Unscrambling Socialism from Our Economic Order: Wisdom from Leonard Read
Many years ago, in his “Unscrambling Socialism” (Notes from FEE, November 1964), Leonard Read wrote:
Any adept student of human action knows that it isn’t enough merely to “drop anchor” in today’s sea of socialism, that is, to stop where we are. The U.S. is already playing host to more parasitic socialism than the economy can sustain … [and] there comes a point in time in growth when any parasite will destroy its host.
That statement seems far truer today than nearly any time in my memory, where what Albert Jay Nock once called octopean government has seemingly grown even more appendages and used them more aggressively against citizens. And calling socialism a parasite on the economy is insightful because it helps us see how socialism resists planned efforts to displace it:
Consider socialism’s double-barreled definition: the state ownership and control of the means and/or the results of production. Give it entry into any area and socialism insinuates itself into the warp and woof of the activity; it becomes embedded in the mores, the traditions, the way of life. Immediately there develops a stubborn vested interest to assure its continuance; it infects the economic, social, and political bloodstream.
Read then turned to the thorny question of how to successfully rid ourselves of this parasite, now even more important after several decades that have left us far more socialized than when he wrote:
How are we to break out of … any of the … many socializations? … thousands are asking how to engineer the dismantling of this labyrinthine growth, but not a one can blueprint the procedure; none ever will. Drafting a plan for riddance of socialism is like trying to find a formula for unscrambling an egg.
Read explained why a socialistic centralized plan will not work to defeat socialistic parasitism:
Escape is predicated on … dismiss[ing] the thought of engineering or planning socialism’s uprooting, and … an expanding appreciation of how a seeming chaos of initiatives and skills will miraculously combine, when free to do so, into ordered patterns of creative phenomena. In short, a growing comprehension of the miracle of the free market—a comprehension all too rare today.
Using the example of how someone trying to design how mail would be delivered in a free market, Read goes further:
Unable to think how he would deliver mail … unable to design or engineer the project in his own mind—that is, being unaware of how the market really works—he will likely draw the socialistic conclusion…. Mail delivery is a job for government.
[But] No one person can or ever will attain to such comprehension … free market mail delivery would be accomplished, not by any masterminding but in precisely the same manner as has voice delivery and all other creative phenomena: millions of tiny “think-of-thats,” in a chaos which defies cataloguing, ending up in … fantastic order.
It is this seemingly chaotic (in the sense of not being subject to anyone’s unilateral control) order that has advanced people’s well-being, rather than unilateral controls and those who impose them, which undermines it:
Natural and spontaneous configurations of creative ideas account for our economic and social blessings.
However, no one knows how to correct all the embedded socialist errors that have crept into almost every nook and cranny of society. In fact, it is harder than how to make a pencil, Read’s most famous illustration, because the protection of individual property rights mean that voluntary arrangements need only be worked out among those whose rights are involved in making a pencil, while every socialistic restriction hinders all efforts to instead produce nonparasitic results:
The point we must bear in mind is that socialism itself is but the political outcropping of a plurality of false ideas, notions, passions, plausibilities and emotions … all the way from doing good to feathering one’s own nest—all at the expense of others! To conclude that anyone can engineer or blueprint the eradication of these errors is no more valid than to believe that someone knows how to make a jet plane or to deliver mail. Plan an erasure of these myriad misconceptions from the minds of millions of unknown persons? … To fasten the eye on a design or an organized scheme or a blueprint to bring about socialism’s demise is to fritter away one’s time and energy.
Read suggests that rather than trying to plan the demise of socialism, we should instead focus our attention on building a good society:
A good society cannot emerge from the drafting board. Rather the good society is a dividend which automatically flows from antecedent virtues and talents…. And the shrinking or the withering away of socialism will come about, if at all, as a natural by-product of numerous antecedent actions that are meritorious in and of themselves.
Unsound ideas lead to socialism, just as sound ideas make for a good society.
Unsound ideas will produce their bad fruit until sound ideas prove acceptable. In short, its largely a matter of displacement or replacement. Any idea, right or wrong, will revert to an insignificant role if the value judgements of men do not approve it.
So how would a focus on a good society displace socialistic errors? Read continues:
Unsound ideas will lose authority whenever their intellectual source peters out, that is, whenever the intellectual source of sound ideas attains a dominant position … [so] socialism will shrink into historical oblivion whenever little or nothing is done to preserve it.
With the unsound ideas which underlie socialism: take no steps to preserve them but, instead, fasten attention on the sound ideas which give support to the free market and the good society. When we pursue high purposes, natural forces do their clean-up work for us as a dividend for having set our sights aright.
[Consequently, under this approach] We do not need to know how to mastermind or blueprint the unscrambling of socialism; we need to know little else than how to win Nature as an ally … with men of good faith, she will cooperate.
Leonard Read believed that a single plan for eliminating socialism everywhere was a pipe dream, because no one knows enough to make such a plan effective. In contrast, better ideas and better results from freely chosen, voluntary arrangements, when and where they are implemented, have the potential to unfasten parasitic government from draining our lives, liberties, and properties in those areas, and inspire other similar efforts. It is still a daunting task, but only principles of self-ownership and freedom, in the minds and hands of principled adherents, make it possible at all.