What would it take to once again make liberty “an idea whose time has come”? Or as Leonard Read put it, “What is it that the freedom philosophy most needs?”
His answer was “several thousand creative thinkers, writers, talkers—like Frédéric Bastiat was to the freedom philosophy…”
Read estimated that ten thousand might do the trick.
“Ten thousand Bastiats?” he wrote, knowing what a tall order that would be. “Well, hardly. But it does seem possible for us to achieve that many reasonable approximations.”
What would it mean for any one of us to become, as a creative thinker and writer, a “reasonable approximation” of Frédéric Bastiat, the 19th-century economist and political philosopher?
A Prolific Burst of Brilliance
Quite a lot, because Frédéric Bastiat was a creative genius and a world-historical hero. (For a full telling of his accomplishments, see Jim Powell’s profile.)
What is especially amazing about Bastiat’s phenomenal career is how short-lived it was. He first took up his pen as a public intellectual for liberty in 1844 and died of tuberculosis in 1850 at age 49. In those scant six years, he issued a torrent of masterpiece pamphlets and essays setting forth and defending the freedom philosophy and sound economics, including The Law, That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen, The Candlemaker’s Petition, and many more. On top of this, Bastiat was also busy playing a leading role in the free trade movement as an organizer and, after the Revolution of 1848, as a member of the French National Assembly.
The impact of Bastiat’s works would reverberate across generations and language barriers. Their translations have played a major role in inspiring a new liberty movement in the English-speaking world. And no wonder. Bastiat’s writings sparkle with eloquence and wit, shine with logic and lucidity, and burn with a passion for truth and justice.
The March of the Ten Thousand
Can we hope to even approximate such a figure as Frédéric Bastiat? Even touching the hem of his garment would be a tremendous feat. But Read may have been right that the cause of liberty calls for nothing less than ten thousand champions arising to meet that challenge. For those called to genuinely advance liberty, it is a worthy objective to aspire to. Even those who don’t attain that level will be better for trying.
If you are so called, how would you go about emulating Bastiat as a thinker and creator? It would mean striving to become a prolific elucidator, like he was. To do that, you must realize your creative potential. And to do that, you must optimize your creative process.
It would be great if you could learn from Bastiat’s own creative process. But, to my knowledge, he didn’t document it. But two of the vanishingly few individuals who actually managed to approximate Bastiat did document how they pulled it off. So learning from them would be your best bet.
Ten Million Words
One of Bastiat’s greatest emulators was Henry Hazlitt, author of Economics in One Lesson. In the preface to the first edition of that classic book, Hazlitt wrote:
“My greatest debt, with respect to the kind of expository framework on which the present argument is hung, is to Frédéric Bastiat’s essay [That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen], now nearly a century old. The present work may, in fact, be regarded as a modernization, extension and generalization of the approach found in Bastiat’s pamphlet.”
Like Bastiat, Hazlitt was a master of his subject and his craft. H.L. Mencken (himself one of the 20th century’s greatest wordsmiths) wrote of Henry Hazlitt: “He is one of the few economists in human history who could really write.”
Like Bastiat, Hazlitt was prolific. Unlike Bastiat, he started his writing career early and was graced with a long life, passing away at age 98. Hazlitt once estimated that over the course of his career, he had written ten million words and that his collected works would fill 150 volumes.
Hazlitt shared tips on the creative process in “The Art of Thinking,” an epilogue for the 1969 edition of his first book Thinking as a Science (1916).
Ten Thousand Days
Leonard Read himself was another great emulator of Bastiat. His classic essay I, Pencil could be considered a modernization and distillation of some of the main themes in Bastiat’s unfinished treatise Economic Harmonies.
Like Bastiat, Read was both a great organizer and a great author for liberty. In addition to founding and serving as president of the Foundation for Economic Education, he gave innumerable lectures and wrote 34 books. He also was a prolific correspondent and kept a detailed daily journal for more than 10,000 consecutive days.
