To Leonard Read [Letter 195]

Item Reference Code: 146_RE1_009_001

Date(s) of creation

February 28, 1946


Leonard Read


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February 28, 1946

Dear Leonard,

I have read the prospectus of your proposed organization very carefully. No, you have not given our case away. But you have not presented it completely. You have covered only one minor, secondary aspect of it. The partial presentation of a great issue, featuring a secondary aspect, will amount, in practice, to giving the issue away. Therefore I don’t think that your organization will serve your purpose—if this prospectus represents its program.

The mistake is in the very name of the organization. You call it The Foundation for Economic Education. You state that economic education is to be your sole purpose. You imply that the cause of the world’s troubles lies solely in people’s ignorance of economics and that the way to cure the world is to teach it the proper economic knowledge. This is not true—therefore your program will not work. You cannot hope to effect a cure by starting with a wrong diagnosis.

The root of the whole modern disaster is philosophical and moral. People are not embracing collectivism because they have accepted bad economics. They are accepting bad economics because they have embraced collectivism. You cannot reverse cause and effect. And you cannot destroy the cause by fighting only the effect. That is as futile as trying to eliminate the symptoms of a disease without attacking its germs.

Marxist (collectivist) economics have been blasted, refuted and discredited quite thoroughly. Capitalist (or individualist) economics have never been refuted. Yet people go right on accepting Marxism. If you look into the matter closely, you will see that most people know—in a vague, uneasy way—that Marxist economics are screwy. Yet this does not stop them from advocating the same Marxist economics. Why?

The reason is that economics have the same place in relation to the whole of society’s life as economic problems have in the life of a single individual. A man does not exist merely in order to earn a living; he earns a living in order to exist. His economic activities are the means to an end; the kind of life he wants to lead,

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the kind of purpose he wants to achieve with the money he earns determine what work he chooses to do and whether he chooses to work at all. A man completely devoid of purpose (whether it be ambition, career, family or anything) stops functioning in the economic sense; that is when he turns into a bum in the gutter. Economic activity per se has never been anybody’s end or motive power. And don’t think that any kind of law of self-preservation would work here—that a man would want to produce merely in order to eat. He won’t. For self-preservation to assert itself, there must be some reason for the self to wish to be preserved. Whatever a man has accepted, consciously or unconsciously, through routine or through choice, as the purpose of his life—that will determine his economic activity.

And the same holds true of society and of men’s convictions about the proper economics of society. That which society accepts as its purpose and ideal—(or, to be exact, that which men think society should accept as its purpose and ideal)—determines the kind of economics men will advocate and attempt to practice; since economics are only the means to an end.

When the social goal chosen is, by its very nature, impossible and unworkable (such as collectivism)—it is useless to point out to people that the means they’ve chosen to achieve it are unworkable. Such means go with such a goal; there are no others. You cannot make men abandon the means, until you have persuaded them to abandon the goal.

Now the choice of a personal purpose or of a social ideal is a matter of philosophy and moral theory. That is why, if one wishes to cure a dying world, one has to start with moral and philosophical principles. Nothing less will do.

The moral and social ideal preached by everybody today (and by our conservatives louder than all) is the ideal of collectivism. Men are told that man exists only in order to serve others; that the “common good” is man’s only proper aim in life and his sole justification for existence; that man is his brother’s keeper; that everybody owes everybody a living; that everybody is responsible for everybody’s welfare; and that the poor are the primary concern of society, its holy shrine, the god whom all must serve.

This is the moral premise accepted by most people today, of all classes, all stages of education and all

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political parties.

How are you going to sell them capitalist economics to go with that?

How are you going to make them accept as moral, proper and desirable such conceptions as personal ambition, economic competition, the profit motive and private property?

It can’t be done. Their moral ideal has defined these conceptions as evil and immoral. So modern men are consistent about it. Our “common-gooder conservatives” are not. It’s one or the other.

