What Shall Be Prohibited?

Leonard ReadLEONARD READ, THE FREEMAN

How misled we often are when judging people by first appear­ances! To dramatize the fact that what meets the eye is often de­ceiving, imagine identical twins. They do indeed look alike, but how they can differ in other re­spects! One brother can be an out-and-out collectivist, statist, mer­cantilist, interventionist; the oth­er an ardent believer in individual rights, free market practices, and private property observances. For reasons difficult to explain, one has a socialistic orientation while the other has a libertarian devo­tion.

But even these opposed desig­nations—socialist and libertarian—do not accurately or revealingly stake out the significant differ­ences between these two men. Such labels may have considerable emo­tional impact, but they do not pre­cisely distinguish the conflicting philosophies. What really marks the one from the other? Is there some one characteristic that can be identified and evaluated? Yes, I believe there is. The difference between the socialist and the libertarian thinker is a difference of opinion as to what others should be prohibited from doing. Let’s use this claim as a working hypothesis, think it through, and test its validity. If the claim proves irrefutable, then we have come upon a fairly simple method of evaluating our own or anyone else’s authoritarianism or, con­versely, libertarianism.1 But first, a word about prohibitions in gen­eral.

How many animal species have come and gone no one knows. Many thousands survive and the fact of their survival, whether guided by instincts or drives or conscious choices, rests, in no small measure, on the avoidance of self-destructive actions. Thus, all surviving species have, at the very minimum, abided by a set of prohibitions—things not to do; otherwise, they would have been extinct ere this.

Certain types of scorpions, for example, stick to dry land; pud­dles and pools are among their instinctual taboos. There is some prohibitory force that keeps fish off dry land, lambs from chasing lions, and so on and on. How in­sects and animals acquire their built-in prohibitions is not well understood. We label their reac­tions instinctual, meaning that it is not reasoned or conscious be­havior.

Man Must Choose

Man, on the other hand, does not now possess a like set of in­stinctual do-nots—built-in pro­hibitions. Instead, he must enjoy or suffer the consequences of his own free will, his own power to choose between right and wrong actions; in a word, man is more or less at the mercy of his own imperfect understanding and con­scious decisions. The upshot of this is that human beings must choose the prohibitions they will observe, and the selection of a wrong one may be as disastrous to our species as omitting a right one. Survival of the human species rests as much on observing the correct prohibitions as is the case with any other species.

But in our case, the observance of the correct must-nots has sur­vival value only if preceded by a correct, conscious selection of the must-nots. When the survival of the human race is at stake and when that survival rests on the selection of prohibitions by vari­able, imperfect members of that race, the wonder is that the ideological controversy is not greater than now.

When Homo sapiens first ap­peared he had little language, no literature, no maxims, no tradi­tion or history to which he could make reference; in short, he pos­sessed no precise and accurate list of things not to do. We cannot ex­plain the survival of these early. specimens of our kind unless we assume that some of the instinc­tual prohibitions of their animal cousins remained with them dur­ing the transition period from instinct to some measure of self‑knowledge for, throughout many

millennia, we know nothing of man-formalized prohibitions. Then appeared the crude taboos ob­served by what we now call “primitive peoples.” These have sur­vival value in certain conditions, even though the reasons given for the practice might not hold water.

Forms of Persuasion

If prohibitions are as impor­tant as here represented, it is well that we reflect on the man-con­trived thou-shalt-nots, particularly as to the several types of per­suasiveness—for there can be no prohibition worth the mention un­less it is backed by some form of persuasive force. So far as this exploration is concerned, there are three forms of persuasion which make prohibitions effective or meaningful. I shall touch on the three forms in the order of their historical appearance.

The Code of Hammurabi, 2000 B.C., is probably the earliest of sys­tematized prohibitions. This is considered one of the greatest of the ancient codes; it was particu­larly strong in its prohibitions against defrauding the helpless. To secure observance, the “per­suasiveness” took the form of backing by organized police force. The Columbia Encyclopedia refers to the retributive nature of the punishment meted out as a “sav­age feature… an eye for an eye literally.” Not only is this the old­est of the three forms of persua­sion as a means of effectuating prohibitions, but it is today very popular and much employed all over the “civilized” world, in the U.S.A. as well as elsewhere.

The next and higher form of persuasion appeared about a mil­lennium later—the series of thou­-shalt-nots or prohibitions known as The Decalogue. Here the back­ing was not organized police force but, instead, the promise of retri­bution: initially, the hope of trib­al survival if the commands were obeyed and the fear of tribal ex­tinction were they disobeyed, and, later, the hope of heavenly bliss or the fear of hell and damnation. It may be said that The Decalogue exemplifies moral rather than po­litical law and, also, that its form of persuasion advanced from the physical to a type of spiritual force. We witness in this evolu­tionary step the emergence of man’s moral nature.

