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From 2000 President's Essay
Copyright 2000 The Heritage Foundation
Edwin J. Feulner, President, The Heritage Foundation


Victor Hugo famously said that "an invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come." It is difficult to think of a more stirring illustration of that truth than the founding of the United States, the first nation in history established on the idea that people are by nature equal and free. It is one thing, however, to found a free nation, and quite another to maintain it. When the Constitutional Convention adjourned in 1787, a Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government the Convention had created. Franklin reportedly replied, "A republic, madam — if you can keep it."

Some 45 years later, Alexis de Tocqueville toured America and recorded his observations in Democracy in America. In it he often addressed the underlying question that Franklin had skeptically alluded to: Can we keep our republic? Intentionally or not, Tocqueville was speaking to that question when he wrote:

I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. The Americans have no philosophical school of their own, and they care but little for all the schools into which Europe is divided, the very names of which are scarcely known to them.

That is an astonishing observation when you consider that the American Founding was one of the most profoundly philosophical achievements in modern history. Thus Tocqueville's observation is worrisome, for if Americans as a people do not sufficiently understand and appreciate the philosophical principles — the fundamental ideas — that sustain our freedoms, we run the risk of losing them. That prospect seems more worrisome today than in Tocqueville's time, especially in light of the moral relativism and "political correctness" that have wormed their way into the heart of our educational institutions. The consequences of this are clear. Assessments of cultural literacy show that in the latter half of the 20th century, young Americans have been taught less and less about the ideas in which their priceless legacy of freedom is rooted.

And yet the picture is not entirely dark, for in a complex and diverse culture such as ours, ideas are transmitted through many channels at many levels, not just through the formal institutions of education. Freedom itself has spawned countless intellectual midwives: pundits, pamphleteers, and other non-academic writers. Working through popular media, they continually translate and transmit abstract ideas to people who, as Tocqueville noted, pay little attention to philosophy. The effectiveness of these midwives in preserving fundamental moral and political ideas is not fanciful. Ideas that originated with such giants as Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith — among scores of others — are alive today in the minds of millions of Americans who never read a line from any of those authors. It was intellectual midwives who translated those ideas for popular consumption.

The four essays collected here for this President's Essay were written by such a translator: Leonard Read. They are testaments to the power of intellectual midwifery. Born in 1898, Read established the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in 1946. By the time of his death in 1983, he had published 27 books and hundreds of articles and pamphlets. He also traveled millions of miles delivering speeches and lectures on the theme that was nearest to his heart, the beauty and genius of the American experiment, and he was one of a relative handful of happy warriors who resuscitated serious scholarship on the principles of free markets. (FEE is still very much alive today, guided by the able hand of Donald J. Boudreaux. From its Web site at, friends of freedom can obtain reams of material, including many of Read's articles and books.)

I first met Read in November 1963. The circumstances were a bit unusual. I had been reading The Freeman, FEE's quarterly journal, and was intrigued by its non-political articles covering not only economics but also history. Clarence Carson's History of the United States was then being serialized in The Freeman. At that time I was a graduate student at the Wharton School in Philadelphia. Upon receiving a brochure from FEE about a seminar at their headquarters in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, I wrote to Leonard Read and explained my circumstances: I was working my way through graduate school and had been involved with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute as both an undergraduate and graduate student. With this as my preamble, I asked if perhaps he would provide a scholarship for me to participate in the program described in FEE's brochure.

Read sent a prompt reply that showed he was as much a teacher as I was a student. He told me that although he admired my diligence and my commitment to the free-market system, he was confident that I was capable of advancing my own education by finding a way to pay the registration fee, which, as I recall, was about $75. I thought about that and admitted to myself that there really is no such thing as a free lunch. And so I resolved to dip into my spending money for the registration fee (which, by the way, paid for room and board as well as tuition).

With an effort well short of the heroic, I ponied up the money and went to the seminar. My exposure there to Ed Opits, Paul Poirot, Bill Peterson, and, of course, Leonard Read himself, was a mind-stretching experience for an intellectually inquisitive graduate student who had been concentrating on such mundane matters as marginal- vs. average-cost pricing of transportation products, and key statutes on labor relations. In other words, it was good to get back to first principles.

In the years that followed, I came to know Leonard more intimately as a friend and advisor. He was a founding member of the Mont Pelerin Society. That fact is significant because, unlike the other founders — nearly 40 scholars who included Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and George Stigler — Leonard was more a popularizer than an originator of free-market ideas. He had that rare ability to assimilate the theoretical arguments of trained economists and translate them into terms that resonate with laymen. In short, he was an intellectual midwife, a craft that was still in its formative stages when Tocqueville toured America in the early 19th century. If that keen French observer could have returned in the late 20th century, he would have had to write at least one new chapter on this species of public intellectual. Leonard Read would figure prominently in such a chapter, for he could, in Kipling's phrase, "walk with kings — nor lose the common touch."

You will feel his common touch the moment you begin reading "I, Pencil," the first of the four essays collected in this monograph. Speaking in the first person, the personified pencil will convince you of a surprising fact: No individual knows how produce this common tool. Only free markets know how, and Mr. Pencil illuminates their magic by describing the vivid details of his family tree. It includes not only actual trees but also the lumberjacks who harvest the trees, the trucks and saws and ropes essential to the harvesting, the railroads that carry the logs to the mills, the motors and other tools that trim the logs into slats, the kilns that season the slats, the lacquer that coats them, and the graphite mined in Ceylon that is the chief ingredient for the "lead." Literally millions of persons, discoveries, inventions, cooperative arrangements — and the laws that protect them all — are essential to producing the simple little pencil on your desk.

