Many who would remake society into a utopia they imagine overlook that the ends actually achieved may not match their imaginations and that the means which they must use are unjust.
Leonard Read was an astute observer of such coercive political panaceas. And he frequently began 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.”
As we approach Emerson’s May 25 birthday, it is worth noting how his argument blooms in Read’s hands.
Reflecting Emerson, Read argued that the ends actually achieved are implied by the means used. Only moral means can achieve moral advances; immoral means will “achieve” moral decline. He made that argument most clearly in his 1969 “The Bloom Pre-Exists in the Seed.” It merits reconsideration.
A hard look at means and ends is appropriate.
Ends, goals, aims are but the hope for things to come … not … reality … from which may safely be taken the standards for right conduct … 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.
Examine the actions — means — that are implicit in achieving the goals.
Implicit in the collectivistic approach … is the masterminding of the people … The control of the individual’s life is from without. [But for] an individualist … what is valued above all else [is] each distinctive individual human being.
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.
When the individual [is] the ultimate goal … the means implicit in achieving such a goal must be radically different.
If … 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.
It is senseless to talk about freedom if the right of private ownership be denied.
Either I will … mind my own business or mind other people’s business … [And] 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.
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 … 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.
Read saw that substituting external dictation for individual choices, which are the only way individuals “bloom,” was both unjust and doomed to be unsuccessful in advancing citizens’ well-being. In contrast, voluntary means that violate no one’s rights are the only reliable path to both 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 the seed of 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.