Today marks the birthday of Leonard E. Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education and author of the iconic free-market essay I, Pencil. If anyone sets the standard for leaving a legacy for future generations, it is this man.
When I was a much younger person, working in my father’s mining engineering business, I stumbled across some copies of FEE’s The Freeman magazine that was used as packing material in machinery crates. I was electrified to read the contents about free markets and personal responsibility, and eventually wrote to the president of FEE to seek clarification. He was kind enough to respond to me, and over the years our regular correspondence blossomed into a friendship, and mentorship that lasted until his passing in 1983.* In responding to my first letter Leonard Read opened up my world, and the example he set is the reason that I try to answer every letter or email I receive.
Of course I am not the only person who has been influenced by Leonard Read’s open and persuasive style. Emeritus President of FEE Lawrence W. Reed makes the following observation in his article Leonard Read: the Man:
Though he knew as well as anyone that the stakes were high in the intellectual battle for liberty, his weapons looked nothing like those deployed on physical battlefields. He never aimed to insult a foe, let alone annihilate him. He saw every opponent as a potential ally, never an incorrigible enemy. And if you were already part-way to embracing liberty as a life philosophy, it would never occur to him to berate you until you came the full distance. He was a humble encourager, never a pompous, breast-beating turn-off. He intended to build a movement by building individuals, one at a time. He understood that one accomplishes that far more effectively with honey than with nettles.
Leonard Read appreciated the importance of not making enemies out of opponents due to his own “Road to Damascus” experience. Once upon a time he was an ideological enforcer of Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, however a compelling encounter with an ardent libertarian spokesperson for free markets, low tax and personal freedom caused him to change his thinking. As a result, he took up the flame of liberty with the intensity of a “zealous convert”.
In I, Pencil, Read illustrates that even in the production of a humble pencil, not one person is the holder of all the knowledge and expertise that goes into the production process from beginning to end. In making this point, he reveals the short-comings of centrally planned approaches that claim to hold such knowledge for even more complex production processes than that of a mere pencil. In his own words (as excerpted from I, Pencil):
The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed.
Above all, what is most compelling about Leonard Read’s legacy is his indisputably gentle style. He believed that the ideas spoke for themselves and didn’t beat anyone around the head with them. He avoided propaganda and instead appealed to reason at every opportunity. Instead of taking an adversarial approach he “saw every opponent as a potential ally.”
The result has been his continuing influence through the remarkable work of those who were lucky enough to have been exposed to him.
*I tell this story in greater detail in chapter 11 of my book The Lonely Libertarian.
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We received some great email responses to this tribute, some of which have been included below:
So enjoyed your story about first discovering The Freeman from crate packing materials!~ John Chisholm
I first discovered The Freeman as a senior in high school. My math teacher, Mike Parrish, would leave copies lying around his classroom without saying anything about them. My senior year, I happened to pick one up, started reading it, and got hooked.
That was in Jupiter, Florida in 1970-71. When I got to Boston-Cambridge, Massachusetts for college, I made two trips to Irvington-on-Hudson in New York in 1973 and 1975 for weekend seminars. Leonard Reed was still running FEE in those days. They were memorable weekends. Among much else, I learned about MPS then. I would finally join MPS 37 years later, in 2012 (went to my first MPS meeting in 2010 in Sydney).
Like you, I always remember that, you never know who may pick up something you leave lying around.
Your subject line says it all, and guys like you and I have been striving to, each in our own way, ever since we met the amazing man Leonard Read.~ Greg Runge
Funny, but there is a particular incident that I have not shared with many others that often springs to mind. I was living in at FEE in the summer of 1978 doing a two week course, and between lectures found myself alone at the urinal in the men’s room. Leonard came in and stood beside me and of course we started talking as we went about our business. I don’t know how it came up, but as clear as a bell I can still remember him saying:
Ah, the Bee –
The bee is such a busy soul
He has no time for birth control
That is why in times like these
We have so many sons of B’s
Nothing has changed much over the ensuing years.
Yes Leonard Read touched so many lives.~ Viv Forbes
That quote sounds a bit risqué for Leonard, Greg?
My most remembered incident from him at FEE, is his quote:
“Not all the darkness in the world can extinguish the light from a single candle.”
I later dramatized that in Sydney when I was accepting my Adam Smith Award.
My Judy turned the lights down slowly as I got towards the crucial part and sure enough the light from the tiny candle that I held got brighter as the world got darker, illustrating Leonard’s point so well. Unfortunately the world is still getting darker.