Learning Liberty and the Power of Principles

Published July 25, 2019

In The Constitution of Liberty, free-market economist and social philosopher F.A. Hayek, quotes in a footnote the famous nineteenth-century scientist Louis Pasteur: “In research, chance only helps those whose minds are well prepared for it.” What Pasteur was, no doubt, getting at is that unless the researcher already has been trained in the principles and methods of his own scientific field, and unless he is fairly knowledgeable about previous experiments and their outcomes in his area of study, he will not be able to see possibilities or opportunities for discovery that come his way that otherwise would just pass by the untrained mind.

I want to argue that the same applies in taking advantage of opportunities to advance liberty. Unless an individual is willing to take the time to make himself fairly well informed about the principles, applications, and some of the history of liberty, chances for advancing the cause of freedom may pass him by; opportunities that might have made a difference can be missed.

I should confess that my guide for emphasizing that are ideas developed by Leonard E. Read (1898–1983), the founder and first president (1946–1983) of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). In June 1974, I attended a weeklong FEE seminar at the Foundation’s original headquarters in a grand old mansion located in Irvington-on-Hudson, about 20 miles north of New York City. There were many excellent lectures during that week. Some of them were by FEE staff members, including Ed Opitz (FEE’s resident classical-liberal theologian), Paul Poirot (editor of FEE’s monthly magazine, The Freeman), and Bettina Bien Greaves (publications editor and expert on all things relating to Ludwig von Mises).

There were also a number of outstanding talks by outside speakers, including Hans Sennholz (the head of the economics department at Grove City College in Pennsylvania) and Henry Hazlitt (the internationally renowned free-market journalist, and the author of Economics in One Lesson). Sennholz was a real showman, using his native German accent to great effect to make his points in defense of economic freedom and highlighting the contradictions and errors in all forms of socialism. Henry Hazlitt was clear, calm, and compelling in his emphasis on always looking beyond “what is seen” in government policies so as not to miss the secondary or “unseen” effects of government interventions that usually lead to disastrous consequences.

A light of liberty through self-improvement

But I must admit, reflecting back on that week now 45 years ago, that I can picture in my mind and remember most of the content of only one lecture. It was a talk delivered by Leonard Read. The presentations were given in a lecture hall off the great library room of the mansion. At one point in his talk, Leonard Read asked that the lights be turned off. He held a small electric candle in his hand, and slightly turning its dimmer dial, there emerged a small flicker of light.

“Notice,” Read said, “that though the candle gives off only a wee bit of light, how all of our eyes are drawn to it in the dark.” He slowly turned the dimmer dial again, and remarked, “Now notice how as I add just a little more to the candle’s illumination, we can now see more of me and some of those sitting in the front of the room.” He continued to turn the dial until the candle was at its maximum. As he was doing so, Leonard Read pointed out how much more of the room was becoming visible to our eyes, until finally the darkness had been pushed back into the small corners of the room.

He said, “That is what is each of us can be — lights of liberty. The more we are informed, knowledgeable, and articulate about the ideas of freedom the more intellectual light we give off in exchanges with others, and the more we may attract some of those others to also become illuminations of liberty. Finally, there will be enough of us that the ideas of collectivism and statism will have been pushed back to a few small, dark corners of society.”

Changing the world begins with you.

Read noted that many of us would like to change society for the better. But the question is, where and how to start? He asked us, out of all the people in the world, over whom do you have, personally, the most influence? The answer is, yourself! Making over the world, therefore, should and must start with improving your own understanding of freedom and dedication to it. In this case, it means being willing to take the time, attention, and courage to learn the meaning of liberty and improving your ability to share what you know with others.

Leonard Read did not say that each of us has to dedicate himself to learning and sharing what he called the “freedom philosophy” all day, every day. We all have different circumstances, obligations, and willingness to do things. Some may have only the time and ability to become generally familiar with the ideas of liberty and just try to live by them to the best that we can while doing all the other things of life.

Others might have the chance to read and think more about what freedom means, and the arguments for and against. If moved to do so, these people will have the knowledge and interest to more actively participate in conversations and other forums to advance the cause of freedom. And still others may have the interest and desire to become spokesmen and developers of arguments for freedom and the free society.

However bright we try to make ourselves as such lights of liberty, we have to accept the fact that change always comes one person at a time, one mind at a time. If freedom seems to be something important to you and for the world in which you live, then a little bit of the burden of learning about it and passing it on to others falls upon you, in your own way and personal circumstances.

The other important point that Leonard Read made is that you cannot force the ideas of freedom on anyone, nor do people like to be “talked down to” in arrogant and know-it-all ways. Whether in comments during a conversation over a meal, or answers you may give when someone asks your opinion on some political or economic issue, Leonard Read reminded us to always treat others with courtesy and respect, and never with hubris or anger.

You never know whom you have touched about freedom.

Another takeaway from Leonard Read is never to allow disappointment to get the better of you. You never know how what you have said may end up rolling around inside some person’s head long after your exchange of views with him, or in others who may have said nothing themselves but overheard the conversation.