The latest and highest form of persuasion is that which gives ef­fectiveness to the most advanced prohibition, The Golden Rule. As originally scribed, around 500 B.C., it read: “Do not do unto others that which you would not have them do unto you.” What persua­siveness lies behind it? Not phy­sical force. And not even such spiritual forces as hope and fear. The force is a sense of justice, re­garded as the inmost law of one’s being. That this is a recently ac­quired human faculty is supported by its rarity. Ever so many people will concede the soundness of this prohibition, but only now and then do we find an individual whose moral nature is elevated to the point where he can observe this discipline in daily living. Such an individual has moved be­yond the concept of external re­wards and punishments to the conviction that virtue and excel­lence are their own reward.

Development of the Moral Faculty

It is relevant to that which fol­lows to reflect on what is meant by an elevated moral nature. To illustrate the lack of such a na­ture: We had a kitchen employee who pilfered, that is, she would quietly lift provisions from our larder and tote them home to her own. This practice did no of­fense to such moral scruples as she possessed; she was only con­cerned lest anyone see her in­dulge it; nothing was wrong ex­cept getting caught! My point is that this individual has not yet acquired what is here meant by an elevated moral nature.

What is to distinguish the in­dividual who has an elevated mor­al nature? For one thing, he cares not one whit about what others see him do. Why? He has a pri­vate eye of his own, far more ex­acting and severe than any force or fear others can impose: a high­ly developed conscience. Not only does such a person possess a sense of justice but he also possesses its counterpart, a disciplinary con­science. Justice and conscience are two parts of the same emerging moral faculty. It is doubtful that one part can exist without the other.

It seems that individual man, having lost many of the built-in, instinctual do-nots of his animal cousins, acquires, as he evolves far enough, a built-in, rational, prohibitory ethic which he is com­pelled to observe by reason of his sense of justice and the dictates of his conscience. We repeat, prop­er prohibitions are just as impor­tant to the survival of the human species as to the survival of any other species.

Do not do unto others that which you would not have them do unto you. There is more to this prohibi­tion than first glance reveals. Nearly everyone, for instance, will concede that there is no universal right to kill, to steal, or to en­slave—because these practices cannot be universalized, if for no higher reason. But only the per­son who comprehends this ethic in its wholeness, who has an ele­vated sense of justice and con­science, will conclude that such a concession denies to him the right to take the life of another, to re­lieve any person of his livelihood, or to deprive any human being of his liberty. And, one more dis­tinction: While there are many who will agree that they, person­ally, should not kill, steal, enslave, it is only the individual with an elevated moral nature who will have no hand in encouraging any agency—even government—in do­ing these things for himself or for others. He clearly sees that there is no escape from individual responsibility by the popular ex­pedient of collective action.

Citizen vs. State

Let us now return to the ques­tion this essay poses: “What shall be prohibited?” For it is the dif­ference of opinion as to what should be denied others that high­lights the essential difference be­tween the collectivists—socialists, statists, interventionists, mercan­tilists—and those of the liber­tarian faith. Take stock of what you would prohibit others from doing and you will accurately find your own position in the ideo­logical line-up. Or, this method can be used to determine anyone else’s position.

Consider the following state­ment which came to my attention while writing this paper:

“Government has a positive re­sponsibility in any just society to see to it that each and every one of its citizens acquires all the skills and all the opportunities necessary to prac­tice and appreciate the arts to the limit of his natural ability. Enjoy­ment of the arts and participation in them are among man’s natural rights and essential to his full development as a civilized person. One of the rea­sons governments are instituted among men is to make this right a reality.”2

It is significant that the author uses the term “its citizens,” the antecedent of “its” being govern­ment. Such a conception is basic to the collectivistic philosophy: We—you and I—belong to the state. Of course, if one accepts this statist premise, the above quote is sensible enough: it has to do with a detail in the state’s paternalistic concern for us as its wards.

But we are on another tack, namely, examining what a person would prohibit others from doing. The writer of the above state­ment does not imply, at least to anyone who cannot read below the surface, any prohibitions. He dwells only on what he would have the state do for the people. Where, then, are the prohibitions? The program he favors would cost X hundred million dollars annu­ally. From where come these mil­lions? The state has nothing ex­cept that which it takes from the people. Therefore, this man fa­vors that we be prohibited from using the fruits of our own labor as we choose in order that these fruits be expended as the state chooses. And take note of the fact that this and all other socialist-designed prohibitions have police force as the method of persua­sion.3

Examples of Control

Socialism is the state ownership and/or control of the results of production. Our incomes are the results of production. That por­tion of our incomes is socialized which the state turns to its use by its prohibition of our use. It follows, then, that a person would impose prohibitions on the rest of us to the extent that he supports governmental projects which would socialize our income.

