The Essence of Americanism
The Ideas of Self-Reliance and Private Property Created a Spiritual, Political, and Economic Revolution
SEPTEMBER 01, 1998 by LEONARD E. READ
Leonard E. Read established FEE in 1946 and served as its president until his death in 1983. “The Essence of Americanism,” first delivered as a speech in 1961, was Mr. Read’s traditional opening address at dozens of FEE seminars.
Someone once said: It isn’t that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; it has been tried and found difficult—and abandoned. Perhaps the same thing might be said about freedom. The American people are becoming more and more afraid of, and are running away from, their own revolution. I think that statement takes a bit of documentation.
I would like to go back, a little over three centuries in our history, to the year 1620, which was the occasion of the landing of our Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth Rock. That little colony began its career in a condition of pure and unadulterated communism. For it made no difference how much or how little any member of that colony produced; all the produce went into a common warehouse under authority, and the proceeds of the warehouse were doled out in accordance with the authority’s idea of need. In short, the Pilgrims began the practice of a principle held up by Karl Marx two centuries later as the ideal of the Communist Party: from each according to ability, to each according to need—and by force!
There was a good reason why these communalistic or communistic practices were discontinued. It was because the members of the Pilgrim colony were starving and dying. As a rule, that type of experience causes people to stop and think about it!
Anyway, they did stop and think about it. During the third winter Governor Bradford got together with the remaining members of the colony and said to them, in effect: “This coming spring we are going to try a new idea. We are going to drop the practice of ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need.’ We are going to try the idea of ‘to each according to merit.’” And when Governor Bradford said that, he enunciated the private property principle as clearly and succinctly as any economist ever had. That principle is nothing more nor less than each individual having a right to the fruits of his own labor. Next spring came, and it was observed that not only was father in the field but mother and the children were there also. Governor Bradford records that “Any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”
It was by reason of the practice of this private property principle that there began in this country an era of growth and development which sooner or later had to lead to revolutionary political ideas. And it did lead to what I refer to as the real American revolution.
I do not think of the real American revolution as the armed conflict we had with King George III. That was a reasonably minor fracas as such fracases go! The real American revolution was a novel concept or idea which broke with the whole political history of the world.
Up until 1776 men had been contesting with each other, killing each other by the millions, over the age-old question of which of the numerous forms of authoritarianism—that is, man-made authority—should preside as sovereign over man. And then, in 1776, in the fraction of one sentence written into the Declaration of Independence was stated the real American Revolution, the new idea, and it was this: “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” That was it. This is the essence of Americanism. This is the rock upon which the whole “American miracle” was founded.
This revolutionary concept was at once a spiritual, a political, and an economic concept. It was spiritual in that the writers of the Declaration recognized and publicly proclaimed that the Creator was the endower of man’s rights, and thus the Creator is sovereign.
It was political in implicitly denying that the state is the endower of man’s rights, thus declaring that the state is not sovereign.
It was economic in the sense that if an individual has a right to his life, it follows that he has a right to sustain his life—the sustenance of life being nothing more nor less than the fruits of one’s own labor.
It is one thing to state such a revolutionary concept as this; it’s quite another thing to implement it—to put it into practice. To accomplish this, our Founding Fathers added two political instruments—the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These two instruments were essentially a set of prohibitions; prohibitions not against the people but against the thing the people, from their Old World experience, had learned to fear, namely, over-extended government.
Benefits of Limited Government
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights more severely limited government than government had ever before been limited in the history of the world. And there were benefits that flowed from this severe limitation of the state.
Number one, there wasn’t a single person who turned to the government for security, welfare, or prosperity because government was so limited that it had nothing on hand to dispense, nor did it then have the power to take from some that it might give to others. To what or to whom do people turn if they cannot turn to government for security, welfare, or prosperity? They turn where they should turn—to themselves.
As a result of this discipline founded on the concept that the Creator, not the state, is the endower of man’s rights, we developed in this country on an unprecedented scale a quality of character that Emerson referred to as “self-reliance.” All over the world the American people gained the reputation of being self-reliant.