Read also shared tips on the creative process in “Aids to Leadership,” a chapter in Elements of Libertarian Leadership (1962).
Below, I’ve organized some of Hazlitt and Read’s gems of wisdom by theme.
Study to Create
Hazlitt wrote of “the need of extensive reading and study before the reader can profitably launch on “thinking for himself or arriving at ‘independent conclusions.’” He warned that “no man can hope to do original work or even profitable thinking in any science or branch of knowledge until he has gone to the trouble to learn what has already been discovered in that branch of knowledge. He must know the previous state of the question. Then he will see whether he can make any contribution of his own.”
Hazlitt also celebrated the joy of immersing yourself in a topic that fascinates you:
“No practice excels that of browsing along a library shelf containing books on the subject that has awakened your interest, and sampling them. If I may be permitted a personal note, it seems to me, looking back, that the hours of purest happiness in my own youth were spent in just this way. I would avidly sample one book after another, and when the bell rang, and the library closed for the night, and I was forced to leave, I would leave in a state of mental intoxication, with my new-found knowledge and ideas whirling in my head.”
In fact, Hazlitt’s path to becoming one of history’s greatest expositors of economics began in this way. Coming across Philip Wicksteed’s The Common Sense of Political Economy on a library shelf was the beginning of his self-taught journey through the rabbit hole of sound economics that ultimately led him to Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian School.
In the age of the hyper-library that is the internet, we are blessed with even more opportunities to take such intellectual journeys and experience such highs as Hazlitt did. That so many of us choose instead to make ourselves miserable by bickering and seething on social media is no one’s fault but our own.
Capture Your Ideas
The more you study, the more creative ideas you will have. It’s important to capture these, because as Read wrote:
“An insight or an idea as it impinges upon the consciousness—however ephemeral or evanescent the idea—is a forewarning to the individual that he will be in need of it later on.”
And as Hazlitt advised:
“…every serious thinker, especially if he hopes to be a professional writer, should keep a notebook or a journal. I pointed out, in the first edition of this book, that good ideas are often elusive and must be captured in flight—in other words, that it is excellent practice always to have a pencil and pad handy, so as to jot down a good thought the moment after it lights up your mind. The complacent assumption that once a bright idea or happy phrase occurs to you it is a permanent acquisition, to be called upon only when needed, too often proves false. Even Nietzsche, one of the great seminal minds of the nineteenth century, found that: ‘A thought comes when it wishes, not when I wish.’”
Read encouraged capturing even seemingly small ideas:
“Do not pin your expectations on some big idea and by so doing miss the importance of its seemingly insignificant parts—the tiny idea. The grandiose idea, like the brain itself, is but the flowering of its little components. In short, count as success the discovery of a word or the shaping of a phrase that will improve understanding and communication.”
David Allen, author of Getting Things Done offered similar advice:
“Many of the ideas that you have, if not immediately and obviously valuable in the moment, contain the germ of something that may be extremely useful. You simply may not see it yet. Give yourself the freedom to capture all kinds of thoughts that you can later reassess.”
Write Out Your Ideas
Both Read and Hazlitt stressed the importance of writing for fully formulating, mastering, and retaining ideas. As Read wrote:
“Writing is the best way to formulate ideas, even to have ideas. One cannot formulate ideas in writing without thinking. Writing is a hard taskmaster, a severe discipline. It is easy to conclude that an idea is mastered—until the attempt is made to put it in writing. Instantly, many of its imperfections become apparent. An idea which cannot be written is an idea not mastered or possessed.”
And here is Read on retention:
“So far as the memory is concerned, writing aids indelibility. However, it is the capturing of the idea for subsequent use or reference that counts. All of us have had thousands of ideas about which we are now totally unaware or, to quote Russell Dicks, ‘The infant mortality of newborn ideas is enormous.’”
Hazlitt goes so far as to say:
“He who seeks to be a clear and precise thinker must also seek to be a clear and precise writer. Good writing is the twin of good thinking. He who would learn to think should learn to write.”
