What Leonard Read Learned from Mises and Nock about Changing the World

January 9, 2023   |   Tags:

Leonard Read (1898-1983) started the Foundation for Economic Education in 1946 to restore the spirit of liberty that was then at a nadir in America and throughout the world. His approach to this mission was informed by a very definite theory of social change. That theory was deeply influenced by two of his mentors: the American journalist Albert Jay Nock (1870–1945) and the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973). Those familiar with Nock and Mises might find that odd because, while both men believed in liberty, they had seemingly very different ideas about how liberty can be achieved.

The Ideas of the Many

Mises taught that ideas “direct the course of all human affairs” and that the direction of public policy is ultimately determined by the ideology embraced by the masses. He clarified that:

“The masses, the hosts of common men, do not conceive any ideas, sound or unsound. They only choose between the ideologies developed by the intellectual leaders of mankind. But their choice is final and determines the course of events. If they prefer bad doctrines, nothing can prevent disaster.”

If socialist ideas reign supreme, then socialist policies will be implemented. If, on the other hand, liberal (in the classical sense, i.e. “pro-liberty”) ideas predominate, then liberal policies will prevail.

Thus, according to Mises, the only way to achieve liberty is to persuade the majority to embrace liberal ideas.

“The flowering of human society depends on two factors: the intellectual power of outstanding men to conceive sound social and economic theories, and the ability of these or other men to make these ideologies palatable to the majority.”

The Principles of the Few

Nock, on the other hand, held out little hope for winning over the masses with the right ideas. In his classic 1937 essay “Isaiah’s Job,” Nock recollected a conversation he had with a “European acquaintance” who “expounded a politico-economic doctrine” that Nock regarded as flawless. The acquaintance resolved to pursue “a mission to the masses” and to “devote the rest of my life to spreading my doctrine far and wide among the populace.” (Some of the details of Nock’s story lead me to wonder if Nock’s acquaintance was Mises himself.)

Nock responded by telling a story of the prophet Isaiah. In Nock’s colloquial rendition of the Biblical tale, God enlists Isaiah to preach to the people the errors in their ways and the divine wrath they will face if they don’t shape up.

“I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you,” He added, “that it won’t do any good. The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you, and the masses will not even listen. They will all keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life.”

Isaiah wondered: why bother, then?

“Ah,” the Lord said, “you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and buildup a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it.”

Nock clarified his distinction between “the masses” and “the Remnant.”

"The mass-man is one who has neither the force of intellect to apprehend the principles issuing in what we know as the humane life, nor the force of character to adhere to those principles steadily and strictly as laws of conduct; and because such people make up the great, the overwhelming majority of mankind, they are called collectively the masses. (…) The Remnant are those who by force of intellect are able to apprehend these principles, and by force of character are able, at least measurably, to cleave to them. The masses are those who are unable to do either."

The moral of Nock’s story was that the masses cannot be expected to understand and uphold the principles of a just and free society, so it is futile to try to make those principles palatable to them. "Give it to them good and strong,” as the Lord instructed Isaiah, without any sugar to help the medicine go down. The Remnant—”He who has ears to hear”—will take heed and will be better and stronger for it. And when the chickens come home to roost, the Remnant will “come back and buildup a new society…”

In his Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Nock related another reason why he is skeptical of projects to reform the masses:

“The only thing that the psychically-human being can do to improve society is to present society with one improved unit. In a word, ages of experience testify that the only way society can be im­proved is by the individualist method which Jesus apparently regarded as the only one whereby the kingdom of Heaven can be established as a going concern; that is, the method of each one doing his very best to improve one.”

Teaching the Few to Lead the Many

While Mises’s and Nock’s respective theories of social change may seem at odds, Leonard Read managed to reconcile and synthesize them.

Read said that reading “Isaiah’s Job” “gave me my first instruction in the methods appropriate to freedom.”

Read wrote that the masses are, by and large, “as uninterested in understanding the nature of society and its political institutions as are most people in understanding the composition of a symphony…”

“If we had no way of remedying our situation except as the millions come to master the complexities of economic, social, political, and moral philosophy, we would not be warranted in spending a moment of our lives in this undertaking—it would be like expecting a majority of adult Americans to compose symphonies.”

However, while Read agreed with Nock that the masses cannot be expected to master the freedom philosophy, he did believe that the masses could be swayed to follow the freedom philosophy. In this way, he was not as pessimistic as Nock.

Read wrote that:

“A study of significant political movements or vast social shifts will reveal that every one of them—good or bad—has been led by an infinitesimal minority. Never has one of these changes been accompanied by mass understanding, nor should such ever be expected. All movements have had their leaders. Always there has been someone “at the head of the class,” always someone who knows more about it than others.”

As I have explained elsewhere:

"The American Revolution in the 18th century, for example, was led by an “infinitesimal minority” of individuals like the American founders who were avid students of John Locke and other philosophers of liberty. (…)

However, the average 18th-century American did not pore over Locke’s Second Treatise of Government or comprehend his natural law philosophy. And yet, under the intellectual and moral leadership of those who did, he stood up for his rights and opposed tyranny anyway."

Read’s “infinitesimal minority” is Nock’s “Remnant” except with more of a hopeful, proactive leadership role. Nock’s Remnant only takes the lead after one society collapses and it is time to build a new one. Read’s Remnant, on the other hand, can create “vast social shifts” (like the American Revolution) that save and uplift existing societies.

Read also agreed with Nock’s emphasis on self-improvement as the only way to improve society. But he put a more pronounced leadership spin on that as well. Self-improvement is the essence of leadership, Read taught, because in the final analysis, a leader cannot reform others directly; he can only reform himself which can inspire others to reform themselves in emulation.

This applies to thought-leaders as well. As Read wrote, “influential opinion” stems from self-improvement “as relating to a set of ideas.” And that consists of improving one’s own “(1) depth of understanding, (2) strength of conviction, and (3) the power of attractive exposition.”

If freedom is not reigning, it is because libertarians “are not manifesting the qualities of attraction and leadership of which they are capable. Thus, we conclude that the solution of problems relating to a free society depends upon the emergence of an informed leadership devoted to freedom.”

Read founded FEE to build up such a “Remnant” of leaders.

So, Read shared Mises’s optimism that developing, mastering, and communicating the ideas of liberty can achieve liberty. Indeed, Bettina Bien Greaves, a colleague and close friend to both Read and Mises, traced FEE’s focus on changing ideas to Read meeting Mises and being influenced by Mises’s emphasis on “the importance of ideas and the power of ideology.”

In founding FEE, Leonard Read endeavored to build a Nockian Remnant of self-improvers who would lead a Misesian revolution of ideas.


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