There was another benefit that flowed from this severe limitation of government. When government is limited to the inhibition of the destructive actions of men—that is, when it is limited to inhibiting fraud and depredation, violence and misrepresentation, when it is limited to invoking a common justice—then there is no organized force standing against the productive or creative actions of citizens. As a consequence of this limitation on government, there occurred a freeing, a releasing, of creative human energy, on an unprecedented scale.
This was the combination mainly responsible for the “American miracle,” founded on the belief that the Creator, not the state, is the endower of man’s rights.
This manifested itself among the people as individual freedom of choice. People had freedom of choice as to how they employed themselves. They had freedom of choice as to what they did with the fruits of their own labor.
But something happened to this remarkable idea of ours, this revolutionary concept. It seems that the people we placed in government office as our agents made a discovery. Having acquisitive instincts for affluence and power over others—as indeed some of us do—they discovered that the force which inheres in government, which the people had delegated to them in order to inhibit the destructive actions of man, this monopoly of force could be used to invade the productive and creative areas in society—one of which is the business sector. And they also found that if they incurred any deficits by their interventions, the same government force could be used to collect the wherewithal to pay the bills.
I would like to suggest to you that the extent to which government in America has departed from the original design of inhibiting the destructive actions of man and invoking a common justice; the extent to which government has invaded the productive and creative areas; the extent to which the government in this country has assumed the responsibility for the security, welfare, and prosperity of our people is a measure of the extent to which socialism and communism have developed here in this land of ours.
The Lengthening Shadow
Can we measure this development? Not precisely, but we can get a fair idea of it by referring to something I said a moment ago about one of our early characteristics as a nation—individual freedom of choice as to the use of the fruits of one’s own labor. If you will measure the loss in freedom of choice in this matter, you will get an idea of what is going on.
There was a time, about 120 years ago, when the average citizen had somewhere between 95 and 98 percent freedom of choice with each of his income dollars. That was because the tax take of the government—federal, state, and local—was between 2 and 5 percent of the earned income of the people. But, as the emphasis shifted from this earlier design, as government began to move in to invade the productive and creative areas and to assume the responsibility for the security, welfare, and prosperity of the people, the percentage of the take of the people’s earned income increased. The percentage of the take kept going up and up and up until today it’s not 2 to 5 percent. It is now  over 35 percent.
Whenever the take of the people’s earned income by government reaches a certain level—20 or 25 percent—it is no longer politically expedient to pay for the costs of government by direct tax levies. Governments then resort to inflation as a means of financing their ventures. This is happening to us now! By “inflation” I mean increasing the volume of money by the national government’s fiscal policy. Governments resort to inflation with popular support because the people apparently are naïve enough to believe that they can have their cake and eat it, too. Many people do not realize that they cannot continue to enjoy so-called “benefits” from government without having to pay for them. They do not appreciate the fact that inflation is probably the most unjust and most cruel tax of all.
Inflation is the fiscal concomitant of socialism or the welfare state or state interventionism—call it what you will. Inflation is a political weapon. There are no other means of financing the welfare state except by inflation.
So, if you don’t like inflation, there is only one thing you can do: assist in returning our government to its original principles.
One of my hobbies is cooking and, therefore, I am familiar with the gadgets around the kitchen. One of the things with which I am familiar is a sponge. A sponge in some respects resembles a good economy. A sponge will sop up an awful lot of mess; but when the sponge is saturated, the sponge itself is a mess, and the only way you can make it useful again is to wring the mess out of it. I hope my analogy is clear.
Inflation in the United States has ever so many more catastrophic potentials than has ever been the case in any other country in history. We here are the most advanced division-of-labor society that has ever existed. That is, we are more specialized than any other people has ever been; we are further removed from self-subsistence.
Indeed, we are so specialized today that every one of us—everybody in this room, in the nation, even the farmer—is absolutely dependent upon a free, uninhibited exchange of our numerous specialties. That is a self-evident fact.
Destroying the Circulatory System
In any highly specialized economy you do not effect specialized exchanges by barter. You never observe a man going into a gasoline station saying, “Here is a goose; give me a gallon of gas.” That’s not the way to do it in a specialized economy. You use an economic circulatory system, which is money, the medium of exchange.
This economic circulatory system, in some respects, can be likened to the circulatory system of the body, which is the blood stream.
