The Generalist

Looking Out for Yourself

I’m republishing this 1956 college commencement address by Leonard Read because I noticed a broken link in my post about What is a Generalist. FEE has since republished it in HTML on their website, but I’m not a fan of their layout and republishing it here will ensure it doesn’t end up a broken link again. Plus it is an excellent article and always worth a read. Enjoy!

From a 1956 college commencement address by Leonard Read

First, may I offer you hearty and well deserved congratulations on completing the formal, institutional phase of your education. And I especially offer you best wishes for the next and most important phase of your education—that which is to come under your own management. For assuredly, graduates of this splendid Institute will avoid an all too common error—the notion that the beginning of earning is the end of learning!

It is not at all improbable that you have, until now, been so engrossed in technical and other formal educational pursuits, that you have given but scant thought to the educational program you must resolve for yourself, beginning tomorrow. I would like to present for your consideration some of the problems I foresee for you, issues with which students of specialized subjects may not be too familiar.

Unless you are alerted, or are different from most of the folks I know, you can easily remain unaware of the two opposed ways of life that will be contesting for your attention and support in the years ahead. One of these ways—the collectivistic—has by far the most numerous adherents. Indeed, you will be fortunate if you find even a few individuals who harbor no collectivism whatever. Collectivism is easy enough to identify when it comes plainly tagged as socialism, communism, Fabianism, Nazism, the Welfare State, the planned economy, or state interventionism. But one has to be sharply discriminating to discern it when it is untagged or concealed; when it is offered as proper fare by so-called conservative political parties; when it is endorsed by many high-ranking business leaders and their organizations; or when it is urged upon you by your best friends.

Collectivism is a system or idea which holds that the collective—as distinguished from the individual—is what counts. Individual hopes, aspirations, and needs are subordinated to what is termed “the collective good.” Practically, no such system can be implemented unless some person or set of persons interprets what “the collective good” is. Since it is impossible to obtain unanimous and voluntary agreements to these interpretations, they have to be enforced—and enforcement requires a police arrangement which in turn dominates the lives of all persons embraced by the collective. Implicit in all authoritarian systems are wage and price controls, dictation as to what will be produced and distributed, and by whom.

Russia is the world’s most pronounced example, but here at home we see the same thing rearing its head in the form of rent control, Valley Authorities, public housing, parity prices, acreage allotments, union monopoly, federal subsidies of every description, federal subventions to states and cities and districts, governmental foreign-aid programs, import quotas, tariffs, manipulation of money, such as the monetization of debt, and so forth.

However, it is more or less idle for me to dwell on what I believe to be error. As has been well repeated over and over again, “It is better to light. a candle than to damn the darkness.” A much sounder approach is to displace the wrong by advancing the right, to argue positively instead of negatively. With this in mind, I should like to take sides in the ideological conflict of our times and commend to your attention the way of life which is the opposite of collectivism. This way of life, also, has numerous labels, but I’m going to give it a simple and descriptive name, “Looking Out for Yourself.” That’s about as opposite as you can get from having the government looking out for you.

A Positive Approach

Now there’s a lot more to this looking-out-for-yourself philosophy than first meets the eye. To the un-reflective person—to the victim of cliches and catch phrases—it will suggest a life of non-cooperation, greed, the law of the jungle, and no concern for the well-being of others. But, be not deceived. If you intelligently look out for yourself, you will thereby follow the way of life most valuable to others.

Perhaps you will better understand this idea when I explain why there isn’t anyone on earth you can constructively control except yourself. Control can be divided into two types, the destructive and the creative. It is simple enough to control others destructively. Little intellectual achievement is required to restrain others, to inhibit their actions, to destroy their lives. There are all sorts of ways to get on the backs of others and hinder them in their creative actions. But the hindering type of control is quite different from the helping type. The hindering type rests primarily and ultimately on the application of brute or physical force.

The Limited Role of Force

Now brute or physical force is all right if confined to its proper sphere—that is, restraining and inhibiting destructive actions such as violence, fraud, misrepresentation, and predation against peaceful persons. Broadly speaking, this is the logical function of government. In sound theory, government should use its police powers only to do for all of us equally that which each of us has a moral right to do for himself in defense of his life, liberty, and property. It should apply physical force only defensively in order to repel that which is evil and unjust.