As it is with pencils, so it is with any other commodity or service that flows from the enterprising activities of free people trading with one another, and all these buzzing webs of activity are woven by the "invisible hand" of the free market. If there were such a thing as a market genome, it would make the human genome seem simple by comparison.

That analogy can serve as a taking-off point for "The Myth of the See-It-All," the second essay reprinted in this collection. Read's thesis is that no human mind could ever map, let alone control, the dynamic forces in a free market. To suppose otherwise is to ensnare oneself in The Myth.

History is littered with the debris of political and economic meddlers who imagined that they could see it all. For more than seven decades, a succession of bumbling Soviet masters clung to the fantastic belief that they could successfully command the production and distribution of goods in national economies. From the beginning to the end of that ghastly experiment, despite an abundance of fertile land and other natural resources, the Soviet system never produced enough food to feed its own people. When the system finally collapsed in 1989, Westerners went behind the crumbled walls and beheld industrial plants struggling with technology that American ingenuity had made obsolete in the 1930s. Such are the results when see-it-alls take control.

Yet, for all such dramatic demonstrations, The Myth of the See-It-All lives on, even in America today. Examples are so common they often pass unnoticed. For instance, as this essay goes to press in the early autumn of 2000, Americans are debating the issue of school vouchers. An opponent of vouchers writes in The Washington Post:

If would be good if proposals for voucher programs included an analysis of the potential number of spaces that might be available compared with the expected number of students who might be applying. In cases such as Washington, it would show that there is no point in proposing vouchers as a serious solution to the city's educational problems.

This is The Myth. The writer assumes that in order for a free market in education to work, someone (we know not who) must be able to see it all: see the extent of demand for places in private schools, and see the supply that entrepreneurs would produce in response to that demand. The writer himself is a see-it-all, smug in his belief that there is "no point" in allowing educational choice for parents in Washington, D.C., home of one of the worst public-school systems in the country. The one thing see-it-alls never see is The Myth that ensnares them.

Contrast the see-it-all's mindset with that of Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, who said in an article defending school vouchers:

What would a competitive educational industry look like? I do not know, nor does anyone else, any more than anyone could have predicted what would happen to the telecommunications industry after the break-up of Ma Bell.

The antidote to the see-it-all is what Read calls Creative Wisdom, "that enormous, over-all wisdom that accounts for the piece of toast, the auto or jet, or whatever — a wisdom that does not exist, even remotely, in any discrete individual." But, Read notes, Creative Wisdom cannot flourish unless it is protected by rules of law that guarantee three things: private ownership of property, free pricing of goods and services, and non-intervention in people's affairs except to keep the peace.

Read enlarges on that point in the third and fourth essays, "The Law Without" and "The Law Within," which are best read as companion pieces. In "The Law Without" he presents a cautionary reminder of another common error: Although the rule of law is essential for regulating some actions, we should never think it sufficient for regulating all actions. "We must learn to know what the law cannot do as well as what it can do." Read recalls the lesson of Prohibition and the sprawling black markets that grew under it, providing encouragement for good people to ignore the law.

But — and this is an enduring puzzle of political philosophy — how do we know what actions the law can regulate? Under what conditions will a properly conceived rule of law maintain order without stifling freedom? "A reasonably righteous people," says Read, "has to be the first assumption." Here Read echoes the thinking of Hamilton or Madison (the authorship is unclear) in Federalist No. 51: Even though people are capable of evil, "there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form."

Moral virtues, human qualities that justify esteem and confidence, are not products of the law without: They constitute the law within. Statutory laws can protect our rights; but inside the boundaries of our rights, we need self-control born of good character to sustain us as a free people. "Self-discipline — obedience to moral law — lessens the need for exterior disciplines," Read says. "A person without inner-direction is asking to be controlled."

This final pair of essays prompts us to pause and reflect on how Americans in recent decades have shifted their reliance from the law within to the law without. Strangely, the very people who have undergone this shift are aware of it and disturbed by it: Fully two-thirds of Americans say that moral standards in the United States today are lower than in years past and are getting worse. And, as Read foresaw, this erosion of moral virtues has brought ever more legal controls. Disputes between neighbors that once were amicably resolved are increasingly settled in court. Myriad human needs that were the moral responsibility of families, neighbors, and charitable organizations have increasingly been subsumed under the coercive mechanism of the welfare state. Cordial relations in the workplace that were once maintained through fairness and mutual respect are increasingly regulated by legal edicts born of political correctness. Discipline at school formerly maintained by a teacher's common sense is increasingly fraught with the risk of lawsuits claiming arcane varieties of "discrimination" and "harassment."

Amid such worries, Leonard Read brings us back to basics. He refreshes our minds with his plain good sense. He buoys our hopes by sharpening our understanding of what we've known all along: Freedom works. We don't need see-it-alls to regulate our lives. We need just laws to protect free markets. We need free markets to liberate the Creative Wisdom that is the wellspring of prosperity. And we need inner law to maintain our character and so we can fulfill our God-given potential.

I hope that in reading these essays you will feel the stirrings of a renewed sense of commitment to preserve the greatest experiment in human freedom the world has ever seen. When you consider the alternative, how could you feel otherwise? The American Founders created a republic — and we will keep it.

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