It may be that Leonard Read will be among those who are not fully appreciated until they are history, but it is an appropriate time to put him in perspective within the broad group of people in our time committed to individual liberty. Read will be 82 this September, and he has just published his 26th book, The Seeds of Progress. In 1946, Read formed the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and took over Albert J. Nock's failed magazine, The Freeman. In the same year, he was involved in forming the Mont Pelerin Society.
If Read wanted to, he could be the ultimate libertarian name-dropper. He has helped and influenced many of the great libertarian thinkers. Murray Rothbard has often been published by FEE. F.A. "Baldy" Harper worked for Read before founding the Institute for Humane Studies. FEE paid Ludwig von Mises's salary at New York University. Read was associated with libertarian authors Isabel Patterson and Rose Wilder Lane in his earlier days. He used his influence to get Ayn Rand the right to do the script for the movie The Fountainhead.
Milton Friedman has called Leonard Read "the dean of freedom." Roy Childs credits Read's influence in his development of a libertarian philosophy. Even William Buckley praises Read while taking exception to his views on drug laws. At a birthday party for Leonard, Buckley told the crowd of his own attempts to convince Read that heroin addiction is a disease and government is therefore justified in eradicating the cause of it. Read's retort was that some would consider conservatism a disease, also.
FEE'S innocuous little magazine, The Freeman, has circulated in many unlikely places. A recent photo of Ronald Reagan showed him holding an issue in his hand. The Queen Mother and Prince Philip are on the list of subscribers. In 34 years, the foundation's influence has reached all over the world. FEE has given over 250 seminars in 22 foreign countries. Read has spoken at most of them. His presence was felt in Argentina in 1958 when the country started its shift away from communism toward the free market. He spoke to both houses of the Philippine government in the early '60s in an unsuccessful attempt to convince them to emulate Hong Kong's economic policies. Centers modeled after FEE have sprung up by the hundreds all over the world.
It is difficult to get Read to talk about his accomplishments. He would rather discuss his sheltie collie, whose ragged picture he is quick to produce from his shirt pocket, or his favorite golf course in Scotland. His goals in life include a fifth hole-in-one and seeing Halley's Comet a second time. The word integrity seems to come up whenever his friends talk about him. F.A. Hayek, Henry Hazlitt (the only original trustee of FEE still living), Benjamin Rogge, Hans Sennholz, and Antony Fisher are better sources of information about Read than Read is.
If Read is criticized, it is usually for not getting more involved directly in the political process or for not being more explicit about noneconomic civil liberties. But it is difficult to find anyone who has done more for liberty. It may be that his refusal to deal with any issue but the proper role of government has given him his long-lived credibility with so many different types of people. One of FEE'S trustees explained that Leonard avoids the appearance of being in favor of certain lifestyles in order to keep all the attention on the proper role of government, knowing that liberty is the fundamental issue.
Certainly, Read has been successful. An example can be found in Brazil. Read gave a seminar there in 1958 for his friend Paulo lyres. lyres translated Read's Government: An Ideal Concept and circulated it widely. In 1964 lyres, along with many of those who heard Read speak, led a bloodless coup that overthrew the Communists and instituted a free market. In an interview in the September 1964 issue of Fortune, lyres named FEE as the reason for the revolution. Brazilians today do not enjoy the civil liberties that Americans do, but many see the institution of a free market as the first and necessary step toward full liberty.
And the struggle for liberty today? Asked whether the present decline into the planned economy and the welfare state is going to continue, Read said, "We are going to have a turnabout." Explaining his optimism, he added: "History has been a case of evolution, devolution, evolution, devolution, evolution, with evolution inching ahead over the millennia. A good way to look at that is to imagine a character who was born 35,000 years ago. He would have an entirely different perception than we have today. He would see only the forest, not the trees. He would observe mankind advancing in a straight line. That's all he'd see—a straight line, not the detail. But with a magnifying glass, you would see this evolutionary, devolutionary, evolutionary process.
"The main thing to keep in mind is that this is not a numbers problem. Every good movement in the history of the world has been led by an infinitesimal minority. Go back 2,000 years to the perfect example, Jesus of Nazareth. How many helpers did he have? Twelve, and one of them was a bum. But look at the effect that Christianity has had on the world.
"Go to England prior to Adam Smith, where they had mercantilism—precisely the same thing we call the welfare state and the planned economy. That turnabout was brought about by John Bright and Richard Cobden, two men who understood this absolute principle of freedom in transactions and knew how to explain this philosophy.
"Or go back to the time of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Only a handful of men had anything to do with that—I mean, did the real thinking on it. Edmund Burke wrote, 'How often has public calamity been arrested on the very brink of ruin by the seasonable energy of a single man?' Just a few—one—is enough. The people today, the masses, the millions are following this socialistic decline, but doing it absolutely unconsciously. When this man comes that we're talking about, they will follow him just as unconsciously. It's only the few that will do it. All good movements have been thus led."
Leonard Read is one of the few.
Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Founding Father".