All Commentary
Monday, March 4, 2019

Leonard E. Read on Why Means Matter More Than Ends

In his 1969 book "Let Freedom Reign," Leonard Read argued that immoral means will result in moral decline.

History has produced an almost endless supply of those who would remake society into the utopia they imagine. But in trying to mold people into what they must be to match dictators’ mental images, they forget that the ends actually achieved will not match their imaginations and that the means which they must use are unjust, as well as undermining individuals’ potential.

Only moral means can achieve moral advances.

Leonard Read was an astute observer of such coercive political panaceas. And he frequently started his rebuttals by citing Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end pre-exists in the means, the fruit in the seed.”

Reflecting Emerson, Read argued that the ends that will actually be produced need not match those intended. The ends that will be achieved will actually be implied by the means used. Only moral means can achieve moral advances. Conversely, immoral means will “achieve” moral decline. He made that argument most clearly in “The Bloom Pre-Exists in the Seed,” in his 1969 book Let Freedom Reign. On its 50th anniversary, it merits reconsideration:

“[Many] people expect to achieve lofty goals without any thought of the means they use…[but] a hard look at means and ends is appropriate.”

“Ends, goals, aims are but the hope for things to come…They are not a part of the reality… from which may safely be taken the standards for right conduct. They are no more to be trusted as bench marks than are day dreams or flights of fancy. Many of the most monstrous deeds in human history have been perpetrated in the name of doing good—in pursuit of some ‘noble’ goal. They illustrate the fallacy that the end justifies the means.”

“Examine carefully the means employed, judging them in terms of right and wrong, and the end will take care of itself.”

“[For] an individualist…valued above all else [is] each distinctive individual human being.”

“If we would find the distinction between collectivism and individualism… examine the actions—means—that are implicit in achieving the goals.”

Collectivism’s Means

“Implicit in the collectivistic approach…is the masterminding of the people who make up society…The control of the individual’s life is from without.”

“The collectivistic view holds that…The individual does not fit himself into place but, instead…is assigned that niche or role which the political priests believe will best serve whatever societal pattern they have formulated.”

“Implicit…is that men exist who are competent to form the ways and shape the lives of human beings by the millions…that there are those who not only can rightly decide what is best for all of us but who can prescribe the details as to how the best that is in us can be realized.”

“Any conscientious collectivist, if he could…properly evaluate the authoritarian means his system of thought demands, would likely defect.”

“However lofty the goals, if the means be depraved, the result must reflect that depravity. Therefore, the eventual outcome of the collectivistic way of life may be accurately predicted by anyone who understands the means which must be employed.”

Individualism’s Means

“When the individual [is] the ultimate goal…the means implicit in achieving such a goal must be radically different.”

“Either I will concentrate on me and my welfare or on others and their welfare… mind my own business or mind other people’s business.”

“In view of the obstacles to the relatively simple task of self-realization, reflect on the utter absurdity of…undertaking to manage the lives of millions.”

“Each individual best promotes his own self-interest by peaceful, social cooperation as in the free market. Indeed, the more I make of myself the more are others served by my existence…The way to assume ‘social responsibility’ is for the individual to rise…as far as possible.”

Private Ownership: Voluntary Means and Beneficial Ends

“The incentive of private ownership is far more powerful than the sentimental thrust of laboring for the-good-of-all.”

“If we concede…that man has a right to his life, it follows that he has a right to sustain life, the sustenance being the fruits of one’s own labor. Private ownership is as sacred as life itself.”

“Private ownership lies at the very root of individual liberty. Without it there can be no freedom; with it freedom is secure. For private ownership presupposes free choice in disposition, that is, freedom to exchange. It is senseless to talk about freedom if the right of private ownership be denied.”

“Can we pronounce a moral judgment on these means implicit in the individualistic goal…These means serve as a powerful thrust toward the individual’s material, intellectual, moral, and spiritual emergence—and that is right! Others—those who comprise society—are the secondary beneficiaries of individual growth. If we would help others, let us first help ourselves by those means which qualify as righteous.”

Leonard Read saw that coercive utopian “reforms” by their nature—substituting external dictation for individual choices, which are the only way for individuals to mature or “bloom”—had to be both unsuccessful and unjust.

In contrast, voluntary means that violate no one’s rights are the only reliable path to individual growth and social advance. He knew that the bloom of liberty pre-existed in the seed of self-ownership, and the wilting of collectivism pre-existed in its violations of self-ownership. That is a lesson few have ever learned as well as Read, and which we are in desperate need of relearning today.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).