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On That Day Began Lies

Personal responsibility never disappears.

SEPTEMBER 27, 2010 by LEONARD E. READ

Editor’s Note: Leonard E. Read was born September 26, 1898. Below is a reprise of one of his timeless and timely classics.

From the day when the first members of councils placed exterior authority higher than interior, that is to say, recognized the decisions of men united in councils as more important and more sacred than reason and conscience; on that day began lies that caused the loss of millions of human beings and which continue their unhappy work to the present day.

—Leo Tolstoy[1]

This is a striking statement. Is it possible that there is something of a wholly destructive nature which has its source in councilmanic, or in group, or in committee-type action? Can this sort of thing generate lies that actually cause the loss of “millions of human beings”?

Any reasonable clue to the unhappy state of our affairs merits investigation. Two world wars that settled nothing except adding to the difficulties of avoiding even worse ones; men lacking in good character rising to positions of power over millions of other men; freedom to produce, to trade, to travel, disappearing from the earth; everywhere the fretful talk of security as insecurity daily becomes more evident; suggested solutions to problems made of the stuff that gave rise to the problems; the tragic spectacle, even here in America, of any one of many union leaders being able, at will, to control a strategic part of the complex exchange machinery on which the livelihood of all depends; these and other perplexities of import combine to raise a tumultuous “why,” and to hasten the search for answers.

The Search for Answers

Strange how wide and varied the search, as though we intuitively knew the cause to lie in some elusive, hidden, unnoticed error. The affair is serious. The stake is life itself. And the error or errors, it is agreed at least by the serious-minded, may well be found deep in the thoughts and behaviors of men, even of well-intentioned men. Anyway, everything and everyone is suspect. And, why not? When there is known to be a culprit and the culprit is not known, what other scientifically sound procedure is there?

“. . . on that day began lies. . . .” That is something to think about. Obviously, if everything said or written were lies, then truth or right principles would be unknown. Subtract all knowledge of right principles and there would not be even chaos among men. Quite likely there would be no men at all.

If half of everything said or written were lies. . . .

Human life is dependent not only on the knowledge of right principles but dependent, also, on actions in accordance with right principles. Admittedly there are wrong principles and right principles. However, the nearest that any person can get to right principles—truth—is that which his highest personal judgment dictates as right. Beyond that one cannot go or achieve. Truth, then, as nearly as any individual can express it, is in strict accordance with this inner, personal dictate of rightness.

The accurate representation of this inner, personal dictate is intellectual integrity. It is the expressing, living, acting of such truth as any given person is in possession of. Inaccurate representation of what one believes to be right is untruth. It is a lie.

Attaining knowledge of right principles is an infinite process. It is a development to be pursued but never completed. Intellectual integrity, the accurate reflection of highest personal judgment, on the other hand, is within the reach of all. Thus, the best we can do with ourselves is to represent ourselves at our best. To do otherwise is to tell a lie. To tell lies is to destroy such truth as is known. To deny truth is to destroy ourselves.

It would seem to follow, then, that if we could isolate any one or numerous origins of lies we might put the spotlight on the genesis of our troublous times. This is why it seems appropriate to accept Tolstoy’s statement as a hypothesis and examine into the idea that lies begin with “decisions of men united in councils as more important and more sacred than reason and conscience.” For, certainly, today, much of the decision that guides national and world policy springs from “men united in councils.”

In what manner, then, do “the decisions of men united in councils” tend to initiate lies? Experience with these arrangements suggests that there are several ways.

The Spirit of the Mob

The first has to do with a strange and what in most instances must be an unconscious behavior of men in association. Consider the mob. It is a loose-type association. The mob will tar and feather, burn at the stake, string up by the neck, and otherwise murder. But dissect this association, pull it apart, investigate its individual components. Each person, very often, is a God-fearing, home-loving, wouldn’t-kill-a-fly type of individual.

What happens, then? What makes persons in a mob behave as they do? What accounts for the distinction between these persons acting as responsible individuals and acting in association?