Here is the dilemma in which the public finds itself when listening to our conservatives: the public is told, in net effect, that collectivism is a noble, desirable ideal, but collectivist economics are impractical. In order to have a practical economy—that of capitalism, we must resign ourselves to an immoral society—that of individualism. This amounts to saying: you have a choice, you can be moral or you can be practical, but you can’t be both. Given such a choice, men will always choose the moral; because it is preposterous to expect them to choose that which, by the speaker’s own assertion, is evil. Men may be mistaken about what they think is good—(and how mistaken they’ve been! and what lying they indulge in to deceive themselves about it!)—but they will not accept evil with full, conscious intent and by definition.

Nor will men accept the idea that a moral ideal is impossible, that it cannot be achieved in practice. (And they’re right about that, too—it’s a thoroughly unnatural proposition.) Therefore, it is absolutely useless to tell them that Marxist economics are impractical, so long as you’re also telling them in the same breath that Marxism is noble. They will merely say: “Well, if that’s the ideal, and it cannot be achieved through the economics of capitalism—to hell with the economics of capitalism! If Marxist economics do not work—we’ll find something that works. We must find it. So we’ll go on experimenting. At least, Marxism tries in the right direction—while capitalism doesn’t even try to achieve the collectivist ideal. Capitalist economics do not even try to offer us a solution.” How often have you heard this last one?

Now the most futile and ludicrous of all stands to take on this question is the one attempted at present by most of our conservatives. It may be called the “mixed philosophy”—it’s a parallel to the theory of a “mixed

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economy”—just as untenable, silly and disastrous. It’s the idea that capitalism can be morally justified on a collectivist premise and defended on the grounds of the “common good.” It goes like this: “Dear pinks, our objective, like yours, is the welfare of the poor, more general wealth, and a higher standard of living for everybody—so please let us capitalists function, because the capitalist system will achieve all these objectives for you. It is, in fact, the only system that can achieve them.”

This last statement is true—and has been proved—and has been demonstrated in history—and yet it has not and will not win any converts to the capitalist system. Because the above argument is self-contradictory. It is not the purpose of the capitalist system to cater to the welfare of the poor; it is not the purpose of a capitalist enterpriser to spread social benefits; an industrialist does not operate a factory for the purpose of providing jobs for his workers. A capitalist system could not function on such premises.

The economic benefits which the whole society, including the poor, does receive from capitalism come about strictly as secondary consequences (which is the only way any social result can come about), not as primary goals. The primary goal which makes the system work is the personal, private, individual profit motive. When that motive is declared to be immoral, the whole system becomes immoral—and the motor of the system stops dead.

It’s useless to lie about the capitalist’s real and proper motive. The awful smell of hypocrisy that accompanies such “mixed philosophy” is so obvious and so strong that it has done more to destroy capitalism than any Marxist theory ever could. It has killed all respect for capitalism. It has—without any further analysis, simply at first glance and first whiff—made capitalism appear thoroughly and totally phony.

The effect is precisely the same as that produced by Willkie, Dewey and all the rest of the “me-too”, “I’ll-get-it-for-you-wholesale” Republicans. Do not underestimate the common sense of the “common man” and do not blame him for ignorance. He could not, perhaps, analyze what was wrong with Willkie or Dewey—but he knew they were phonies. He cannot untangle the philosophical contradiction of defending capitalism through the “common good”—but he knows it’s a phony.

Is there anything more offensive and preposterous than to tell an unemployed worker that the millionaire

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who is throwing a champagne party on his yacht is doing so only for his, the worker’s, benefit and for the common good of society? Can you really blame the worker if he then goes out and demands that the yacht be confiscated? Is it economic ignorance that makes him do so?

The more propaganda our conservatives spread for capitalist economics—while at the same time preaching collectivism morally and philosophically—the more nails they’ll drive into capitalism’s coffin.

That is why I do not believe that an economic education alone is of any value. That is also why you will find it difficult to arouse people’s interest in the subject. I believe you’re conscious of this difficulty—your prospectus shows anxiety on the scope of “creating a greater desire for economic understanding.” You will not be able to create it.

The great mistake here is in assuming that economics is a science which can be isolated from moral, philosophical and political principles—and considered as a subject in itself, without relation to them. It can’t be done.