The circulatory system of the body picks up oxygen in the lungs and ingested food in the midsection and distributes these specialties to the 30 trillion cells of the body. At those points it picks up carbon dioxide and waste matter and carries them off. I could put a hypodermic needle into one of your veins and thin your blood stream to the point where it would no longer make these exchanges, and when I reached that point, we could refer to you quite accurately in the past tense.
By the same token, you can thin your economic circulatory system, your medium of exchange, to the point where it will no longer circulate the products and services of economic specialization.
Those of you who are interested in doing something about this have a right to ask yourselves a perfectly logical question: Has there ever been an instance, historically, when a country has been on this toboggan and succeeded in reversing itself? There have been some minor instances. I will not attempt to enumerate them. The only significant one took place in England after the Napoleonic Wars.
How England Did It
England’s debt, in relation to her resources, was larger than ours is now; her taxation was confiscatory; restrictions on the exchanges of goods and services were numerous, and there were strong controls on production and prices. Had it not been for the smugglers, many people would have starved!
Something happened in that situation, and we ought to take cognizance of it. What happened there might be emulated here even though our problem is on a much larger scale. There were in England such men as John Bright and Richard Cobden, men who understood the principle of freedom of exchange. Over in France, there was a politician by the name of Chevalier, and an economist named Frederic Bastiat.
Incidentally, if any of you have not read the little book by Bastiat entitled The Law, I commend it as the finest thing that I have ever read on the principles one ought to keep in mind when trying to judge for oneself what the scope of government should be.
Bastiat was feeding his brilliant ideas to Cobden and Bright, and these men were preaching the merits of freedom of exchange. Members of Parliament listened and, as a consequence, there began the greatest reform movement in British history.
Parliament repealed the Corn Laws, which here would be like repealing subsidies to farmers. They repealed the Poor Laws, which here would be like repealing Social Security. And fortunately for them they had a monarch—her name was Victoria—who relaxed the authority that the English people themselves believed to be implicit in her office. She gave them freedom in the sense that a prisoner on parole has freedom, a permissive kind of freedom but with lots of latitude. Englishmen, as a result, roamed all over the world achieving unparalleled prosperity and building an enlightened empire.
This development continued until just before World War I. Then the same old political disease set in again. What precisely is this disease that causes inflation and all these other troubles? It has many popular names, some of which I have mentioned, such as socialism, communism, state interventionism, and welfare statism. It has other names such as fascism and Nazism. It has some local names like New Deal, Fair Deal, New Republicanism, New Frontier, and the like.
A Dwindling Faith in Freedom
If you will take a careful look at these so-called “progressive ideologies,” you will discover that each of them has a characteristic common to all the rest. This common characteristic is a cell in the body politic which has a cancer-like capacity for inordinate growth. This characteristic takes the form of a belief. It is a rapidly growing belief in the use of organized force—government—not to carry out its original function of inhibiting the destructive actions of men and invoking a common justice, but to control the productive and creative activity of citizens in society. That is all it is. Check any one of these ideologies and see if this is not its essential characteristic.
Here is an example of what I mean: I can remember the time when, if we wanted a house or housing, we relied on private enterprise. First, we relied on the person who wanted a house. Second, we relied on the persons who wanted to compete in the building. And third, we relied on those who thought they saw some advantage to themselves in loaning the money for the tools, material, and labor. Under that system of free enterprise, Americans built more square feet of housing per person than any other country on the face of the earth. Despite that remarkable accomplishment, more and more people are coming to believe that the only way we can have adequate housing is to use government to take the earnings from some and give these earnings, in the form of housing, to others. In other words, we are right back where the Pilgrim Fathers were in 1620–23 and Karl Marx was in 1847—from each according to ability, to each according to need, and by the use of force.
As this belief in the use of force as a means of creative accomplishment increases, the belief in free men—that is, men acting freely, competitively, cooperatively, voluntarily—correspondingly diminishes. Increase compulsion and freedom declines. Therefore, the solution to this problem, if there be one, must take a positive form, namely, the restoration of a faith in what free men can accomplish. The American people, by and large, have lost track of the spiritual antecedent of the American miracle. You are given a choice: either you accept the idea of the Creator as the endower of man’s rights, or you submit to the idea that the state is the endower of man’s rights. I double-dare any of you to offer a third alternative. We have forgotten the real source of our rights and are suffering the consequences.