Perhaps it is this: These persons, when in mob association, and maybe at the instigation of a demented leader, remove the self-disciplines which guide them in individual action; thus the evil that is in each person is released, for there is some evil in all of us. In this situation, no one of the mobsters consciously assumes the personal guilt for what is thought to be a collective act but, instead, puts the onus of it on an abstraction which, without persons, is what the mob is.

There may be the appearance of unfairness in relating mob association to association in general. In all but one respect, yes. But in one respect there is a striking similarity.

Persons advocate proposals in association that they would in no circumstance practice in individual action. Honest men, by any of the common standards of honesty, will, in a board or a committee, sponsor, for instance, legal thievery—that is, they will urge the use of the political means to exact the fruits of the labor of others for the purpose of benefiting themselves, their group, or their community.

These leaders, for they have been elected or appointed to a board or a committee, do not think of themselves as having sponsored legal thievery. They think of the board, the committee, the council, or the association as having taken the action.[2] The onus of the act, to their way of thinking, is put on an abstraction which is what a board or an association is without persons.

Imagine this: Joe Doakes passed away and floated up to the Pearly Gates. He pounded on the Gates and St. Peter appeared.

“Who are you, may I ask?”

“My name is Joe Doakes, sir.”

“Where are you from?”

“I am from Updale, U.S.A.”

“Why are you here?”

“I plead admittance, Mr. St. Peter.”

St. Peter scanned his scroll and said, “Yes, Joe, you are on my list. Sorry I can’t let you in. You stole money from others, including widows and orphans.”

“Mr. St. Peter, I had the reputation of being an honest man. What do you mean, I stole money from widows and orphans?”

“Joe, you were a member, a financial supporter and once on the Board of Directors of The Updale Do-Good Association. It advocated a municipal golf course in Updale which took money from widows and orphans in order to benefit you and a hundred other golfers.”

“Mr. St. Peter, that was The Updale Do-Good Association that took that action, not your humble applicant, Joe Doakes.”

St. Peter scanned his scroll again, slowly raised his head, and said somewhat sadly, “Joe, The Updale Do-Good Association is not on my list, nor any foundation, nor any chamber of commerce, nor any trade association, nor any labor union, nor any P.T.A. All I have listed here are persons, just persons.”

It ought to be obvious that we as individuals stand responsible for our actions regardless of any wishes to the contrary, or irrespective of the devices we try to arrange to avoid personal responsibility. Actions of the group character heretofore referred to are lies for in no sense are they accurate responses to the highest judgments of the individuals concerned.

The Spirit of the Committee

The second way that lies are initiated by “the decisions of men united in councils” inheres in commonly accepted committee practices. For example: A committee of three has been assigned the task of preparing a report on what should be done about rent control. The first member is devoted to the welfare-state idea and believes that rents should forever be controlled by governmental fiat. The second member is a devotee of the voluntary society, free-market economy, and a government of strictly limited powers and, therefore, believes that rent control should be abolished forthwith. The third member believes rent controls to be bad but thinks that the decontrol should be effected gradually, over a period of years.

This not uncommon situation is composed of men honestly holding three irreconcilable beliefs. Yet, a report is expected and under the customary committee theory and practice is usually forthcoming. What to do? Why not hit upon something that is not too disagreeable to any one of the three? For instance, why not bring in a report recommending that landlords be permitted by government to increase rents in an amount not to exceed 15 percent? Agreed!

In this hypothetical but common instance the recommendation is a fabrication, pure and simple. Truth, as understood by any one of the three, has no spokesman. By any reasonable definition a lie has been told.

The Lowest Common Denominator

Another example. Three men having no preconceived ideas are appointed to bring in a report. What will they agree to? Only that which they are willing to say in concert which, logically, can be only the lowest common-denominator opinion of the majority! The lowest common-denominator opinion of two persons cannot be an accurate reflection of the highest judgment of each of the two. The lowest common-denominator opinion of a set of men is at variance with truth as here defined. Again, it is a fabrication. Truth has no spokesman. A lie has been told.

These examples (numberless variations could be cited) suggest only the nature of the lie in embryo. It is interesting to see what becomes of it.

Not all bodies called committees are true committees, a phase of the discussion that will be dealt with later. However, the true committee, the arrangement which calls for resolution in accordance with what a majority of the members are willing to say in concert, is but the instigator of fabrications yet more pronounced. The committee, for the most part, presupposes another larger body to which its recommendations are made.