The best example of that is Von Mises’ “Omnipotent Government.” That is precisely what he attempted to do—in a very objective, conscientious, scholarly way. And he failed dismally—even though his economic facts and conclusions were for the most part unimpeachable. He failed to present a convincing case—because at the crucial points, where his economics came to touch upon moral issues (as all economics must)—he went into thin air, into contradictions, into nonsense. He did prove, all right, that collectivist economics don’t work. And he failed to convert a single collectivist.

The organization desperately needed at present is one for EDUCATION IN INDIVIDUALISM, in every aspect of it: philosophical, moral, political, economic—in that order. (That is the actual order in which men’s thinking proceeds on these subjects.) As part of such a program, an education in sound economics would be essential and valuable. Without it, it is a wasted effort.

I suspect that you might have been misled by the fact that you have heard businessmen accept the most preposterous economic fallacies; and you concluded that once the fallacies are exposed, the trouble is cured. Do not be deceived by superficial symptoms; the trouble goes much deeper than that; the trouble is not in the

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nonsense they accept—but in what makes them accept it.

I have written all this at such great length because I consider an organization created by you as potentially of tremendous importance. I consider you the only man in my acquaintance who has the capacity to translate abstract ideas into practical action and to become a great executor of great principles. Therefore, I would hate to see you fail in what could be a great undertaking, by attempting it on the wrong premise and in the wrong direction.

I am particularly worried by the fact that you intend to start on such a grand scale (a $3,000,000 budget). If you do not lay the proper foundation first, a three-million dollar skyscraper will collapse on you more surely and more disastrously than a little bungalow. You will find yourself widely, publicly known and tagged as another ineffectual outfit, like the N.A.M. or the Industrial Conference Board; your name will become that of “another one of those conservatives,” instead of a new, powerful figure that would attract national attention by representing a real cause, and gain a following through courage, integrity and an unanswerable case—which is what I want you to become. You will find yourself caught in the mere size of the ruins, and forced to go on, by the responsibility of so expensive an organization. The end of such a process is—Virgil Jordan.

It would be so much better and so much more practical to start in a smaller way and grow by a natural process, rather than a forced one. You do not have, at present, the men and the educational material to use on a $3,000,000 scale. It would be better to gather your specialists and train them first—rather than release on the nation a flood of unprepared, “mixed philosophy” propagandists.

This letter is my contribution to your cause. If it helps you to analyze the situation, that is the best help I can offer you. If you agree with my analysis, I can continue to help you in this way, in the matter of philosophical direction. I know that you have plenty of economists to call on for your work, but no people capable of undertaking the philosophical-moral part of it. Your main problem is to find them. And I will help you long-distance, to the extent that I can.

I shall be most interested in your answer to this.

As to your proposed radio program, I don’t think it’s a good plan. Personally, in spite of my interest

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in the subject, I’m afraid I would not listen to such a program; I think it would bore me. Five men talking on the same subject from the same general viewpoint would be more monotonous than just one man making a connected speech. The fact that the five men disagree on details would only add confusion, dilute and diffuse the subject and make the whole of the broadcast inconclusive, and probably pointless.

I have an alternative to offer, which I can describe to you next time—an idea for a radio program that could be instructive, effective and popular. I don’t want to go into that now—because I feel a little concerned over the amount of money and importance which you intend to give to your radio broadcasts in relation to the general program of your organization. At best, a radio broadcast can be valuable only as a side-line, as one among many lines of propaganda. It cannot be the major one. (Not in an educational campaign; only in an election campaign.) Do not waste too much money on it too soon.

Now to acknowledge your personal letter—I am very glad that you are leaving the Conference Board. It is really no place for you now. It’s a corpse.

If you decide to use “Anthem” in The Freeman, let me know. I’d like to have you do it—only I’d want to edit the story a little first; it’s old and there are some passages which I think are bad writing and which I’d like to straighten out.

With best regards,



In his response of March 4, 1946, Read wrote that he and AR “are in no disagreement, whatever. But do you know that it isn’t possible in America, today, to set up a Foundation for Individualism? The required status would not be granted by the federal government. This shows how far the fight is lost.”