Many years ago, I found this out when I was first teaching while still in graduate school. One day I was waiting in line at the checkout counter in a small grocery store in New York City. The woman behind me in the line had been staring at me and said, “Aren’t you Richard Ebeling? Don’t you teach an evening course at Rutgers University?” Hesitatingly, I said, “Yes.” The woman looked right at me and said, “You have ruined my marriage!” Everyone around just looked at me. “You’ve ruined my marriage,” she repeated. “My husband took your economics class, and now all he does is come home from work, watch the evening news, and complain about government all night. You have ruined my marriage.”

I had no idea who her husband was, or where he sat in the classroom, or whether he had ever asked questions or simply sat back and listened. But, clearly, some of the things I discussed and explained in that introductory economics class had clicked inside of him, and made a difference about how he thought about freedom, markets, and the role of government in society. None of us knows how or when something we say or do will affect or influence another, in one way or another, for good or ill.

The lesson that I learned from that experience was that whether students in any class of mine seemed wide awake or half asleep, fully taking everything in I was saying or showing body language indicating that they wished they could be someplace else, I am always, to the best of my teaching ability, partly talking and explaining to that unknown one that may be there, like the unknown student in that Rutgers class of mine very long ago.

Ideas influence events: the free-trade movement

Two of the momentous victories for liberty in the 19th century were the end to British trade protectionism and the abolition of slavery in the United States. Both advances for human freedom occurred during times of economic or political crisis. The British Corn Laws imposed high tariff barriers against the importation of foreign agricultural goods into the British Isles, especially, though not exclusively, on wheat, as a means of securing higher prices for the landed aristocracy. In the autumn and winter of 1845/1846 some of the worst rains in living memory destroyed much of the wheat and related crops throughout Great Britain. High bread and other food prices caused many to face starvation, particularly among the lower classes. Social unrest threatened the country.

The issue of protectionism versus freedom of trade in food had been hotly debated for a long time in the British Parliament. But finally, in June 1846, both Houses of Parliament passed legislation repealing the Corn Laws, allowing unilateral free trade in virtually all food items. Cheap food from abroad could enter the land and feed the desperately hungry. But this “radical” answer of unilateral free trade, did not appear out of nowhere.

For decades the friends of freedom in Great Britain, a generation of thinkers influenced by the ideas of Adam Smith and others, had been arguing for freedom of enterprise and trade, at home and abroad. Persons such as Richard Cobden and John Bright in the Anti-Corn Law League led them. They talked, they lectured, they published books, monographs, and pamphlets, and they elected free-trade advocates to Parliament.

A historical accident, a season of terrible weather, became the catalyst for the economic reform of ending government interference with international trade in Great Britain, but only because before that moment of crisis there had been more and more people who had come to see economic freedom as the answer to poverty and starvation. The idea of free trade had become so much a part of the climate of opinion by the middle of the 1840s, that children in poor parts of London would write graffiti on the walls of buildings with slogans such as, “I be protected, and I be starved.”

Large segments of the British population among the poor and the “ruling classes” had been won over, one mind at a time, over a good number of years, in spite of many policy frustrations and disappointments along the way; until, finally, an economic crisis of failed food crops could open the door to the chance of changing the course of economic events in a dramatic way. But it would not have been possible if people who had come to see the importance of liberty had not been willing to learn, champion, and speak out for free trade as a matter of moral as well as practical principle. Ideas, it was demonstrated, do have consequences.

Slavery and the American South

Another instance is the end to slavery in the United States. Slavery was formally ended in all the Northern states of the United States by 1802. However, the institution of black slavery was embedded into the very fabric of the Southern states. There were 31.2 million people in the United States in 1860, out of whom almost 4 million were slaves, or about 13 percent of the country’s total population. The overall population of the slave states before the Civil War was less than 9.5 million, so 42 percent of the South’s population was made up of black slaves. Indeed, the 1860 census showed that the slave populations were in the majority in some of the Southern states (53 percent in Mississippi and 57 percent in South Carolina). Those 4 million slaves were held as human property by a total of 294,000 Southern slave owners, or by only 7 percent of the South’s population.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of slave owners and non–slave owners in those Southern states considered this “peculiar institution” essential to the livelihood and culture of the South. It was said that white labor could not work in the southern climate; only blacks, originally made for the heat of Africa, were biologically fit to pick cotton, harvest tobacco, and wade into the rice fields in that part of the country. Besides, if slavery was ended not only would slave owners lose the market value of their investment, it would be impossible to get “free labor” to work for wages that would still make their crops profitable, so the Southern economy would be destroyed without low-cost slave labor. Finally, Africans, it was said, were inherently inferior to whites, and they needed masters to take care of them in beneficial ways that they could never do for themselves if they were free. Slavery, in other words, was a benevolent socialism, and so said some of the slavery proselytizers publicly arguing in behalf of the institution.