These larger bodies have a vast, almost an all-inclusive, range in present-day American life. The neighborhood development associations; the small town and big city chambers of commerce; the regional and national trade associations; the P.T.A.’s; labor unions organized vertically to encompass crafts and horizontally to embrace industries; farmers’ granges and co-ops; medical and other kinds of professional societies; ward, precinct, county, state, and national organizations of political parties; governmental councils from the local police department board to the Congress of the United States; the United Nations; thousands and tens of thousands of them, every citizen embraced by several of them and millions of citizens embraced by scores of them; most of them “resoluting” as groups, deciding as “men united in councils.”

These associational arrangements divide quite naturally into two broad classes: (1) those that are of the voluntary type, the kind to which we pay dues if we want to, and (2) those that are a part of government, the kind to which we pay taxes whether we want to or not.

For the purposes of this critique, emphasis will be placed on the voluntary type. In many respects criticisms applying to the former are valid when applied to the latter[3]; nonetheless, there are distinctions between the way one should relate oneself to a voluntary association and the way one, for the sake of self-protection, is almost compelled to relate himself to a coercive agency.

Now, it is not true, nor is it here pretended, that every associational resolution originates in distortions of personal conceptions of what is right. But any one of the millions of citizens who participates in these associations has, by experience, learned how extensive these fabrications are. As a matter of fact, there has developed a rather large acceptance of the notion that wisdom can be derived from the averaging of opinions, providing there are enough of them. The quantitative theory of wisdom, so to speak?

A Lie Compounded

If one will concede that the aforementioned committee characteristics and council behaviors are perversions of truth, it becomes interesting to observe the manner of their extension—to observe how the lie is compounded.

Analyzed, it is something like this: An association takes a stand on a certain issue and claims or implies it speaks for its one million members. It is possible, of course, that each of the one million members agrees with the stand taken by the organization. But, in all probability, this is an untruthful statement, for the following possible reasons:

  1. If every member were actually polled on the issue, and the majority vote was accepted as the organization’s position, there is no certainty that more than 500,001 persons agreed with the position stated as that of the one million.
  2. If not all members were polled, or not all were at the meeting where the voting took place, there is only the certainty that a majority of those voting favored the position of the organization—still claimed to be the belief of one million persons. If the quorum should be 100, there is no certainty that more than 51 persons agreed with that position.
  3. It is still more likely that the opinion of the members was not tested at all. The officers, or some committee, or some one person may have determined the stand of the organization. Then there is no certainty that more than one person (or a majority of the committee) favored that position.
  4. And, finally, if that person should be dishonest—that is, untrue to that which he personally believed to be right, either by reason of ulterior motives, or by reason of anticipating what the others will like or approve—then, it is pretty certain that the resolution did not even originate in honest opinion.

An example will assist in making the point. The economist of a national association and a friend were breakfasting one morning, just after the end of World War II. Wage and price controls were still in effect. The conversation went something as follows:

“I have just written a report on wage and price controls which I think you will like.”

“Why do you say you think I will like it? Why don’t you say you know I will like it?”

“Well, I—er—hedged a little on rent controls.”

“You don’t believe in rent controls. Why did you hedge?”

“Because the report is as strong as I think our Board of Directors will adopt.”

“As the economist, isn’t it your business to state that which you believe to be right? If the Board Members want to take a wrong action, let them do so and bear the responsibility for it.”

Paying for Misrepresentation

Actually, what happened? The Board did adopt that report. It was represented to the Congress as the considered opinion of the constituency of that association. Many of the members believed in the immediate abolishment of rent control. Yet, they were reported as believing otherwise—and paying dues to be thus misrepresented. By supporting this procedure with their membership and their money they were as responsible as though they had gone before the Congress and told the lie themselves.

