Knowing That We Know Not
OCTOBER 01, 1965 by LEONARD E. READ
A question that plagues numerous libertarians is: "Why does the free market, private property, limited government way of life find so little acceptance? Isn’t it because it’s so hard to understand?"
The right answer, it seems, is a qualified "yes." For it is extremely difficult to understand that there is a method of social and economic cooperation that doesn’t require a lot of knowledge on the part of any one person. It isn’t easy to grasp the fact that there is a wonderful way of life, suited to humanity as it is—that is, made to order for all of us, no one of whom knows very much. The fact is, the free market can no more be understood than can a living tree or Creation itself. But like the sun’s energy, or even life, it is possible to gain an awareness of its miraculous performances and, becoming thus aware, treat this system of discoveries and willing exchanges with the intelligent solicitude of any other wondrous blessing. We can know of the free market; we cannot understand it!
We know of the Giant Sequoia, for instance. But we do not pretend that we understand this wonder of Nature. We readily concede the tree to be a product of Creation, and let it go at that. True, scientists have noted that it is energy in particular atomic and molecular configurations, but understanding fades into nothingness when it comes to comprehending what atoms and molecules really are and how they coalesce to manifest themselves in a tree. But we do not have to understand trees in order that our lives may be enriched by their existence.
The free market is just as incomprehensible to our finite minds as any other manifestation of Creation. The artifacts by which we survive and live and enjoy ourselves—each and all of them, from the bread we eat to Grand Opera—represent the culminations of trillions upon trillions of creativities and discoveries which have been flowing through the minds of men and interacting in complex exchange ever since the dawn of human consciousness. These proceed from the same Source as do the mysteries of Nature; they are spiritual forces—in depth? We will never really understand the free market, but it is our good fortune that the market will confer its blessings on us regardless—that is, if we do not destroy it. Be it remembered that man, while unable to create life, has the power to destroy not only life but also the life-giving forces with which Creation has endowed him.
The Market Process to Be Taken on Faith
One of these important life-giving forces is the market process of voluntary exchange that affords abundance to millions of individuals where thousands previously struggled for subsistence. The process functions without any over-all masterminding; indeed, centralized, dictatorial planning is its nemesis! But if there be no awareness of or faith in this fact, man will go beyond his competency; he will interfere and disrupt the market and, by so doing, deny himself and countless others its benefits and blessings. If he doesn’t know that he knows not, he will, as the saying goes, "throw a monkey wrench in the machinery." Man’s misguided and coercive intervention can and will destroy this vital life force.
Man, with an exception now and then, has been willing to concede the creation of life and the cosmos to Creation. Some things in Nature he has had no part in originating; he doesn’t know how they came about; a hand other than his own accounts for their making; he accepts them as the environmental structure in which he finds himself; and, important to this explanation, he does not demand that he understand how to make a tree, for example, before enjoying its shade or using its trunk to build his home. In a word, man seems to think it is all right not to understand miracles he has had no part in bringing about.
Rejecting the Mysterious
But let mankind begin to participate in creation, that is, to have an infinitesimal part in an occasional miracle or discovery, and contemporaneous individuals will tend not to accept the free market way of life—merely because they cannot understand how such "chaos" could account for the artifacts by which they exist.
The artifacts by which you and I survive and live give the appearance of flowing from our own hands, even though no one of us can make a single one of them.2 Power and light, TV sets, autos, computers, dishwashers, milking machines, ball point pens, reapers, or whatever, seem to be of our own doing. The illusion that we ourselves are the authors of these artifacts, coupled with the belief that we should understand what we originate, causes many persons to reject the free market. It is this illusion that lies at the root of the trouble. Why, they seem to ask, should we embrace something we cannot comprehend?
The reality? The source of these artifacts by which we live is not contemporaneous man. At best, you and I do no more than to add a discovery or a creativity, now and then, to an enormous body of antecedent discoveries and creativities extending back through the millennia to the harnessing of fire. These trillions of discoveries and creativities, interacting in complex exchange, over many thousands of years, and finding their way through the porosity of restrictive and coercive interventions, taboos, edicts, and laws constitute the free market. It is a mistake to think of the free market as anything less than this incomprehensible performance in depth.
Now we come to the nub of the matter: When people are unaware of the free market as it really is, they are prone to tamper with what they thoughtlessly misconceive it to be. They will tend to reject a performance they cannot understand in favor of a system whose specifications can be framed within their own dim awareness. Put another way, they are disinclined to place any faith in anything that is "over their heads." The free market being beyond their ken, they embrace what comes within their ken: price and production controls, taking from some and giving to others, diluting the medium of exchange, and similar perversions. In short, they contrive a planned economy, dictatorially managed—a way of life shallow enough for them to grasp.
Assume that man had the same attitude toward Creation as manifested in Nature as most men now have toward Creation as manifested in the artifacts by which man lives and survives. What would he do in this case? Not understanding or being able to make a tree, he would first obtain all of a tree’s chemical components. He would next paste these together in the shape of a tree. He would then paint the parts to look like a tree. So skilled is the artistry of man that the visual resemblance would be remarkable. But there would be no functioning root structure, no osmotic pressure attending to sap flow; indeed, there would be no sap. Further, there would be no photosynthesis, or any chemical transformations, or any life! And as to its usefulness—well, nothing beyond an art gallery. What a grotesquerie!
The trillions of varied creativities, flowing through space and time, can never be synthesized to the point where the whole complex can be understood by any single person. Understanding is more than difficult; it is impossible. And, without question, it is this inability to understand which keeps faith in the free market from forming, growing, accumulating. It is also this inability to understand which accounts for all the little, annoying, destructive man-made substitutions. But the free market doesn’t need to be understood.
The free market is but another of countless performances that require no more of man than an awareness of and a faith in its miraculous promises. The awareness and the faith are easy enough to acquire for anyone who can perceive the abundant evidence which lies about us on every hand.
For a further development of the theme of the above article, see Leonard Read’s The Free Market and Its Enemy (Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.,
Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the July 1959 Freeman and is a slight condensation of a pamphlet published in 1953 under the title "Stand-By Controls." Unfortunately, it seems necessary to keep on explaining why government control of prices is economically, morally, and politically unsound.
1 For an explanation of this concept, see Chapter II, "The Miraculous Market" in my The Free Market and Its Enemy (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1965), $1.00 paper; $1.75 cloth.
2 See Chapter XI, "Only God Can Make a Tree—Or a Pencil," in my Anything That’s Peaceful (Irvington-onHudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1964), $2.50 paper; $3.50 cloth.