Northern bigotry and the Abolitionist movement

In the Northern states, slavery may have been ended, but the free blacks in those parts of the country were shunned, discriminated against, sometimes violently attacked, and generally considered an undesirable element in American society. Slavery may be wrong in the eyes of God and man, but most whites in the North did not want blacks living next door, marrying their daughters, or competing for their jobs. It was for that reason that the eloquent runaway slave Frederick Douglass delivered his Fifth of July address in 1852 on why the Declaration of Independence was a mockery with its talk of unalienable rights that belonged to all men, while millions languished in chains and slave labor south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and too many white Northerners considered Africans to be less than fully and equal human beings.

But like the enemies of slavery before them in Great Britain, where that institution was ended throughout the British Empire in 1834, the American Abolitionist leaders, such as William Lloyd Garrison, spoke out against slavery as a matter of moral principle. Most were motivated by their deeply held Christian belief that human slavery was an abomination in the eyes of God. They insisted that we are all equally God’s children, regardless of where we were born and how we looked.

The cruelty of the slave traders and the harshness of the slave masters in the South called for one and only one answer: the end to slavery now and completely. And our African brethren in the United States, the Abolitionists said, should be considered Americans with all the same rights and protections as all other citizens. Abolitionists were often scorned, physically attacked, sometimes murdered by racists and slavery sympathizers in the North. They were considered unreasonable and dangerous radicals threatening the unity of the country and the tranquility of society.

Lincoln, slavery, and the Civil War

But the Abolitionists persisted, and their numbers slowly but surely grew. And then a national crisis emerged with the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860. Lincoln was against the extension of slavery to any of the Western territories that would, over time, have populations large enough to apply for statehood within the Union. He was emphatic, however, that he did not intend and did not consider that he had the authority as president to abolish slavery in the Southern states where it already existed.

However, for the Southern states, attempts to stop the spread of slavery to any future new states in the Union threatened to bring the death knell to their peculiar institution. New states meant more senators and additional congressmen increasingly outnumbering the congressional representatives from the slave states. The free states, at some point, would try to overthrow their slave system.

(As an aside, it is true that there were disputes over protectionist tariffs and use of federal tax revenues for “internal improvements” — canals, railways, and roads — more for the benefit of the Northern and Western states than those of the South. But any reading of the declarations of secession issued by the Southern states following Lincoln’s election makes it very clear that the only issue that mattered enough to explicitly refer to and defend in their secession justifications was slavery.)

For the first two years, the Civil War went badly for Lincoln and the Union side. Southern resistance had been stronger than expected, the Confederate Armies had routed Union forces an embarrassing number of times, and the war was getting to be costly in terms of money and lives. Draft riots ensued in New York City following Lincoln’s imposing military conscription. Members of his own Republican Party were hesitant to vote sufficient funds to continue prosecuting the war.

He needed the support of the Abolitionists in Congress to vote his way. But they would not, if ending slavery was not made central to the Union cause. Finally, to win that support, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery in those parts of the South still in a state of rebellion against the U.S. government. It was an important, if only partial, victory for those who demanded the complete end to this immoral institution. Following the end to the Civil War, the stage was set for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution to be passed and ratified by the end of 1865 for the formal end to slavery and any other form of involuntary servitude throughout the United States.

If the Abolitionists had not been hard at work for decades earlier in the United States; if they had not made the moral argument for a complete end to slavery as an abomination in the eyes of God and man; and if they had not grown in influence and support enough to sway votes in Congress, there is no certainty that either the Emancipation Proclamation or the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution would have been issued and passed when and how they were.

Here was another accident of the circumstances of history, with its outcome partly dependent on people’s believing in and arguing for liberty, even in a political setting in which all the cultural and social attitudes and forces seemed to suggest an unwinnable battle during all the years before the actual victory.

The only chance is to fight for liberty.

It is never possible to know beforehand or with full certainty whether right ideas will win out in a particular place and at any particular time. But what is far more certain is that if those ideas are not known, believed in, and argued and fought for, they have no chance of ever prevailing.

That is why it is so important to make the principled and uncompromising case for individual rights and economic liberty, however daunting the task seems, no matter how unwinnable the triumph of those ideas appear. It is why each of us must, to the best his ability and to the extent his time and circumstances permit, become one of Leonard Read’s lights of liberty; intellectual candles of illumination offering the vision and vista of a free society.

In 1949, when the possibility of the triumph of Soviet-style socialism seemed likely around the world, Austrian economist, F.A. Hayek, penned an article entitled “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” The heart of his argument is that socialism seemed to be winning because it had captured the imagination of far too many intellectuals as a vision of a new, good, and more just society; and through them, a growing number of people in society in general were believing the same, owing to the persuasiveness of their writings.

But, Hayek insisted, it did not have to end with a collectivist future for mankind. Friends of freedom had to restate and remake the case for human liberty in a way that aroused the excitement and moral attractiveness of a truly free society. He said,

Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the hallmark of [classical] liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.

That is our task, our duty; and if we but try, all of us combined as individual lights of liberty can and will brighten up the world for freedom and free enterprise.

[Originally Published at the Future of Freedom Foundation]