The search for an echo by Leonard E. Read

The Search for an Echo by Leonard E. Read is possibly my favorite article he’s ever written; unfortunately, no electronic form exists. I found the article in Essays on Liberty, Volume VI, a FEE series where they collected essays published over the course of a year (in The Freeman, pamphlets and other publications) and republished them in one volume. At least 12 volumes of Essays on Liberty were produced, the first volume published in 1952 (the twelfth in 1965). More may exist, but I cannot find any evidence of a 13th. The first two volumes can be found here and here.

Regardless, here is Read’s The Search for an Echo in its entirety. Enjoy and share, as this is by far the best essay Read penned on a theory of social change.

Tell me today what the philosopher thinks, the university professor expounds, the schoolmaster teaches, the scholar publishes in his treatises and textbooks, and I shall prophesy the conduct of individuals, the ethics of businessmen, the schemes of political leaders, the plans of economists, the pleadings of lawyers, the decisions of judges, the legislation of lawmakers, the treaties of diplomats, and the decisions of state a generation hence.

“Your educational work at FEE is sound enough and I concede its necessity in normal times. But, it’s too slow under present conditions. I want action, and quick. Time is running out. My efforts and money from now on will be devoted to putting the right men in public office.”

The above summarizes a substantial, and perhaps even a growing sentiment. It stems from impatience. The interventionists, it is observed, have “leaders” galore in the political arena. Why, inquire many anti-interventionists, should we tarry any longer? Why not find ourselves some political leaders who will represent our points of view? Plans are then proposed for the organization of citizens down to the precinct level, and likely personalities are sought among renowned generals, businessmen, academicians, and others who have, in their own specialized fields, arrived at acknowledged leadership. It is assumed that the nation will be saved should they be elected to public office.

If this were the road out of the socialistic wilderness and if these miracle persons were to be found, all of us might consider joining the political actionist parade. To take this route, however, is of no more avail than looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The reason that the interventionists have so many “leaders” is only because there is throughout our land a very substantial body of influential, interventionist opinion. The ones out front and who are popularly appraised as leaders are, in fact, not the real leaders. They are but echoes of the underlying opinion, and an echo implies an antecedent sound. They did not create the situation in which they find themselves; they are but the products or manifestations of the status quo. They, like actors in a play, merely move out front by reason of the fact that they can better articulate and dramatize the prevailing interventionist thought than can others. The real leaders of interventionism or any other movement, like playwrights, lie more under the surface, are a quieter breed, and not nearly as observable popularly.

Anti-interventionists lack “leaders” because there does not exist an influential libertarian opinion substantial enough to create the desired political response. What I wish to suggest here is the futility of attempting to build on a foundation that does not exist. One might as well look for an abundance of flowers where there has been a scarcity of seeds or listen for many echoes where there have been but few prior sounds. The out-front folks in political parties are but a thermometer—indicators of the political temperature. Change the temperature and there will be a change in what’s out front—naturally and spontaneously. The only purpose in keeping an eye on the thermometer is to know what the temperature is. If the underlying influential opinion—the temperature—is interventionist, we’ll have interventionists in public office regardless of the party labels they may choose for their adornment and public appeal.

If the underlying influential opinion—the temperature—is libertarian, we’ll have spokesmen for libertarianism in public office. Nor will all the king’s horses and all the king’s men be able to alter the reading of the political thermometer one whit.

It’s the influential opinion that counts, and nothing else. This is to be distinguished from “public opinion,” there being no such thing. Every significant movement in history—good or bad—has resulted from influential ideas held by comparatively few persons.

Here, then, is the key question: What constitutes an influential opinion? In the context of moral, social, economic, and political philosophy, influential opinion stems from or rests upon (1) depth of understanding, (2) strength of conviction, and (3) the power of attractive exposition. These are the ingredients of self-perfection as relating to a set of ideas. Persons who thus improve their understanding, dedication, and exposition are the leaders of men; the rest of us are followers, including the out-front political personalities.

To illustrate: How many persons today, or even in his own time of the early seventeenth century, ever heard of Hugo Grotius? Few, indeed, then or now! Yet, here is what the eminent historian, Andrew Dickson White, in the year 1910, wrote of this exceptionally important unknown:

“Into the very midst of all this welter of evil, at a point in time to all appearance hopeless, at a point in space apparently defenseless, in a nation of which every man, woman, and child was under sentence of death from its sovereign, was born a man who wrought as no other has ever done for a redemption of civilization from the main cause of all that misery; who thought out for Europe the precepts of right reason in international law; who made them heard; who gave a noble change to the course of human affairs; whose thoughts, reasonings, suggestions, and appeals produced an environment in which came an evolution of humanity that still continues.”

One man altered the ways of the world. He achieved a degree of perfection that caused others to follow his insights and understanding. He spawned ideas that politicians emphasized and glamorized for which they more than Grotius became widely known as “leaders.”

In this day of our need how are we to find ourselves a Grotius, a Sarpi, a Turgot, or a thousand and one others who have quietly but brilliantly modified the world into better ways? Those of us who would have any part in working out this answer have no recourse except to strive for an increasing perfection of ourselves, that is, conscious personal efforts to become such helpful individuals. It isn’t that you or I, specifically, will make the grade. It is that out of a fairly wide creative effort in which we participate some few will assuredly achieve the competence our time so sorely requires.

This is the educational, not the political, way to mankind’s improvement. True, it is slow in terms of one’s life span, but it has the distinct advantage of being the single practical way there is. Let us try this way and witness its fruits!
If we continue to exclaim—“I want action. Time is running out”—and persist in the error of trying to reverse cause and effect, the political echo will continue to confirm, “Time is running out.”

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Mr. Read is Founder and President of the Foundation for Economic Education.