And here is Hazlitt on writing out ideas in order to master them:
“When we write out our ideas, we are at the same time testing, developing, arranging, crystallizing, and completing them. We imagine ourselves not only making these ideas clear to others, but making them seem as important to others as they do to ourselves. So we try to make what was vague in our minds precise and definite; what was implicit, explicit; what was disconnected, unified; what was fragmentary, whole. We frame a generalization, then try to make it as plausible as we can; we try to think of concrete illustrations of it. And as we do this, we also expose it to ourselves—and sometimes, alas, find that it is empty, untenable, or sheer nonsense.”
And here is Hazlitt on writing as an aid to concentration:
“One incidental advantage of the habit of writing out one’s ideas is that it promotes concentration as almost no other practice does. As one who has written daily newspaper editorials or weekly magazine columns for many years, I can testify that nothing forces one to pull one’s thoughts together more than deciding on a topic, sitting before the typewriter, feeding in a clean sheet of paper, and then trying to frame one’s exact theme, title, and opening paragraph. Francis Bacon summed it up with unsurpassable conciseness: ‘Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.’”
One of the reasons why Leonard Read kept a daily journal so faithfully was that it helped him generate ideas:
“May I commend the keeping of a daily journal in which ideas are formulated. Anyway, write the record of every day; for writing induces concentration and concentration is the most likely state in which ideas are received, in which they flow into consciousness.”
And Read stressed the importance of working out your old ideas in order to have new ones:
“Formulate your ideas. Whenever coming into possession of an idea, work it out, think it through, develop its fullness, at once. Never permit an unformulated idea to clutter the mind. It must be hatched or, to change the metaphor, brought to bloom. Here is where conscious effort plays such an important role. For, unless an idea is gotten off the receiver and into memory, or otherwise recorded, the receiving set will not function with high fidelity. Indeed, one may get only ‘static.’ Two or three unhatched ideas make for mental confusion, the mind clogs or jams, and additional ideas, if they come, will be lost. The best way to do one’s homework is to commit an idea to writing immediately on its reception.”
Dee Hock, the founder of Visa, offered similar advice when he wrote:
“The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get the old ones out. Every mind is a building filled with archaic furniture. Clean out a corner of your mind and creativity will instantly fill it.”
Share Your Understanding
Read emphasized the importance of sharing your understanding with others in order to “raise the bar” for your own studies:
“Most individuals who have any competence in the libertarian philosophy are invited to write or speak. Do not be like the demure young thing who refuses when asked to play the piano. Accept! Initially, this will require courage and many aches will ensue. It is like birth pains, for unused faculties are brought into play. But it is amazing how much thinking and study one will do—once an invitation is accepted—not merely to avoid making a fool of oneself but to appear to others as intelligent as he, in his secret heart, regards himself! The incentives in such circumstances are powerful, indeed! Look for, rather than run away from, difficult questions posed by others. The search for answers seems to open spigots of the mind. Ideas hitherto undreamed of will begin to flow.”
Hazlitt’s own first book Thinking as a Science, which he got published when he was just 21 years old, was written primarily as an exercise in self-education:
“I primarily wanted to teach myself how to think more efficiently, independently, and, if possible, originally. I had already sensed that ‘he who teaches, learns.’”
As Read stressed, the more we approach sharing the freedom philosophy as an exercise in improving our own understanding—as opposed to repairing that of another—the more lucid (and thus persuasive) our expositions will be to others. To be a great elucidator like Bastiat, Hazlitt, and Read, we must first and foremost elucidate our subject for ourselves: through study, reflection, and writing.
That is what it takes to approximate Frédéric Bastiat. And, as Leonard Read said, ten thousand approximate Bastiats may be what it will take to bring about a renaissance of liberty. If you feel called to join those ranks, following the guidance of two of Bastiat’s greatest emulators would be a great place to start.
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