Issues & Insights
Storming the Capitol building. Photo: Tyler Merbler, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license (

The Real Genesis Of Extremism

In the last few years, Americans have seen an explosion of attempts to blame “right-wing extremists” for almost every problem and every person who objects to the policies of those now in power, from those demanding serious reasons for wearing masks that contradict the “science” we were supposed to be following, to riots by far-from-right-wing groups, to members of Congress’ siege mentality in the “post-insurrection” period.

But one of the most cogent explanations for our currently most popular political epithet actually comes from almost six decades ago.

Leonard Read, born 123 years ago this week, showed that real farsightedness when wrote “The Genesis of Extremism,” in the April 1962 issue of The Freeman. He already understood today’s name-calling, ad hominem attacks and guilt by association innuendo attacks and their connection to government overstepping of its logically defensible role:

Suppose you have a property … Fearing that it might be despoiled, you employ a guard for protective purposes …You contract with him to serve on behalf of that defensive force which inheres in your moral right to life, livelihood, and liberty.

Should no trespassers or marauders appear, the guard remains alert but inactive. For defensive action is only a secondary action … brought into play only at the instance of someone else’s aggressive action.

Read then turned to the question of how that Lockean form of better defending your person and property could break down:

Now assume that the guard becomes impatient with his inaction, that he despairs of his strictly negative role. Realizing that the self-same force he has been given to defend you can be used to take your life and livelihood, he turns on you, his employer. Contrary to your wishes and using your own weapons … your hired defender comes to dominate your life.

Being a normal, self-responsible, self-controlling individual, you rebel at this immoral and unwarranted authoritarianism.

How do guards who have morphed themselves into governors justify their actions?

The guard, in the meantime, will have rationalized his actions to the point of self-righteousness with two lines of defense. The first will justify his own actions, “But I am doing this for the good of all.” The second will belittle his critics by name-calling, “You are extremists.”

However, Read saw the need to make an important distinction between supposed right-wing extremists and left-wing, socialist or anti-market extremists that is generally overlooked.

Extremism, as currently publicized, is aimed almost exclusively at “the extreme right,” [not] folks who sponsor federal urban renewal, or TVA and its extensions, or compulsory social security, or foreign aid to socialistic governments, or whatever.

By their definitions, none of them is “extremist.” But they are, almost without exception, the ones who hurl the epithet “extremist” at those who do not agree with their authoritarian actions.

What we are witnessing is an instance of action and reaction. The genesis of the reaction is the action, and the origin of the current “extremism” is socialistic action.

Why didn’t we hear about extremists nearly as much in America’s past as today (excepting what the British called their rebellious colonists)?

Let your memory or imagination take you back … to pre-Social Security days. A person who then said he did not believe in compulsory social security evoked no reaction at all. No one thought to classify him as belonging to “the extreme right.”

Then came compulsory social security, as socialistic as anything that falls under the definition. The authors of this legislation took the action. Reaction, in the form of dissent, followed. The actionists now call the reactionists “extremists.” Had there been no socialistic action in the first place, there would be no anti-socialistic reaction now. Nor would the term, “extremist,” in its present context, have come into usage.

What about those who portray themselves as against all forms of extremism (but never applying the term to whatever they favor)?

There is, now and then, a person who remarks, “I deplore both the extreme left and the extreme right.” To un­mask this bit of nonsense requires only that it be translated: “I deplore both action and reaction.” This makes no more sense than to deplore the thrust of a jet motor or the kick of a shotgun or the flight of a golf ball. Such remarks originate in thoughtlessness and thus do not admit thoughtful analysis.

So how should we react to socialistic government “innovations” that attack our rights and liberties?

What ought to be considered, and carefully, are the varied types of anti-socialistic reaction evoked by socialistic action. The social actionists tend to disparage all reaction in one lump “the extreme right.”

There are as many types of reaction as there are persons who react. There are those who do not react at all … Others only mumble in their beards. These are allies of the socialists in the s nse that they are inclined to “go along” with what is, regardless of its character.

But among us are numerous dynamic reactionists. Some are calm and rational while others are volatile and emotional. Some proceed peaceably, others belligerently. Some expose the fallacies of socialistic ideas while others never rise above name-calling. Some confine themselves to educational methods, others to political devices. Some try to gain a better understanding and exposition of freedom principles while others set out to reform “the ignorant masses.” Some see the fault in themselves and their own shortcomings; others think the socialistic debacle has its origin only in the Kremlin. Some do their work for freedom joyously while others work only in anger. Some … insist that “time is running out” and promptly hurry in the wrong direction.

However, Read also saw that the ominous dark cloud of threats to Americans from their government “servants” may have a silver lining — We might be roused from our inattention to recognize those inroads to American liberty and react the way our “extremist” founders did to invasions of their inalienable rights.

The current socialist action … may have some good in it. … Liberty, as the late Paul Valery pointed out, is not primary within us; it is never evoked without being provoked. The idea of liberty is always a response…a reaction. We rarely think we ought to be free, or think about it at all, until something shows us we are not free.

So rather than focusing on opposition to extremism, with the implied “right wing” modifier, applied to everything, we should be looking to employ the appropriate form of extremism to react to those “left-wing” policies and politicians shrinking our liberty. Without “right wing” extremism in the eyes of “left-wing” beholders, what we seek to defend risks being completely steamrollered instead.

Socialist action is a preface to the reaction. Without such action most consciousness of and attention to liberty might well fade out of existence. Until recently the idea of liberty was close to extinguished in the minds of the American people. Something had to provoke a new, dynamic, libertarian sensitiveness … Reaction to [socialist action] is the great and rewarding dividend. May the reaction be marked by intelligence, integrity, good manners, determination; in short, may it take the form of an extreme intellectual, moral, and spiritual renaissance!

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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