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Sinking in a Sea of Buts


There were five of us at a predinner get-together, one an Austrian. These friends were each as near purists in the freedom philosophy as one ever comes upon — which is the only reason for mentioning one man’s dissent. His dissent seemed insignificant, but it’s the minor deviations and inconsistencies of the philosophical elite — not the imitators among us — that weigh so importantly against exemplary action.

That’s the setting; here’s the talk: A free market affirmation of mine brought an immediate response from the Austrian, “I infer that you wouldn’t even approve of the Vienna Opera.” (State owned.)

“Indeed, I would not.”

“Why, Leonard!”

Following my explanation, he remarked, “I agree with you in principle, but …

I cut him short by saying, “If you agree with me in principle, then we have nothing more to talk about.” However, in that remark I was wrong. This is precisely where the talk should begin — with the origin of his and countless other buts.

To complete the background, my friend confessed the next morning, “I lay awake most of the night fretting about our discussion. While I still agree with you in principle, I find myself so emotionally committed to the Vienna Opera that in this instance I must make an exception.”

It is not my intention here to pick on socialized opera or to show how socialization of the arts is authoritarian or even how a free market for the arts gives consumers what they wish in exchange for their money. This should be apparent to anyone who has an understanding of how freedom affords justice, whereas socialism does not and cannot. Rather, I wish to suggest the fallacy and the damage arising from allowing exceptions or “buts” to what one regards as right principle.

I rather like the phrasing of my friend’s excuse for his deviation: “emotionally committed.” By using this term, he acknowledges that his is not a rational commitment; for one of his understanding, it couldn’t possibly be. No use explaining to him how the market works — he already knows. So do countless others who approach exemplary status! His phrasing is valuable because it brings to light a facet of the freedom problem that has been eluding us; emotional rather than rational commitments against which rational rebuttals are fruitless.

Among those who understand the freedom philosophy and how it works in practice will be found very few, indeed, who aren’t emotionally committed to this or that practice of socialism. Nearly every one of these near-exemplars has his socialistic “thing.” If it isn’t the Vienna Opera, it is the Gateway Arch, this or that bit of protectionism, a subsidy that befits his convenience, or whatever. “I agree with you in principle, but …

In the first place, I cannot allow my own pet exception to freedom without allowing others their pet buts. Every socialistic “thing” is someone’s pet. Logically, if I break faith, then I am, by my conduct, endorsing faithlessness on the part of everyone. For me to stand for one socialistic item, regardless of how emotionally committed, is for me to give away the case for freedom; it is to open the sluice gates for all-out socialism. I cannot allow myself an exception and deny a similar allowance to others.

Freedom, as I define it, is “no man-concocted restraints against the release of creative human energy.” This, in my view, is right in principle. Granted, a principle stands whether or not anyone stands for it. But whether or not I am a man of principle depends on whether I adhere to or abandon the principle. I cannot slightly defect and remain principled any more than I can slightly lie and remain truthful, or any more than I can slightly steal and remain an honest man.

Bearing in mind that we are here discussing the minor flaws of near or would-be exemplars of freedom — the actions of the philosophical elite — the word “slightly” suggests another error common among them. It is that we must rid ourselves of socialism but it must disposed of gradually, that is, slightly, or by a step at a time. Were it abolished suddenly, so it is argued, the shock would be unbearable, adjustments to a free society impossible.

This argument rests upon the unwarranted assumption that, were you or I to stand for the immediate repeal of all socialism, then immediate repeal would follow. Actually, if millions of us turned against socialism and demanded its immediate repeal, it would take years for the realization. The wheels of society turn slowly. Gradualists fail to distinguish between principle and practice.

Whenever anyone urges the gradual repeal of laws he believes to be wrong, he has lost the thought and force behind the case for repeal. Instead, postponement is actually advocated; and postponement, as eternity, has no calendar days, no deadline — it is a never-never proposition.

Gradualism has yet another flaw. It implies that what is declared to be wrong isn’t all wrong; otherwise, why abide it for a moment? It’s like saying that we should bring the thief slowly to justice else the baker and the haberdasher will lose the malefactor’s trade too suddenly.

When events in society are going wrong — and they appear to be — nothing less than exemplary action can set them aright, a difficult role. Any exemplar must be prepared for disfavor and unpopularity, simply because his principled positions are and of necessity must be an affront to the mores, a break with the prevailing wrongs.

Freedom appears to be submerged in a sea of buts. It is entirely realistic to expect these buts from persons who do no thinking for themselves. The exemplar, however, never degrades a principle with a but. To do so is commonplace, not exemplary.

Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was founder and president of The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington, New York. This piece is taken from his book, Talking to Myself (FEE, Irvington, New York 10533). Copyright 1970 by Leonard E. Read. Reprinted by permission.

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    Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder and president of The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), 30 S. Broadway, Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.