Millions of people, aware that something is wrong, look around for someone to blame. They dislike socialism and communism and give lip service to their dislike. They sputter about the New Frontier and Modern Republicanism. But, among the millions who say they don’t like these ideologies, you cannot find one in ten thousand whom you yourself will designate as a skilled, accomplished expositor of socialism’s opposite—the free market, private property, limited government philosophy with its moral and spiritual antecedents. How many people do you know who are knowledgeable in this matter? Very few, I dare say.
No wonder we are losing the battle! The problem then—the real problem—is developing a leadership for this philosophy, persons from different walks of life who understand and can explain this philosophy.
This leadership functions at three levels. The first level requires that an individual achieve that degree of understanding which makes it utterly impossible for him to have any hand in supporting or giving any encouragement to any socialistic activities. Leadership at this level doesn’t demand any creative writing, thinking, and talking, but it does require an understanding of what things are really socialistic, however disguised. People reject socialism in name, but once any socialistic activity has been Americanized, nearly everybody thinks it’s all right. So you have to take the definition of socialism—state ownership and control of the means of production—and check our current practices against this definition.
As a matter of fact, you should read the ten points of the Communist Manifesto and see how close we have come to achieving them right here in America. It’s amazing.
The second level of leadership is reached when you achieve that degree of understanding and exposition which makes it possible to expose the fallacies of socialism and set forth some of the principles of freedom to those who come within your own personal orbit. Now, this takes a lot more doing.
One of the things you have to do to achieve this second level of leadership is some studying. Most people have to, at any rate, and one of the reasons the Foundation for Economic Education exists is to help such people. At the Foundation we are trying to understand the freedom philosophy better ourselves, and we seek ways of explaining it with greater clarity. The results appear in single-page releases, in a monthly journal, in books and pamphlets, in lectures, seminars, and the like. Our journal, The Freeman, for instance, is available to students and libraries on request.
The third level of leadership is to achieve that excellence in understanding and exposition which will cause other persons to seek you out as a tutor. That is the highest you can go, but there is no limit as to how far you can go in becoming a good tutor.
When you operate at this highest level of leadership, you must rely only on the power of attraction. Let me explain what I mean by this.
On April 22 we had St. Andrew’s Day at my golf club. About 150 of us were present, including yours truly. When I arrived at the club, the other 149 did not say, “Leonard, won’t you please play with me? Won’t you please show me the proper stance, the proper grip, the proper swing?” They didn’t do it. You know why? Because by now those fellows are aware of my incompetence as a golfer. But if you were to wave a magic wand and make of me, all of a sudden, a Sam Snead, a Ben Hogan, an Arnold Palmer, or the like, watch the picture change! Every member of that club would sit at my feet hoping to learn from me how to improve his own game. This is the power of attraction. You cannot do well at any subject without an audience automatically forming around you. Trust me on that.
If you want to be helpful to the cause of freedom in this country, seek to become a skilled expositor. If you have worked at the philosophy of freedom and an audience isn’t forming, don’t write and ask what the matter is. Just go back and do more of your homework.
Actually, when you get into this third level of leadership, you have to use methods that are consonant with your objective. Suppose, for instance, that my objective were your demise. I could use some fairly low-grade methods, couldn’t I? But now, suppose my objective to be the making of a great poet out of you. What could I do about that? Not a thing—unless by some miracle I first learned to distinguish good poetry from bad, and then learned to impart this knowledge to you.
The philosophy of freedom is at the very pinnacle of the hierarchy of values; and if you wish to further the cause of freedom, you must use methods that are consonant with your objective. This means relying on the power of attraction.
Let me conclude with a final thought. This business of freedom is an ore that lies much deeper than most of us realize. Too many of us are prospecting wastefully on the surface. Freedom isn’t something to be bought cheaply. A great effort is required to dig up this ore that will save America. And where are we to find the miners?
I think we will find these miners of the freedom ore among those who love this country. I think we will probably find them in this room. And if you were to ask me who, in my opinion, has the greatest responsibility as a miner, I would suggest that it is the attractive individual occupying the seat you are sitting in.