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Read, To Abdicate or Not

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Source: An essay in Toward Liberty: Essays in Honor of Ludwig von Mises on the Occasion of his 90th Birthday, September 29, 1971, vol. 2, ed. F.A. Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Leonrad R. Read, Gustavo Velasco, and F.A. Harper (Menlo Park: Institute for Humane Studies, 1971).

To Abdicate or Not by Leonard E. Read

Life is a process of selection and rejection; knowing what to renounce in life and what to embrace are distinguishing marks of a wise man. My theme is Mises and his exemplary achievements in this respect—as much to be noted and honored as the economic enlightenment on which his fame so solidly rests.

Professor Ludwig von Mises arrived in America during 1940. My acquaintance with him began a year or two later when he addressed a luncheon meeting of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce of which I was General Manager. That evening he dined at my home with renowned economists Dr. Benjamin M. Anderson and Professor Thomas Nixon Carver, and several businessmen such as W. C. Mullendore, all first-rate thinkers in political economy. What I would not give for a recording of that memorable discussion!

The final question was posed at midnight: “Professor Mises, I agree with you that we are headed for troublous times. Now, let us suppose you were the dictator of these United States. What would you do?”

Quick as a flash came the reply, “I would abdicate!” Here we have the renunciation side of wisdom: man knowing he should not lord it over his fellows and rejecting even the thought.

Few among us are wise enough to know how little we know. Ignorance of limitations is to be expected from every one who does not see beyond himself. The wise man, on the other hand, achieves a measure of self-transcendence: he sees beyond himself, even beyond his environment. Knowing far more than the mill run of us, he measures his knowledge against what might be known and confesses to knowing nearly nothing. Such a rare individual weighs his finite knowledge on the scale of infinite truth, and his awareness of his limitations tells him never to lord it over others. Such a person would renounce any position of authoritarian rulership he might be proffered or, if accidentally finding himself in such a position, he would abdicate—forthwith!

Really, no one ever rules another. The most that is achieved by a Simon Legree, a Hitler, Stalin, or any of our own little dictators of economic affairs, is to keep others from being themselves. True, there is a role for a societal agency to play in keeping others from being themselves if it be their nature to commit theft, murder, deception, violence, and the like. I am not alluding, however, to the retarding of wrongdoing but, rather, to a person's freedom to be himself creatively. The authoritarian mentality is concerned not with inhibiting destructive actions but with the control and direction of creative actions. This no dictator can do; he can only suppress, deaden, destroy such actions. Creative actions can never be ruled but only ruled out!

The wise man, regardless of his superiority among men, realizes that his knowledge is but infinitesimal; that his light, however bright, is but a wee candle in the overall luminosity; that were all others to be made precisely in his image, all would perish.

To illustrate the fractional nature of one's knowledge, sit behind the wheel of your automobile and ask yourself, what part have I had in the making of this remarkable gadget? The answer, be you the President of the United States or of General Motors, is that you have played very little part, if any. Ask next, what do I know how to do that might have played any part in the making of this machine? Your answer remains substantially the same. To my point: Last year several million automobiles were manufactured in the U.S.A. How come? From whence came the knowledge that does not exist, even incipiently, in any discrete human being? It had to come from somewhere.

The knowledge that makes the automobile possible exists in what I choose to call the overall luminosity. This is composed of trillions times trillions of tiny illuminations, discoveries, inventions, insights, intuitive flashes, think-of-thats—an accumulation that had its beginning with the dawn of mankind. The cave man who discovered how to harness fire played his part. So did the Arab who invented the concept of zero. Without each of these, the automobile is inconceivable. These men, whoever they were, had as much a part as Charles Goodyear did in 1839 when he invented the hot vulcanization of rubber. Or those men who treated paper with a mixture of ferricyanide and ammonium ferric citrate and brought forth blueprint paper. Or those who found out how to make paper!

The overall luminosity that makes possible our automobiles, stoves, pencils, and a million or so other things by which we live and thrive is handed down or, better yet, made available to us in countless ways: memory, teaching, books, tradition, folklore, to mention a few. It is a storehouse of unimaginable enormity; no individual can perceive a trillionth of it!

The wisdom in knowing that we know not is sometimes glimpsed in relation to things. For instance, it is easily demonstrable that no single person has the knowledge to make a simple pencil, let alone a jet plane or that fantastic windshield through which the pilot peers. Even so, the realm of things is pestered with know-it-alls, persons who seem unable to relate their tiny glimmers to the overall luminosity and cannot therefore keep themselves in their place.

However, it is when we move from the realm of things to the realm of humanity—man and society—that authoritarians proliferate. Even many who would confess to an ignorance of how to make a dynamo will, with no hesitancy whatsoever, boast of knowing how man and society should be made to perform. Failing to discern that men and their relationships are vastly more complex than any thing or things, they entertain no doubts about their competency to rule mankind.

In the realm of humanity, as in the realm of things, an overall luminosity presides or rules. In social affairs, this may be referred to as “the consensus.” Professor Hayek uses, “Knowledge in society”; Edmund Burke called it “Immemorial heritage”; others refer to it as “Culture” or “Custom.” By whatever name, it is a body of underlying assumptions, of ideas taken for granted and held more or less in common; it is the residual legatee of mankind's history or, as James Coolidge Carter phrased it, “... the imperishable record of the wisdom of the illimitable past reaching back to the infancy of the race ...” It is what is handed down to us plus what we, who live on its growing edge, put into it.

Professor Mises knows that he does not or cannot rule; thus, he abdicates from even the idea of rulership. Knowing what phase of life to renounce is one side of wisdom.

But knowing what phase of life to embrace—to get ever deeper into, from which never to abdicate—is the other side of wisdom. And in this phase, as in the former, we have no exemplar who excels Mises.

This being my analysis, I shall use my own rather than Mises' phrasing: the ruling consensus, I repeat, is what is handed down to us, plus what we put into it.

What we put into it is the key. The improvement of the ruling consensus by you or me requires that our own thoughts and actions be, at the very least, a confirmation of the best that has been handed down to us or, hopefully, an improvement on what the consensus already contains.

We who live on its growing edge can put nothing into the consensus that is not within ourselves. It follows, if we would put anything into it, that life must be devoted to the improvement of what is within us, rather than wasted on the futile attempt to reform others.

I am unaware of any individual who is less the reformer or propagandist than Mises. To the contrary, his life is and always has been distinguished by a search for truth. His remarkable and unmatched economic works are testimony to many virtues but especially to his two-sided wisdom: knowing what phase of life to renounce and what phase of life to embrace.

There are numerous examples in history that lend credence to my prophecy. The seminal thinking of Mises—the improvements he has added to the consensus, manifested in his works over a span of seventy years—gives a light with so much radiance that it will penetrate the centuries—mirror itself through the ages.

Last modified April 10, 2014