The Defense of Our Civilization against Intellectual Error

Article excerpt

I believe that what the Foundation for Economic Education, with Eeonard Read at its head, and all his co-fighters and friends are committed to is nothing more nor less than the defense of our civilization against intellectual error.

I do not mean this as the kind of high-flown phrase that one is apt to coin for an occasion like this. I mean it literally, as the best definition of our common task. I have chosen every one of these eight words advisedly and will now try to explain what I mean by them.

In the first instance I wanted to emphasize that what is threatened by our present political trends is not just economic prosperity, not just our comfort, or the rate of economic growth. It is very much more. It is what I meant to be understood by the phrase "our civilization." Modern man prides himself that he has built that civilization as if in doing so he had carried out a plan which he had before formed in his mind. The fact is, of course, that if at any point of the past man had mapped out his future on the basis of the then-existing knowledge and then followed this plan, we would not be where we are. We would not only be much poorer, we would not only be less wise, but we would also be less gentle, less moral; in fact we would still have brutally to fight each other for our very lives. We owe the fact that not only our knowledge has grown, but also our morals have improved-and I think they have improved, and especially that the concern for our neighbor has increased-not to anybody planning for such a development, but to the fact that in an essentially free society certain trends have prevailed because they made for a peaceful, orderly, and progressive society.

This process of growth to which we owe the emergence of what we now most value, including the growth of the very values we now hold, is today often presented as if it were something not worthy of a reasonable being, because it was not guided by a clear design of what men were aiming at. But our civilization is indeed largely an unforeseen and unintended outcome of our submitting to moral and legal rules which were never "invented" with such a result in mind, but which grew because those societies which developed them piecemeal prevailed at every step over other groups which followed different rules, less conducive to the growth of civilization. It is against this fact to which we owe most of our achievements that the rationalist constructivism so characteristic of our times revolts. Since the so-called Age of Reason it seemed to an everincreasing number of people not worthy of a rational being that he should be guided in his actions by moral and legal rules which he did not fully understand; and it was demanded that we should not regard any rules obligatory on us except such as clearly and recognizably served the achievement of particular, foreseeable aims.

It is, of course, true that we only slowly and gradually begin to understand the manner in which the rules which we traditionally obey constitute the condition for the social order in which civilization has arisen. …