Only a few, as yet, favor the socialization of the arts and the consequent socialization of our incomes, but there are ever so many who favor prohibiting our freedom of choice in order to:

Pay farmers for not growing wheat and other crops;

Support socialist governments all over the world;

Put three men on the moon (esti­mated at $40,000,000,000);

Subsidize below-cost pricing in air, water, and land transportation, ed­ucation, insurance, loans of count­less kinds;

Socialize security; Renew downtowns, build hospitals and other local facilities; Give federal aid of this or that va­riety, endlessly.

We have not, however, ex­hausted the prohibitions that the socialists would impose upon us. For socialism is, also, the state ownership and/or control of the means of production. Included among the existing prohibitions are:

The planting of all of a farmer’s own acreage to wheat, cotton, pea­nuts, corn, tobacco, rice—even to feed his own stock;

The quitting of a business at will; The taking of a job at will;

The selling of your own product at your own price, for instance, milk, steel, and others;

The free pricing of services (wages);

The delivery of first-class mail for pay;

Again, the listing of prohibitions is endless. Harold Fleming, author of Ten Thousand Commandments (1951), having to do with prohibi­tions of just one federal agency, The Federal Trade Commission, claims that were the book brought up to date, the new title would be Twenty Thousand Commandments.

Those who favor the socializa­tion of the means of production would, of course, prohibit profit and even the profit motive.

Which of all the prohibitions listed above and implicit in social­ism do you or others favor? This is the appropriate question for rating oneself or others ideologi­cally.

Government’s Proper Role

Those people having a libertar­ian devotion would, it is true, impose certain prohibitions on others. They merely note that not all individuals have acquired a moral nature sufficient strictly to observe such moral laws as “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal.” There are in the popula­tion those who will take the lives of others, and those who will take the livelihood of others, such as those who will pilfer and those who will get the government to do their pilfering for them. Most libertarian believers would sup­plement the moral laws with so­cial laws aimed at prohibiting one from doing violence to another’s person (life) or another’s liveli­hood (extension of life).’ Thus they would prohibit or at least penalize murder, theft, fraud, mis­representation. In short, they would inhibit or prohibit the de­structive actions of any and all, and that is all! Says the liber­tarian, “Freely choose how you act creatively, productively. I have no desire to prohibit you or others in this respect. I have no prohibi­tory designs on you of any kind except as you or others would keep me and others from acting creatively, productively, as we freely choose.”

Be it noted that the libertarian in his hoped-for prohibition of de­structive actions does no violence to anyone else’s liberty, none whatsoever. The word liberty would never be used by an indi­vidual completely isolated from others; it is a social term. We must not, therefore, think of lib­erty as being restrained when fraud, violence, and the like are prohibited, for such actions vio­late the liberty of others, and lib­erty cannot be composed of liberty negations. This is self-evident. Thus, any accomplished libertar­ian would never prohibit the lib­erty of another.

There we have it: the socialists with the countless prohibitions of liberty they would impose on others; the libertarian aspirants whose prohibitions are not op­posed to but are in support of liberty and are as few and as simple as the two Commandments against the taking of life and livelihood. Interestingly enough, it is the so­cialists, the all-out prohibitionists, who call nonintervening libertar­ians “extremists.” Is there not a remarkable incongruity between reality and casual appearance, be­tween what careful scrutiny re­veals and an emotional outburst?

Finally, libertarians, like the socialists, do not believe the hu­man situation to be in apple pie order; imperfection is rampant. The libertarian, however, observ­ing that human imperfection is universal, balks at halting the evolutionary process which is the ultimate prohibition implicit in all authoritarian schemes. Be the political dandy a Napoleon or Tito or one of the home grown variety of prohibitionist, how can the human situation improve if the rest of us are not permitted to grow beyond the level of the political dandy’s imperfections? Is nothing better in store for humanity than this?

The libertarian’s answer is af­firmative: There is something better. But the improvement must take the form of man’s growth, emergence, hatching—the acqui­sition of higher faculties such as an improved sense of justice, a refined, exacting, self-disciplinary conscience, in brief, an elevated moral nature. Man-concocted pro­hibitions against this growth stifle or kill it. Human faculties can flower, man can move toward his creative destiny, only if he be free to do so, in a word, where liberty prevails.

What should be prohibited?

Actions which impair liberty!


Leonard Edward Read (September 26, 1898 – May 14, 1983) was the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).


This article first appeared in The Freeman magazine in December of 1963.

Copyright © 2013 The Freeman. Used with permission.