It should be clearly understood that brute, physical, or police force cannot constructively help anyone. It can give only a negative assist by clearing the obstacles from the road to opportunity. No person, nor any set of persons, can physically force anyone to invent, to discover, to create. Let us face this fact: One can have no control whatever over any other person creatively. We are indeed fortunate if we have very much control even over ourselves creatively. In any event, such creative control as any of us possesses is confined strictly and exclusively to self.

Creatively, man has no control over others, no power over others, except the power of attraction; and even then, it is the other person who decides upon and determines the degree of attraction. This is a God-bestowed limitation on all men for which we should be forever grateful. I, at least, am pleased that others cannot compel me to accept as eternal verities that which they claim to know. And I am even more pleased that I cannot force my opinions and beliefs upon others.

The Power of Attraction

The power of attraction is always and forever a subjective judgment! One may be attractive to none, to a few, to many. Figuratively, others look us over and decide for themselves whether or not we have anything worth their consideration. After all these years of schooling, you fully realize that no teacher is ever self-designated. It has always been you who decided what, if anything, you learned from your teachers. Or, to use a more obvious example, it is the person with the receiving set who does the tuning in—it is never the broadcaster.

Put it this way: I can help you in a material sense only if I have money to lend or give to you, or goods and services to exchange with you. I cannot help you materially if I am a pauper. Intellectually, I can assist you if I possess understanding not yet yours. The moron can give us no help intellectually. Spiritually, I can be of value to you only if I am in possession of insights which you have not yet experienced. Materially, intellectually, and spiritually, I am limited as to what I can do for any other person by what I have to give, by how well I have looked out for myself in these areas.

Once we have grasped the idea that the best way to help others is first to look out for ourselves, we should next consider how important it is that we do help others. I would like to emphasize the point that each of us, if self-interest be interpreted accurately, has a vested interest in the material, intellectual, and spiritual well-being of others; that our very existence depends on others.

A Society of Specialists

To appreciate the extent of our dependence on others, we need but realize that we are living in the most specialized, the most advanced division-of-labor, the most removed-from- self-subsistence society in all of recorded history.

For example, you will discover, as you take up your highly specialized tasks, that someone else will be growing, processing, and delivering your food, that someone else will be making your clothing, building your home, providing your transportation, supplying your heat, and making available to you most of the new knowledge you acquire. Indeed, you will discover that individuals from all over this earth will be at your service, willingly exchanging their millions of specialties for your own single specialty. You will discover that you will consume in a single day that which you could not possibly produce solely by yourself in thousands of years. You will see about you a release and exchange of creative energies so fabulous that no living man can trace or diagnose the miracle. You will, for instance, pick up the receiver of a telephone, and instantly there will flow to your personal service the creative energies of Alexander Graham Bell—of tens of thousands of metallurgists, engineers, scientists, operators, linesmen—a complex of creative energies flowing through space and time in order that you may talk to your parents or friends in a matter of seconds.

No one of us can exist without these others. And I repeat, each of us has a vested and vital interest in the creative energies of other people and in the uninhibited exchange of their services, ideas, and insights. We must, if we would intelligently look out for ourselves, see to it as best we can that these others be free of private or political marauders, interventionists, and parasites. Any inhibition to their creative lives is opposed to your and my personal interests, and we err and do not look out for ourselves if we sanction or fail to oppose such debasement. And further, it is incumbent upon all of us to rise as far as we can in our own intellectual and spiritual statures so that these others, on whom we depend, may find something in turn to draw from us.

There is another point about this highly specialized society which deserves your reflection. You men and women, highly trained as specialists yourselves, represent the cream of this year’s crop. Tomorrow, you will enter a society in which there will be millions of specialists, the cream of numerous former crops. I hope you will not emulate so many of them who attend only to their own specialties and little else beyond acquiring wealth and entertainment. Perhaps the most dangerous trend of our times is this: Specialists—the cream of the crop in intellectual and spiritual potentialities—who, by attending only to their diverse specializations, leave to the skim milk of the crop the vital problems of man’s proper relationships to man.