To remove the twofold dishonesty from such a situation, the spokesman of that association would have to say something like this to the Congress:

“This report was adopted by our Board of Directors, 35 of the 100 being present. The vote was 18 to 12 in favor of the report, 5 not voting. The report itself was prepared by our economist, but it is not an accurate reflection of his views.”[4]

Such honesty or exactness is more the exception than the rule as everyone who has had experience in associational work can attest. What really happens is a misrepresentation of concurrence, a program of lying about how many of who stands for what. Truth, such as is known, is seldom spoken. It is warped into a misleading distortion. It is obliterated by this process of the majority speaking for the minority, more often by the minority speaking for the majority, sometimes by one dishonest opportunist speaking for thousands. Truth, such as is known—the best judgments of individuals—for the most part, goes unrepresented, unspoken.

This, then, is the stuff out of which much of local, national, and world policy is being woven. Is it any wonder that many citizens are confused?

Three questions are in order, and deserve suggested answers:

  1. What is the reason for having all these troubles with truth?
  2. What should we do about these associational difficulties?
  3. Is there a proper place for associational activity as relating to important issues?

“And now remains

That we find out the cause of this effect;

Or, rather say, the cause of this defect,

For this effect, defective, comes by cause.”

Pointing out causes is a hazardous venture for, as one ancient sage put it, “Even from the beginnings of the world descends a chain of causes.” Thus, for the purpose of this critique, it would be folly to attempt more than casual reference to some of our own recent experiences.

First, there doesn’t appear to be any widespread, lively recognition of the fact that conscience, reason, knowledge, integrity, fidelity, understanding, judgment, and other virtues are the distinctive and exclusive properties of individual persons.

Somehow, there follows from this lack of recognition the notion that wisdom can be derived by pooling the conclusions of a sufficient number of persons, even though no one of them has applied his faculties to the problems in question. With this as a notion the imagination begins to ascribe personal characteristics to a collective—the committee, the group, the association—as though the collective could think, judge, know, or assume responsibility. With this as a notion, there is the inclination to substitute the “decisions of men united in councils” for reason and conscience. With this as a notion, the responsibility for personal thought is relieved and, thus relieved, fails to materialize to its fullest.

A Blind Faith

Second, there is an almost blind faith in the efficacy and rightness of majority decision as though the mere preponderance of opinion were the device for determining what is right. This thinking is consistent with and a part of the “might makes right” doctrine. This thinking, no doubt, is an outgrowth of the American political pattern, lacking, it seems, an observance of the essential distinctions between voluntary and coercive agencies. It is necessary that these distinctions be understood unless the whole associational error is to continue. The following is, at least, a suggested explanation:

Government—organized police force—which according to best American theory should have a monopoly of coercive power, must contain a final authority. Such authority was not planned to be in the person of a monarch, in an oligarchy, or even in a set of elected representatives. The ultimate, final authority was designed to derive from and to reside with the people. Erected as safeguards against the despotism that such a democratic arrangement is almost certain to inflict on its members were (1) the Constitution and (2) the legislative, executive, and judicial functions so divided and diffused that each might serve as a check on the others.

When the concession is made that government is necessary to assure justice and maximum freedom, and when the decision is made that the ultimate authority of that government shall rest with the people, it follows that majority vote is not a matter of choice but a necessity whenever this ultimate authority expresses itself. No alternative exists with this situation as a premise. To change from majority vote as a manner of expression would involve changing the premise, changing to a situation in which the ultimate authority rests in one person.

For reasons stated and implied throughout this critique the majority-decision system is considered to be most inexpert. However, it proves to be a virtue rather than a fault as applied to the exceedingly dangerous coercive power, providing the coercive power is limited to its sphere of policing. This inexpertness in such a circumstance tends to keep the coercive power from becoming too aggressive.

Conceding the limitation of the coercive power, which was implicit in the American design, the really important matters of life, all of the creative aspects, are outside this coercive sphere and are left to the attentions of men in voluntary effort and free association.

The idea of citizens left free to their home life, their business life, their religious life, with the coercive power limited to protecting citizens in these pursuits presents, roughly, the duality of the American pattern. On the one hand is the really important part of life, the creative part. On the other hand is the minor part, the part having to do with constraint. Constraining and creating call for distinctly different arrangements. Constraint can stop the trains but it is not the force we use to build a railroad.

