OCTOBER 01, 1969 by LEONARD E. READ
It is becoming more and more fashionable for probers into political economy to concoct a "law" and tack their name onto it. Doubtless, this fad stems from such famous instances as Gresham’s Law: "Bad money drives out good money." Or, Say’s Law of Markets: "Production generates its own purchasing power."
This tendency among our contemporaries is a humorous way of presenting a serious idea, believed by each to be sound and original. Nor can I fault anyone for trying to have a bit of fun with what otherwise might be dismal and foreboding.
Perhaps the best known of the new ones is Parkinson’s Law: "Expenses rise to meet income."
A book entitled The Peter Principle currently heads the bestseller list: "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." Brozen’s Law reads: "Most obviously true economic policy propositions are false."¹ Rogge’s Rule tickles my fancy: "Whenever the government passes a law for your protection, take to the hills—because you are about to be had!"2 The subject here, however, is Read’s Law: "No politician can fly higher in office than he flew while getting there." This "law" has no meaning, of course, until we identify the point of reference for "higher." And the height to which I aspire is freedom; that is, no restraint against any creative action. In other words, freedom is my idea of high; socialism, statism—call it what you will—is my idea of low.
Without resort to the above point of reference, my "law" would have to be stated something like this: "No politician, after getting into office, can remove any more restraints against freedom than he promised to remove in his campaign speeches."
Let me relate how handy this "law" is. Over the years, I have known numerous aspirants for high office who, in private, endorse the freedom philosophy all the way—no exceptions! I am led to believe, "There’s my boy!" Later, as I hear or read his campaign speeches, I find nary a word about the socialism he intends to repeal if elected. Indeed, only his political label seems to distinguish him from his socialist opponent. If such a candidate is sufficiently artful at vacillation, he’s elected. Then, friends of mine hopefully ask: "What achievements for freedom are you looking forward to from so-and-so?" I respond by repeating Read’s Law: "No politician can fly higher in office than he flew while getting there." My questioners chuckle, reflect on the campaign speeches, and draw their own conclusions. I have answered them accurately without a single disparaging or offensive reference to so-and-so. No personal attack—just an incontrovertible fact revealed!
Bear in mind that my claim has to do only with an inability to fly higher, not lower. An officeholder’s "ceiling" is set by his campaign speeches; he can descend to any level. I recall the campaign pretensions of an aspirant to our highest office. He flew higher than anyone since Grover Cleveland. But once in office, he fell into a sideslip and never pulled out of it. Let me explain how I discovered Read’s Law. The campaign manager of a candidate was my close personal friend. Because his man’s speeches were socialistic, I was critical. "Why, he believes the same as you and I do," came the reply. "He has to say what he’s saying to get elected. Once in office, he will practice what we believe." The contention was that his candidate would fly higher in office than he flew while getting there. But no one was able to prove that untenable thesis; when the last vote was in, the candidate had lost.
The Truth Must Prevail
This experience led me to three important conclusions. The first is that no officeholder can ever overthrow any socialistic practice unless there is an enormous consensus that it be done away with; otherwise, the practice is too tightly woven into the social fabric to be cast out by some political trick. Ridding our society of TVA or Social Security, for instance, is utterly impossible unless there be a general agreement for repeal. The candidates who never mention repeal in their campaign speeches make no contribution whatsoever to a new consensus. So, they have mustered no support for it, whatever their private views may be. They can never fly any higher than they flew while getting there! They are impotent. On the other hand, if they had been elected because of their advocacy of repeals, they would then have a popular mandate to so perform.
Second, the candidates who pretend privately to believe in freedom principles and who run for office on other than a clear-cut freedom platform, do not understand these principles; they do not know them! Conceded, they know about them and can recite the ideas quite impressively—as can actors. The reason that so many of us are deceived in our private talks with these men is that we cannot see into their minds as to whether or not they really apprehend the ideas behind their words. We can only know for sure what they believe when we see them in action—in their campaigns. Candidates who thoroughly apprehend freedom principles would not—indeed, could not—do other than uphold them. When one knows a principle, its observation and practice is second nature.3
Finally, let politicians who privately say they are for freedom, but who publicly espouse socialism in order to get elected, be faithful to their public pronouncements. Freedom will fare better this way. Exposing the fallacies of socialism and explaining the principles of freedom cannot possibly be achieved except through fidelity. Truth can never be found by those or among those who practice dissimulation.
Devotees of freedom have everything to gain and nothing to lose when campaign promises, regardless of how socialistic, are faithfully kept. We need only remind ourselves that no politician can ever fly higher in office than he flew while getting there. Furthermore, the advancement of freedom is not a matter of who wields political power over creative actions; rather, it depends upon the disassembling of such power.
1 Yale Brozen, Professor of Business Economics, Graduate School of Business, University of Chicago. See THE FREEMAN, June, 1968, p. 328.
2 Benjamin A. Rogge, Professor of Political Economy, Wabash College.
3 See "When Freedom Becomes Second Nature," Notes from FEE, November, 1969.