if some huge fan wanted to print up tee shirts about the hamburgers. Why in the world would the owner of the joint want to use the government to extract money from the tee-shirt printer? That would be nuts.

"He had a lifetime burning passion to get the word out in every possible way."

And let's say that another burger company in town started up that used the same recipe. What then? The answer is to regard the imitation as flattery, and compete in the most aggressive possible way. It keeps you on your toes, keeps you innovating, and the excitement of the competition itself can attract imitation. And who is going to benefit the most from this struggle, the original institution or its copy? The answer is shown to us every day. Originators who continue to innovate benefit from having their products and ideas spread.

In the same way, Read saw himself in the idea business. Why, then, would he turn to the state to restrict the flow of ideas? That would cut into everything he ever wanted to do. Indeed, rather than restricting access to FEE texts, he begged the world to take them and print them and distribute them. He wanted this more than anything else.

You will note that he was very prolific, but why? Because he had a lifetime burning passion to get the word out in every possible way. He stated the freedom philosophy again and again in every way he could imagine and encouraged others to do the same. He was an evangelist spreading the news. He wanted to be pirated so that he could see that he was making a difference.

Reading his books, you will find that he was repetitive, and, if we want to be critical, it could be noted that he rarely dealt in depth on any particular technical aspect of economics or commented much on the news. He eschewed techniques that pass for rigorous analysis today. But we need a greater appreciation for two things:

  1. he knew that the most important task of educating was to inspire people to understand the big picture, and
  2. on the big-picture issue of the capacity of society to manage itself, he was 100% correct.

He had this gigantic faith in freedom. He often said that he could not and would not predict the outcome of granting liberty to individuals and could not and would not speculate on the shape that society would take under conditions of freedom. But he could say for certain that whatever the results of freedom, they would be more consonant with human rights, more prosperous, more creative, and more orderly than anything that the state could manufacture through coercion.

Taking leaps into the unknown was this man's habit of mind, something he believed in strongly. When people warned him that granting universal reprint permissions would cut into FEE revenue, he would completely dismiss the notion. His view was that, insofar as FEE could do its part to make the universe open-ended, it would do that and trust that the results would be better than restriction.

He shared this faith with people like Bastiat, who is a similar figure in history: these were two men who had a firm conviction about a point of social organization that manages to elude most every living person at any point in history. They believed that freedom was all that was necessary to make the good society happen. They were both tireless in making the point and strove to find every possible way to teach it.

Thank goodness for his vision. But please note what it means. The modern freedom movement depended heavily on open-source materials. It had an effect on the world because it eschewed state-means of imposing artificial scarcities and sought above all else to get the word out. The modern libertarian movement was born in Creative Commons and grew through that means.

Indeed it was true: FEE material was everywhere! It was in newspapers, magazines, monographs, books, and printed by all existing technologies. People in those days report that you couldn't help bumping into it. I'm telling you that Read knew what he was doing. He went against the pack. Everyone else was availing themselves of copyright. He said no. And he stuck to it.

Did this harm FEE? Quite the contrary! It was the best thing that ever happened to the institution and to the ideas it represented. Just as Read said, freedom worked. The implications are profound.

This is all about practicing what you preach, but there is more to it than that: it is about developing an effective tactic for spreading the truth. It's a glorious thing that Read did, if only by instinct. Would that we all had his instinct for how to rise from obscurity into prominence.


Contact Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Editorial Director of the American Institute for Economic Research. He is author of It's a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes and Bourbon for Breakfast: Living Outside the Statist Quo. Send him mail.

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