The Heritage We Owe Our Children
Our Founding Fathers Declared Their Independence from Despotism
JULY 01, 1998 by LEONARD E. READ
Leonard E. Read established FEE in 1946 and served as its president until his death in 1983. This article, reprinted ftom the September 1976 Notes from FEE, is the seventh in a monthly series commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mr. Read’s birth.
“But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.”
A few men who did look into “the law of liberty” bequeathed to present-day Americans a unique heritage. They were the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. In what respect were these political documents unique? First, they unseated government as the endower of men’s rights and placed the Creator in that role. Second, they more severely limited government than ever before-for the first time in history, hardly any organized coercion standing against the release of creative energy. Result? The greatest outburst of creative energy ever known, simply because the millions were free to act creatively as they pleased. Political power diminished and dispersed beyond the ready grasp of authoritarians who would run our lives. That was the American miracle!
Each of these founders is thus-according to the biblical prescription—”blessed in his doing.” There are, however, two sides to this law-of-liberty coin. That which has been bequeathed to us carries an obligation that we, if we be doers who act, bequeath this heritage to our children, to oncoming generations! Indeed, it has been written, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
It is easily demonstrable that giving is the precedent to receiving. The more we give the more we receive. Thus, if we would retain and strengthen that heritage bequeathed to us, we must bequeath it to our children. The discharge of this obligation is, in fact, nothing more than enlightened self-interest, precisely as is the payment of any debt. When one strives to be a pattern for oncoming generations—our children—he reaches for the best in himself. Help them, help oneself.
Most Americans who give it serious thought would approve acting according to the law of liberty. Yet, in today’s world, this is more of a challenge than first meets the eyemore, far more, than was the case with our Founding Fathers. Our politico-economic sires were familiar with the tyranny—authoritarianism—from which they found escape. It was close to their skins, as we say. Their children, however, were a generation removed from the actual experience. We, in our times, are seven generations removed, and have little to go by except a dwindling hearsay. We lack the stimulus to draw a sharp distinction between the Command Society and the Free Society.
There is yet another deterrent to becoming “a doer that acts.” By reason of our heritage, a vast majority of this later generation are inclined to take the American miracle as much for granted as the air we breathe—neither of which is much regarded as a blessing.
The “hearer that forgets”—one who lacks awareness of liberty as a blessing-is unlikely to be “blessed in his doing.” Nor can such “hearers only” confer on their children the heritage their ancestors bestowed on them. Because of an abysmal unawareness, they receive without gratitude and, for this reason, their failure to give is attended by no sense of wrongdoing. Indeed, unless they act according to the word, they will continue digging ever deeper into the pocketbooks of their children—a far cry from the law of liberty.
What steps are required, then, for a return to liberty by the millions who have innocently gone along with “leaders” of the Command Society? Assume that our well-meaning individual would do not unto his children that which he would not have had his ancestors do unto him, that he would give to his progeny at least as much as he has received-if not more: where must he begin and where should he go in his thinking? Because it is more blessed to give than to receive, how best can he attend to his own self-interest? These are questions each of us must try to answer, for no one among us is flawless. Improvement in understanding and clarity in exposition is a potentiality of everyone who lives!
It seems obvious that the initial step is to grasp the very essence of Americanism: “. . . that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty . . .” This acknowledges the Creator as the endower of our rights to life and liberty and, for the first time in the history of nations, casts government out of that role.
Until 1776, men had been killing each other by the millions over the age-old question as to which form of authoritarianism should preside as sovereign over human lives and livelihood. The argument, till then, had not been between freedom and authoritarianism, but over what degree of bondage. Our heritage stems from this glorious triumph of human liberty—everyone free to act creatively as he chooses. I devoutly believe, along with our Founding Fathers, that the source of human creativity is the Creator.
The next step is to recognize the real meaning of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. As a student of American history some 65 years ago, I was taught to pay obeisance to these political documents. But even then, it was scarcely more than a gesture, comparable to a salute or a pledge of allegiance to the flag or singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Few teachers knew the real meaning in 1776, fewer still when I was a boy. And today? Possibly one in a thousand!
For the true significance, reread the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and note that there are 45 “no’s” and “not’s” circumscribing governmental power. Reduced to a sentence, they decree: “Government, keep your coercive fingers out of these activities; we reserve these-all of them-to ourselves as free and self-responsible citizens!” The beneficial results were more than I can count but three should be obvious:
- Fewer political know-it-alls meddling in private affairs than ever before!
- More free and self-responsible men and women than ever before!
- A greater outburst of creative energy than ever before!
An agency of society to invoke a common justice and to keep the peace is a social necessity. Its role is to codify the taboos—injustices—and punish any trespass on individual rights. Bear in mind that coercive force is implicit in such an agency. Ideally, it is our protector. But to expect that coercive force so delegated will be or even can be self-limiting is utterly absurd. Yet that is the common view today. This carelessness is fatal to a good society. Why? Our hoped-for protector turned plunderer, as we are witnessing.
There is one remedy, and one only: eternal vigilance on the part of the citizenry is the price of liberty. How be vigilant? Master the “no’s” and “not’s” set forth in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and insist with all the reason one can muster that the taboos limiting runaway power be strictly observed. If we would bequeath to our children that which our Founding Fathers bequeathed to us, this is the price. Is that price too high? Not if we can discover where our self-interest lies!
Given these foundations for enlightened self-interest, one may appreciate, with Henry Hazlitt, that economics “is the science of tracing the effects of some proposed or existing policy not only on some special interest in the short run, but on the general interest in the long run.” Our children’s interest, as well as our own!
A sampling of how one, thus enlightened, will react to some of the modern proposals for political intervention:
He hears: The way to prosperity is to increase farm prices.
He reacts: This makes food dearer to city workers.
He hears: The way to national wealth is by means of governmental subsidies.
He reacts: This is to claim that more goods result from increased taxes.
He hears: The road to recovery is to increase wage rates.
He reacts: This is to say that recovery depends on higher costs of production. On and on, ad infinitum!
A good guideline by John Stuart Mill: “Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called.” Our Founding Fathers saw eye to eye on despotism and declared their independence of it. May we follow in their footsteps! And more good counsel: “Don’t hoard good ideas. The more you radiate [share], the more you germinate.” This is another way of asserting that “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
The heritage we owe our children is to look into the perfect law of liberty, be doers of the word and, thus, blessed in our doing.
- There’s a delightful story of how Congressman Davy Crockett stumbled into a keen awareness of the distinction between protection and plunder. See “Not Yours to Give” an our website, www.fee.org. Or contact FEE for a printed copy. (Please enclose a stamped selfaddressed envelope.)
- These examples paraphrase ideas from Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, available from the Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.