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Living by a Premise

The 2023 graduation season is now underway. The famous, generous, and politically powerful (especially those currently in federal office, who are cheaper because they are banned from being paid for giving speeches) will be dispensing (often very limited) wisdom about the “real world” to hundreds of commencement audiences across America.

Some of the best speakers, however, will provide insight from humanity’s accumulated wisdom. One such speaker, unfortunately no longer with us, was Leonard Read, the founder and soul of the Foundation for Economic Education, which made him a central part of efforts to defend and expand liberty in America and throughout the world.

In particular, I would like to note the commencement speech he gave at Hillsdale College on June 3, 1972, published in Imprimis in their June 1972 issue.

The speech is notable because it emphasized three major themes that ran throughout Read’s works—our human purpose to grow or “hatch” (a process that can commence at any age), the way that living by Immanuel Kant’s premise of universality can aid in that hatching, and the recognition of what that process implies for the role of coercion in society:

I am here not to attend your graduation but to share in your commencement. . . .

. . . I have traveled a great deal of life’s road, the one you are now commencing, and therefore I wish to share with you some of the lessons I have learned along the way. . . .

First, do not wait until middle age, as I did, to adopt and live by a basic premise, a fundamental point of reference. Do it right now—at your commencement!

. . . years ago I realized that there was no chance of living the consistent life unless one did his reasoning from a basic premise. . . .

What, then, is man’s purpose as I see it? It is to grow, emerge, evolve, or to use an expressive term, hatch. . . . how does one use such a premise? He merely listens to his own or anyone else’s ideas, stands the ideas up against his premise, and if they do injury to it or are antagonistic to it, he is, perforce, against them. Or, if, on the other hand, they are in harmony with it, promotive of it, he is, perforce, in their favor. In a word, one’s own position can be quickly established once this idea gets to working. . . .

I am suggesting that you get for yourself a premise as soon as possible.

Read then turned to such a premise, which he called “the principle of universality” and frequently relied on in his arguments in favor of liberty and its blessings. It comes from Immanuel Kant’s Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Read explained further:

Immanuel Kant had a premise that he called “good will.” By “will” he did not mean what we mean when we say peace on earth good will toward men. It had nothing whatsoever to do with intentions. By “will” he meant an individual’s ability rationally to will his own actions. And the adjective “good” could be used only if one could apply the principle of universality to his maxims.

The question Read wanted to illustrate was which maxims could qualify as good according to Kant’s criterion and which ones could not:

Let me give you a sample maxim: I have a moral right to my life, my livelihood, my liberty. Is that good? According to Kant, that is good only if you can concede that same right to every other human being—universality. Can I? Yes, I can. Therefore, it is good. Let me reverse the maxim and watch it come through. I have a moral right to take the life, the livelihood, the liberty of another. Is that good? According to Kant, that is good only if you can rationally concede the right of murder, theft, enslavement to every other person on earth. Can I? I cannot. Therefore, it is not good.

Read then argued that the universality principle can provide a very powerful basis for maintaining consistency in one’s beliefs:

is it not obvious that with such a premise as Kant’s one can be reasonably consistent in his positions, provided he reasons logically and deductively from his premise?

Of course one has to live in the world as it is, but this should not alter one’s proclaimed positions. Never approve or condone anything that is not consistent with what you believe to be right. . .

Read then turned more directly to the connection between the premise of universality in the search for growth and the central importance of liberty and its requirement of a stringent limitation on coercive force:

[One should be] interested in individual liberty, for unless this prevails, self-development is restrained. This objective requires a knowledge of what government should and should not do. You have no chance to assist in the advancement of liberty short of knowing where to draw the line between activities appropriate to government and those appropriate to individual choice and decision. In order to know what government should and should not do, you must know what government is and is not. . . .

The essential nature of government is organized force. . . .

. . . The distinction between you as an agent of government and you as a private citizen is as an agent of government you have a constabulary—an organized force—behind you: you issue an edict and I obey or take the consequences. If this organized force be removed from behind you, you are restored to private citizenship: you issue an edict . . . [and] I do as I please! . . .

. . . I can symbolize [organized force] by the clenched fist . . . what this fist can and cannot do . . . [is] what government should and should not do. . . .

. . . this fist . . . can inhibit, restrain, prohibit, penalize. . . . [What] should be restrained, penalized, prohibited? The answer to that question comes clear and clean in the moral codes over the millennia . . . the destructive actions of men such as fraud, violence, predation, misrepresentation, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal. Force can accomplish this, and this alone. . . .

. . . we should confine government to inhibiting the destructive actions of men, and that all creative actions, without any exception whatsoever, should be left to men acting freely, privately, cooperatively, voluntarily, competitively.

Read then connected the necessity of limiting the role of force to both the uniqueness of American history and the subsequent slippery slope away from what made this history uniquely powerful for good—advancing what the preamble to the Constitution called the “general welfare” in fact as well as on paper:

do you perceive the liberating ideas that led from special privilege and the freezing of human energy toward the amazing creativity that flows out of equal opportunity for all? And perhaps the current decadence in ideas and moral scruples that are taking us from the New back toward the Old? . . .

The greatest danger to your world or mine is error . . . “so long as truth is absent, error will have free play.” (Schopenhauer) Clearly, such personal and societal solutions as lie within our reach are the truths we perceive. And this is precisely where our respective worlds can meet to our mutual advantage—provided we seek every means to grow, including tolerance enough to look into every nook and cranny for truth. . . .

. . .moving toward a more harmonious existence, of cooperating to free, rather than freeze, our perceptions and relationships.

The search for consistency with the truth—reflected in whether the principle of universality is followed, as in the case of liberty but not in its coercively imposed absence—is what Leonard Read encouraged for his commencement audience. As he put it, “regard each day of your life as commencement” on that path. That is an idea that deserves a serious renaissance, not just from those graduating from Hillsdale College just over a half century ago, but from everyone whose freedom is seriously threatened today and, even more so, from those whose proposals are the source of such threats.

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