Danger of Overspecialization

Specialization has its unquestioned blessings. But there is always the danger, which we are now witnessing, of its taking off like spokes from the hub of a wheel, on and on with no regard to boundary or periphery, with each specialist heading into an ever-advancing remoteness, into an atomistic world of his own, always widening his distance from others, losing social cohesiveness with society disintegrating as each of us loses integration with others, with communication between specialists becoming more and more impossible, with nearly all specialists “too busy” to read, study, and meditate on the general problems of man’s proper relationships to man. When these trends characterize a society, that society isn’t merely doomed to collapse; it is destined to explode! If you would look out for yourself—and thus for others—you will by example and precept do your part in reversing such trends.

In order that I be not misunderstood, I repeat that specialization has its unquestioned blessings. Specialization, when practiced by whole men, by those who reflect on the meaning of life, by those who have an acquaintance with the humanities, and in a society where creative energies are uninhibited, is the road to material wealth—which can, in turn, lead to intellectual and spiritual wealth. But while specialization is the means to wealth, let us not think of material wealth as an end in itself. Material wealth, like specialization, is only the means to higher ends—intellectual and spiritual wealth.

Wealth Can Free Man for Higher Aims

It seems to me that if material wealth has any moral purpose at all, it is to free man from the restrictions which are imposed by a subsistence level of living; for when one has to labor in the rice paddies from sunrise to sunset merely to eke out an animal existence, he doesn’t stand much chance of evolving and developing those numerous potentialities peculiar to his own person. But wealth is not something to be pursued for wealth’s sake or merely for luxuries, or quick retirement, or for shirking the problems of life. Material wealth, morally speaking, is but the means to free us from lower employments so that we may labor more industriously at higher employments, that we may develop more fully the life of the intellect and of the spirit. Material wealth is but a tool to help us develop our God-given faculties of intellect and spirit.

And now, a word of counsel. The market place is in high-pitched competition for your specialized services, and the emoluments being offered are relatively high. This may make the future look extraordinarily promising to you. And it can be promising if you don’t become isolated in your own specializations. There are many brilliant but lost specialists in industry today, persons who cannot be promoted into higher positions because of a narrowness in their scope. They lack an interest in the problems of others on whom they depend, and an understanding of the society in which it is their lot to live.

Broadening One’s Perspective

Broadening one’s scope, continuing one’s education into other than one’s own specialty, is not a dismal but a glorious prospect. It can be the very zest of life. Certainly, it is a well- known fact that any specialist, be he writer, painter, cook, or engineer, is a better specialist if there be breadth in his understanding, if he be an integrated person, if he has balanced judgments as to right and wrong principles in man’s relationships to man.

The deviltry going on in the world today is not primarily caused by criminals. The truly malevolent persons are too few in number to account for our wars and the continuing accumulation of vast armaments between major conflicts. The thoroughly evil persons among us are not numerous enough to account for all the racial and national hatreds and prejudices, for labor violence, for the growing belief that the honest fruits of one’s labor no longer belong to the earner, for restrictions on the exchange of goods and services, and for the many other collectivistic inanities and horrors. These things are not the doings of criminals. They originate mostly with the well-intentioned, those who wish to do good to others but who, lacking personal means, thoughtlessly see no harm in employing the police establishments to impose their brand of good on the rest of us, to use the fruits of other persons’ labor to satisfy their own charitable instincts.

God bless you in your chosen pursuits, but I implore you not to specialize to the exclusion of your role as good citizens. Don’t leave us and yourselves to the mercy of political parasites, those who would try to act the part of God, those who would cast us all in their immature little images. If you would effectively look out for yourselves and thus for others, if you would have a society in which your specializations are to have meaning for you and for your fellow men, if you would realize the possibilities in your own individual creations, you will attend to the perfections of that society. And you will best do this by the perfection of yourselves, not only as skilled specialists but also as accomplished expositors of the looking- out-for-your-self philosophy.

Foundation  for Economic Education
Foundation for Economic Education

The Foundation for Economic Education, founded 1946, works for a free and prosperous world. 

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