Out of this pattern has developed a high appreciation for our form of government, particularly as we have compared it with the coercive agencies of the Old World. Here is the point: The majority-decision system, an effect rather than a cause of our form of government, has been erroneously credited as responsible for the superiority of our form of government. It has been thought of as its distinctive characteristic. Therefore, the majority-decision system is regarded as the essence of rightness. Without raising questions as to the distinctions between creating and constraining we have taken a coercive-agency device and attempted its application in free association. Something is not quite right. Perhaps this is one of the causes.

Loss of Reason

Third, we have in this country carried the division-of-labor practice to such a high point and with such good effect in standard-of-living benefits that we seem to have forgotten that the practice has any limitations. Many of us, in respect to our voluntary associational activities, have tried to delegate moral and personal responsibilities to mere abstractions, which is what associations are, without persons. In view of (1) this being an impossibility, (2) our persistent attempts to do it, nonetheless, and (3) the consequent loss of reason and conscience when personal responsibility is not personally assumed, we have succeeded in manufacturing little more than massive quantities of collective declarations and resolutions. These, lacking in both wit and reason, have the power to inflict damage but are generally useless in conferring understanding. So much for causes.

“What should we do about these associational difficulties?” This writer, to be consistent with his own convictions, finds it necessary to drop into first person, singular, to answer this question.

In brief, I do not know what our attitude should be, but only what mine is. It is to have no part in any association whatever which takes actions implicating me for which I am not ready and willing to accept personal responsibility.

Put it this way: If I am opposed, for instance, to spoliation—legal plunder—I am not going to risk being reported in its favor. This is a matter having to do with morals, and moral responsibility is strictly a personal affair. In this, and like areas, I prefer to speak for myself. I do not wish to carry the division-of-labor idea, the delegation of authority, to this untenable extreme.

This determination of mine refers only to voluntary associations and does not include reference to membership in or support of a political party. The latter has to do with my relationship to coercive agencies and these, as I have suggested, are birds of another feather.

One friend who shares these general criticisms objects to the course I have determined on. He objects on the ground that he must remain in associations which persist in misrepresenting him in order to effect his own influence in bettering them. If one accepts this view, how can one keep from “holing up” with any evil to be found, anywhere? If lending one’s support to an agency which lies about one’s convictions is as evil as lying oneself, and if to stop such evil in others one has to indulge in evil, it seems evident that evil will soon become unanimous. The alternative? Stop doing evil. This at least has the virtue of lessening the evildoers by one.

The question, “Is there a proper place for associational activity as relating to important issues?” is certainly appropriate if the aforementioned criticisms be considered valid.

First, the bulk of activities conducted by many associations is as businesslike, as economical, as appropriate to the division-of-labor process, as is the organization of specialists to bake bread or to make automobiles. It is not this vast number of useful service activities that is in question.

The phase of activities here in dispute has to do with a technic, a method by which reason and conscience—such truths as are possessed—are not only robbed of incentive for improvement but are actually turned into fabrications, and then represented as the convictions of persons who hold no such convictions.

It was noted above that not all bodies called committees are true committees—a true committee being an arrangement by which a number of persons bring forth a report consistent with what the majority is willing to state in concert. The true committee is part and parcel of the majority-decision system.

Intellectual Leveling-Up

The alternative arrangement, on occasion referred to as a committee, may include the same set of men. The distinction is that the responsibility and the authority for a study is vested not in the collective, the group, but in one person, preferably the one most skilled in the subject at issue. The others serve as consultants. The one person exercises his own judgment as to the suggestions to be incorporated or omitted. The report is his and is presented as his, with such acknowledgments of assistance and concurrence as the facts warrant. In short, the responsibility for the study and the authority to conduct it are reposed where responsibility and authority are capable of being exercised—in a person. This arrangement takes full advantage of the skills and specialisms of all parties concerned. The tendency here is toward an intellectual leveling-up, whereas with the true committee the lowest common-denominator opinion results.

On occasion, associations are formed for a particular purpose and supported by those who are like-minded as to that purpose. As long as the associational activities are limited to the stated purpose and as long as the members remain like-minded, the danger of misrepresentation is removed.

It is the multi-purposed association, the one that potentially may take a “position” on a variety of subjects, particularly subjects relating to the rights or the property of others—moral questions—where misrepresentation is not only possible but almost certain.

