Read, Leonard E. (1898-1983)
Leonard E. Read, an activist, a fundraiser, and an administrator, is best known for originating the oldest existing free-market nonprofit in the world, the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). At the time of its founding, FEE was “[t]he only organization that introduces newcomers to the idea of the free market as a moral institution, not just as a means of efficient production.” Read also was known for his writings in moral philosophy and as a gourmet chef and curling enthusiast, all of which he pursued avidly.
Not surprisingly, statists disparaged him. Eleanor Roosevelt even commented that she was “struck” by FEE’s insinuation that there was some similarity between the welfare state and communism. But even with those who ordinarily allied with him against the welfare state, Read was uncompromising in his defense of the truth. When J. Howard Pew, a generous benefactor who was troubled by the organization’s stand against tariffs, asked that FEE rethink its position, Read stood firm. He even went so far as to refuse to publish an article submitted by former president Herbert Hoover, a long-time acquaintance. Years later, he allowed Ralph Nader to write an article critical of federal housing projects.
The Rev. Edmund Opitz once described Read’s philosophy as:
… basically, that of the Declaration of Independence, to which he added a dash of mysticism, some hard-nosed free market economics, spiced by a dash of native American go-getter spirit. Leonard has always shunned argument and debate, preferring instead to win over his readers by striking illustrations, parables, and stories… . The methodology he stressed was based on self-improvement—let each person work on himself and present society with one improved unit.
Born Leonard Edward Read on a farm in rural Michigan, his father died when he was 11. To support the family, he helped his mother start a boarding house and worked odd jobs after school. When the United States entered World War I, Read enlisted in the American Expeditionary Force. On the way to Europe, his ship, the Tuscania, was torpedoed, but he survived to become a mechanic in the 158th Aero Squadron. At the conclusion of the war, Read returned to Michigan and soon started his own business, the Ann Arbor Produce Company. He also found time to marry Gladys “Aggie” Cobb and have two sons.
With the advent of the chain stores, Read found his independent wholesale business floundering and decided to move 2,000 miles to California. It was there that he embarked on an 18-year career with the Chamber of Commerce, first reviving a chapter in Burlingame and then in Palo Alto. Eventually, Read was chosen to direct the Chamber’s entire western operation, where he became a spokesman for the Chamber on commercial issues and forged relationships with businessmen all over the region. In 1933, Read crossed paths with businessman W. C. Mullendore. It was through discussions with Mullendore that Read recalls beginning to examine the world through “freedom-tinted glasses.”
In 1937, he wrote The Romance of Reality, which emphasized education over politics as the key to combating socialism. His book and lectures persuaded the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest, to oppose all collectivist programs, and 2 years later, Read became the general manager of the L.A. Chamber. Read discovered that he could not share his thoughts to the extent that he wished within the Chamber apparatus. So he started Pamphleteers, Inc., through which he hoped to disseminate works that unequivocally supported freedom, such as Rose Wilder Lane’s Give Me Liberty and Ayn Rand’s Anthem.
After encountering Frédéric Bastiat’s booklet “Communism versus Free Trade,” Read worked with R. C. Hoiles, publisher of the Orange County Register, to reprint three more of Bastiat’s works. The lack of interest in these works was disappointing. Read surmised that “the rather archaic British prose of the translation must have prevented others from sharing his enthusiasm.” Later, with the founding of FEE, he commissioned Dean Russell to do a modern translation of The Law, which eventuated in some 500,000 copies being sold. The success of the edition prompted Read to have more of Bastiat’s works translated into modern English.
Hoping to focus more on the prevention of socialism, Leonard Read moved to New York and took a job as the executive vice president of the National Industrial Conference Board, where he sought to replicate on a national scale what he had accomplished in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, “the NICB … wanted to present ‘both sides’ of every issue.” After 8 exasperating months, Read resigned.
In 1946, he acquired property in Irvington-on-Hudson, a suburb of New York City, and he set up FEE. It was to be an organization that would inform people about the consequences of government meddling. By now Read, 47, was a firm believer that government should go no further than protecting everyone equally against aggression, both domestic and foreign. He also believed that, in addition to pointing out the perils of socialism, FEE should present “the positive free market alternative.”
FEE’s first monograph was “Roofs or Ceilings?” a now-classic essay on the calamitous effects of rent controls written by two future Nobel Prize–winning economists Milton Friedman and George Stigler. What followed was a steady stream of high-quality and accessible works on economics, political philosophy, and history—all showing the market’s indispensable role in creating prosperity and protecting liberty. Read learned that one of the most effective ways to bring the philosophy of freedom to people was through personal contact. The give and take of discussion, combined with the opportunity to pose questions, had been invaluable not only for him, but for the others who had joined with him over the years. So in the 1950s, FEE began holding seminars in Irvington and around the country. Although most seminars were aimed at a general audience, there also were seminars targeted at specific groups, such as secondary school teachers, college students, journalists, and ministers. Eschewing a mass-market approach, Read used to say, “You can’t sell freedom like soap.”
By 1956, FEE had officially acquired The Freeman, a publication started by Albert Jay Nock in the 1920s that had gone in and out of print over the following years, having been edited by such leading libertarians as Henry Hazlitt, John Chamberlain, and Frank Chodorov. Read wrote his most famous article for long-time Freemaneditor Paul Poirot in 1958. “I, Pencil” is a simple but powerful argument against those who clamor for more government control of the economy. In it, Read argued that no single person has all the knowledge necessary to make a pencil, and yet there are pencils in abundance because the free market encourages cooperation in the worldwide division of knowledge and labor. In his most popular book, Anything That’s Peaceful (1964), Read concluded that people may engage in any peaceful activity and have the moral right to use force only to protect themselves and their property from coercion by others.
In addition to traveling more than 3 million miles, Leonard Read lectured on hundreds of occasions a year, maintained correspondence with everyone from union members to Ayn Rand to captains of industry, and still found time to author a small library of material. In his final book, The Path of Duty (1982), he reemphasized the “power of attraction … [and how libertarians must] become so proficient in understanding and explaining freedom that others will seek [their] tutorship.” Leonard Read died at Irvington-on-Hudson in May 1983 in his 85th year.
Barger, Melvin D. “From Leonard Read: A Legacy of Principles.” The Freeman (May 1996): 355–359.
Greaves, Bettina Bien. “FEE and the Climate of Opinion.” The Freeman (May 1996): 337–345.
———. “Leonard E. Read, Crusader.” The Freeman (September 1998): 522–526.
Opitz, Edmund A. “Leonard E. Read: A Portrait.” The Freeman (September 1998): 518–521.
Read, Leonard E. Anything That’s Peaceful. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1998.
———. “The Essence of Americanism.” The Freeman (September 1998): 527–534.
———. “I, Pencil.” The Freeman (December 1958): 32–37.
———. In Memoriam: Leonard E. Read 1898–1983. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1983.
———. The Path of Duty. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1982.
Sennholz, Hans. “Onward Still.” The Freeman (May 1996): 332–336.
Sennholz, Mary. Leonard E. Read: Philosopher of Freedom. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1993.
Originally published .