This lengthy and insightful interview with Leonard Read was published in the April 1975 issue of Reason magazine. It was conducted by Tibor Machan.
One of the most respected organizations advocating the philosophy of laissez-faire is the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. For many years FEE has spread the “freedom philosophy” by means of seminars, books, pamphlets, and a monthly magazine, The Freeman, founded in 1956. FEE’s stated purpose is to champion the ideas of private property, the free market, the profit and loss system, and limited government Its rationale is that the tide of collectivism can be rolled back only if sufficient people understand and support the principles of freedom. It therefore focuses its efforts on educational ventures, and is incorporated as a nonpolitical, nonprofit foundation.
The founder, president, and guiding influence of FEE and its philosophy of education in freedom is Leonard E. Read. In the summer of 1974, Senior Editor Tibor Machan went to Irvington-on-Hudson to interview Mr. Read. At 11 a.m. Mr. Read was sitting in his spacious office in the FEE mansion, located near the Hudson River on Broadway in midtown Irvington. He is almost always working in this office, as many who have visited FEE would know. (And many people do visit FEE not only to meet the staff, who are virtual household names in libertarian circles, but to browse in FEE’s famous library.)
Leonard Read is now in his late 70’s but that could only be known from independent sources, not from the looks of him. He is one of the most vigorous people anyone will encounter and is reputed to run up the stairs to his office even these days. His articles, newsletters and his many books have permeated the country. The Freeman, FEE’s monthly journal, edited by Paul Poirot, is the oldest and most widely distributed periodical with free market orientation (yet considerable diversity of views on matters other than economic). Rand, Branden, Rothbard, Friedman, Mises, Hazlitt, Brozen, Sennholz, Hayek, Poole, Machan, and Armentano are some of the well known libertarians who have contributed to The Freeman at one time or another.
The journal FEE publishes gives one a clear enough flavor of the approach Leonard Read takes to his mission in life. The Freeman publishes essays of detailed scholarship as well as folksy anecdotes—just as long as all of these contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of the philosophy of human liberty. In the present interview Mr. Read does not give us many of the details of his thinking—his views are on record, so the interview dealt with issues not elsewhere available. But it should be pointed out that Mr. Read’s defense of liberty rests on somewhat different grounds from many of the others who appear in REASON’s pages The following passages from the September issue of Notesfrom FEE should provide an introduction to his orientation:
[W] hat is man’s earthly purpose?…our answer is reasoned from a basic premise…founded on three assumptions:
- Man did not create himself, for it is easily demonstrable that man knows very little about himself. Therefore, my first assumption is the primacy and supremacy of an Infinite Consciousness.
- My second assumption is also demonstrable. While difficult, it is possible for the individual to expand his own awareness, perception, consciousness.
- My third assumption is a profound belief that the intellect—one’s mind—is independent; that is to say, it is not subordinate to the organic matter of which one’s body is composed. An inference from this belief is a conviction of the immortality of the human spirit or consciousness, this earthly moment not being all there is to it. It is consciousness that is immortalized, not the body or wealth or fame or any such thing. In a word, consciousness is the reality!
Many of our readers may disagree with this orientation, nonetheless, it serves to illustrate the multifaceted support, enjoyed by the political idea of a free society. Our aim here, as with all of our interviews, is to bring to our readers the individuals providing this kind of support in the context of a candid, unrehearsed conversation with REASON’s representatives. Hopefully our interview feature will continue to serve one of REASON’s vital functions. So without further ado, we offer our conversation with Mr. Leonard Read.
REASON: Mr. Read, please tell us of your initiation into libertarianism.
READ: My initiation goes back to the year 1933 when I was the Western Manager for the United States Chamber of Commerce. I was so naive that I thought that anything that came out as United States Chamber policy was straight from the horse’s mouth. And the United States Chamber in those days was in support of the NIRA—the National Industrial Recovery Act. I got word that a very brilliant businessman, in Los Angeles, was making disparaging references about the U.S. Chamber policy, so I thought it incumbent upon me to call upon him and straighten him out. I called on one W.C. Mullendore, then executive vice president of Southern California Edison Company. I didn’t know it at the time but he was one of the most brilliant advocates of our philosophy of any businessman I have ever known. He received me very courteously and let me talk, which I did for half an hour, dwelling upon the virtues of U.S. Chamber policies. When I ran out of breath, Mr. Mullendore took over. Today I would give $1,000 for a recording of what he said to me in that one hour. When he was through, I said, “Mr. Mullendore I have never thought of any of these things this way before. I believe you are right.” That was my initiation and from that time on it has been an obsession.
REASON: You have said to me privately that you are somewhat dismayed with the word “libertarian” these days. Please tell us why.
READ: Yes. The word “liberal” was once a good term and was used by the classical economists; it meant liberalization of the individual from the tyranny of the state. But the other side took it over, expropriated it, and so I thought we ought to have a new word. And I’m the one who brought out and popularized the word “libertarian,” and it’s gone all over the world. But there are numerous reasons why I have quit the use of it. Number one, just like the word “liberal,” it has been taken over by all sorts of persons, like any good word always is. People all the way from anarchists to out-and-out socialists, have taken it over. So if someone says to me, “What are you, Read?” and I say a libertarian, they will identify me with one of those and it will not be correct. So I have dropped the term and today if someone asks me what I am I reply Leonard Read. And then, if asked, “What do you have in mind in the way of ideology?” my answer is “An ideal.” Perhaps a dialogue will begin and I may learn more from him than he will learn from me.
REASON: The Freeman is well known and is the oldest publication that has published authors who favor the free