The remedy here, if a remedy can be put into effect, is for the association to quit taking “positions” except on such rare occasions as unanimous concurrence is manifest, or except as the exact and precise degree and extent of concurrence is represented.

The alternative step to most associational “positions” is for the members to employ the division-of-labor theory by pooling their resources to supply services to the members—as individuals. Provide headquarters and meeting rooms where they may assemble in free association, exchange ideas, take advantage of the availability and knowledge of others, know of each other’s experiences. In addition to this, statisticians, research experts, libraries, and a general secretariat and other aids to effective work can be provided. Then, let the individuals speak or write or act as individual persons! Indeed, this is the real, high purpose of voluntary associations.

The practical as well as the ethical advantages of this suggested procedure may not at first be apparent to everyone. Imagine, if you can, Patrick Henry as having said:

“I move that this convention go on record as insisting that we prefer death to slavery.”

Now, suppose that the convention had adopted that motion. What would have been its force? Certainly almost nothing as compared with Patrick Henry’s ringing words:

“I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

No one in this instance concerned himself with what Patrick Henry was trying to do to him or to someone else. One thought only of what Patrick Henry had decided for himself and weighed, more favorably, the merits of emulation. No convention, no association, no “decisions of men united in councils” could have said such a thing in the first place, and second, anything the members might have said in concert could not have equaled this. Third, had the convention been represented in any such sentiments it is likely that misrepresentation would have been involved.

One needs to reflect but a moment on the words of wisdom which have come down to us throughout all history, the words and works that have had the power to live, the words and works around which we have molded much of our lives, and one will recognize that they are the words and works of persons, not collective resolutions, not what men have uttered in concert, not the “decisions of men united in councils.”

A Waste of Time

In short, if effectiveness for what’s right is the object then the decision-of-men-united-in-council practice could well be abandoned, if for nothing else, on the basis of its impracticality. It is a waste of time in the creative areas, that is, for the advancement of truth. It is a useful and appropriate device only as it relates to the coercive, that is to the restrictive, suppressive, destructive functions.

The reasons for the impracticality of this device in the creative areas seem clear. Each of us when seeking perfection, whether of the spirit, of the intellect, or of the body, looks not to our inferiors but to our betters, not to those who self-appoint themselves as our betters, but to those who, in our own humble judgment, are our betters. Experience has shown that such perfection as there is exists in individuals, not in the lowest common-denominator expressions of a collection of individuals. Perfection emerges with the clear expression of personal faiths—the truth as it is known, not with the confusing announcement of verbal amalgams—lies.

“. . . on that day began lies that caused the loss of millions of human beings and which continue their unhappy work to the present day.” The evidence, if fully assembled and correctly presented, would, no doubt, convincingly affirm this observation.

How to stop lies? It is simply a matter of personal determination and a resolve to act and speak in strict accordance with one’s inner, personal dictate of what is right. And for each of us to see to it that no other man or set of men is given permission to represent us otherwise.

If such truth as we are in possession of were in no manner inhibited, then life on this earth would be at its highest possible best, short of further enlightenment.


Notes

  1. The Law of Love and the Law of Violence (New York: Rudolph Field), p. 26.
  2. It is acknowledged that most of us acting in association do not consciously regard any of our acts as bad. Yet, the fact remains that we persist in doing things in this circumstance that we would not do on our own responsibility. Actually, involved is a double standard of morality. Morality is exclusively a personal quality. Any action not good enough to be regarded as attached to one’s person is, ipso facto, bad.
  3. The common political idea that a member of Congress, for instance, must “compromise,” that is, must on some issues vote contrary to his convictions in order to effect a greater good on some subsequent issue, or to keep himself in office that he may insure the public good, leaves shattered and destroyed any moral basis of action. If each member of Congress were to act in strict accordance with his inner dictate of what is right, the final outcome of Congressional action would, of course, be a composite of differing convictions. But the alternative of this is a composite of inaccurate reflections of rightness.
  4. It is evident that any such report as this is worthless. Yet, a more pretentious report would be a lie, a thing of positive harm. If a procedure can result only in worthlessness or harm, the procedure itself should be in question.

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May 1998

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