Leonard Read Explains What it Means To Be a Liberal
Most people who have been trying to advance liberty for some time know of Leonard Read. Creator of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in 1946, and bedrock of the first libertarian think-tank, he thought, talked and wrote about it for decades. Yet because he was so closely associated with FEE, and published his many books through it, his first book, The Romance of Reality (1937) published before FEE, has gone largely unnoticed.
That is a shame, as there is much to be gleaned from Read’s first book. In particular, given the ubiquitous labeling, name-calling, guilt-by-ism, innuendo, and association and invective-laced public discourse Americans must endure, The Romance of Reality’s opening chapter, “Debunking the Labels,” offers some very useful wisdom for us today.
For its 80th anniversary, it is well worth considering some of the many insights he explores in the book:
No sober discussion of public questions is possible at this time without first clearing the thinking atmosphere of…politically managed labels.
Few thoughts of others are accepted without first comparing colors, labels or isms. If these do not match, then the projector of a thought is obviously steeped in prejudice…a tool of the "interests." By their opponents, New Dealers are called socialistic…radical…They call themselves liberal, progressive…To a New Dealer, an anti-New Deal Republican is at best a reactionary, shrinking from there…so low as to be termed a "tool of entrenched greed."
What chance has logic against these head-winds of hate? To criticize…is to invite oneself before the firing squads of the literary mercenaries. To sponsor or defend an economic principle to which current passions may be opposed is to ask for…an odious label.
Conclusion: we are the dupes of a politically managed glossary.
Who likes to be called a REACTIONARY? And to be dubbed a CONSERVATIVE has sadly become just a shade less nocuous. But to be called a LIBERAL is glorious!
The core problem with such labels is that “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” etc., are adjectives that have been converted into nouns—isms--for political purposes. But adjectives are not self-defined; they modify something else. The consequence is that crucial questions such as “What is being conserved?”, “In what ways are we liberal?” and “What do we consider progress?” are cloaked from consideration. But Leonard Read was already thinking carefully about them.
Liberalism…was born of an era when governments were characterized by their despotism and economic practices lived under feudalism. This liberal movement [was] liberal because it was aimed at the liberalization of the individual from government coercion.
Thus was experienced a complete transition from the philosophy that the individual is the servant of the state to the American philosophy that the state is but the instrument and the servant of the individual.
Because of the centuries-old struggle for individual freedom which was LIBERALISM and which blossomed into full bloom as America, it is, of course, the smart thing to sail one’s political ship under the liberal banner irrespective of its philosophical cargo…just good vote-getting flypaper.
A RADICAL is one who desires to uproot something. If he wants to uproot liberty he is anything but liberal. The liberal movement from the Magna Charta to The Bill of Rights was radical because it was a movement to uproot despotism, centralized political control and coercive economic practices."
Present-day radicals have wrongly appropriated the word LIBERAL. Present-day radicals are bent on uprooting liberalism…so that bureaucracy, centralized governmental and economic control--the very essence of despotism--may be substituted for individual self-management and local self-government—the very essence of liberalism.
REACTIONARY… in King John’s time it would have meant a return to all the practices of despotism and of feudalism…However, it can [be]…a reaction against a contemporary event or events. Thus, a reactionary could be either a liberal or a conservative.
A CONSERVATIVE is one who desires to conserve something. If he wants to conserve liberty he is both a conservative and a liberal. If he wants to conserve a coercive system of government he is both a conservative and a coercionist, the opposite of a liberal. A conservative is one who wants to conserve the best of the old order…the opposite of what it once was.
The conservative of King John’s time did not believe in the liberal movement but rather wanted to conserve…coercive monarchical government and the regimented feudal system. The conservative of today does not believe in the trend of the radicals back to centralized control or extreme government interference, which is the modern counterpart for the monarchical government and the feudal system against which our forefathers fought; but rather insists on conserving liberalism and the best of the order which found liberalism at its fullest.
Thus today, a conservative is a liberal and what a radical once was… fighting to conserve what the radical once fought to achieve. A radical today is no longer a liberal but what a conservative once was. He is fighting to achieve what the conservatives of old were trying then to conserve.
The analytical confusion Leonard Read saw as a result of ever-morphing labels is illustrated by American history. Our founding was radical, though it sought to conserve what colonists considered their rights. America was liberal in trying to provide the broadest possible sweep of individual freedom against government coercion. It was tremendously progressive in its recognition of inalienable rights for all (far from the “conservative” divine right of kings). And it was united under a Constitution intended to conserve the vision of the Declaration of Independence as a beacon of hope to the world. So which of the labels should we use for what America was?
We must distinguish between those desiring to conserve the power of governments to massively abuse their citizens and those seeking to conserve the ideal of a government that is not abusive, by returning to a prior approach that put such abuses off-limits. In the same way, those who call themselves liberals [or progressives] today are at odds with classical liberals. Leonard Read saw through this subterfuge.
These intriguing demagogues…[bask] under self-made halos of liberalism and humanism…There has developed the peculiar notion that LIBERAL, as today misapplied, is a synonym of virtue, moral rectitude, nobleness of intention and purity of character, and that CONSERVATIVE is synonymous with an evil course, immoral intent, inhuman practices and economic privilege. The radicals and the demagogues have done a good job of…perverting the English language to their own ends.
It is not considered merely conservative but actually reactionary to favor a balanced budget, to argue for tax reduction, to urge thrift, to defend individual liberty, to protect the fundamentals of the Constitution, to demand the sanctity of contracts or to insist on a stable currency. To support the Constitution was once considered patriotic—it is now partisan.
It is not considered radical but rather liberal to seek inflation, to abrogate individual rights, to usurp federally the prerogatives of local self-government, to spend beyond our capacity to pay, to peg prices artificially, to build bureaucracy, to stimulate class prejudices…[or] advocate…a Share-the-Wealth scheme.
The mere opposition of any measure which has been radical-labeled LIBERAL is of itself sufficient to nullify, in the public mind, experienced views of an opposer. Must not this oppositionist be a reactionary…Without reasoning…superficial conclusions are hastily accepted. Such an oppositionist, so it is thought, cannot possibly be thinking of the human side, cannot be thinking of society in general. Have his opponents not stated or at least implied publicly and oratorically that they are the sole possessors of such… qualities and ideals? Have his opponents not called him dishonest and earmarked him as among the “money changers to be driven from the temple”? Has he not been publicly and officially generalized as a culprit? He has no sympathy except for himself, why should his advice be heeded?
The writer has confessed to being a reactionary on one matter, a radical on another. Certainly, he believes himself to be a liberal and there are aspects of our former economy he wishes to conserve, thus giving him the tag of conservative. He wants a new deal from what we are now getting but he looks in vain through the whole roster of party politics for an enunciation of principles he can wholeheartedly support.
Leonard Read recognized that America was founded to protect our freedoms from government coercion. No genius is required to recognize the value of conserving a view centered on liberty. But liberal or progressive labeling of others deflects attention from their unconvincing logic and abysmal real-world track record. It assumes, rather than demonstrating, its political conclusions. It makes the self-anointed feel superior, but fails the laugh test. Eight decades later, Americans would benefit from re-considering Read’s words and the consequences of ignoring them.
This article is adapted from “Dupes of a Politically Managed Glossary,” in Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read (2013), for the 80th anniversary of Read’s first book, The Romance of Reality(1937).