On Thinking for Self – Leonard E. Reed

A conversation on Twitter prompted me to think about the dozens of books on conservatism I have and further to actually pull some of them off the shelf.  This in turn induced in me both despair and desire.  Despair at the time it would take to even make a dent in this collection but also a desire to dive into this sea of knowledge in the hopes of rekindling the love and wonder I had in college and grad school.

All of this by way of introduction to why I stumbled on Accent on the Right by Leonard E. Reed (famous for the essay I, Pencil and for founding the Foundation for Economic Education) and decided to finally read the slim volume.  I did so today and found it an odd but still insightful libertarian essay on freedom, progress and persuasion.

There was a chapter, On Thinking for Self, however, that I thought was worth sharing.

Reed starts with, to him at the time, a frightening thought:

What a fearful thought-if this situation is general: a nation of people the vast majority of whom do no thinking for themselves in the area political economy! Positions on matters of the deepest social import formed from nothing more profound than radio, TV, and newspaper commentaries, or casual, off-the-cuff opinions, or the outpourings of popularity seekers!

Reed than explores the impact of such a climate on politics:

Assume a people who do no thinking for themselves.  Theirs is a stunted skepticism.  Such people only react and are easy prey of the cliche, the plausibility, the shallow promise, the lie.  Emotional appeals, and petty words are their only guidelines. The market is made up of no-thinks. Statesmen-men of integrity and intellectual stature-are hopelessly out of demand.  When this is the situation, such statesmen will not be found among the politically active.

And who may we expect to respond to a market where thinking for self is absent?  Charlatans! Word mongers! Power seekers! Deception artists! They come out of their obscurity as termites out of a rotten stump; the worst rise to the political top.  And when our only choice is “the lesser of two evils,” voting is a sham.


When thinking for self is declining, more charlatans and fewer statesmen will vie for office.  Look at the political horizon to learn what the thinking is, just as you look at a thermometer to learn what the temperature is.  So blame not the political opportunists for the state of the nation.  Our failure to think for ourselves put them there-indeed, brought them into being. For we are the market; they are but the reflections!

An interesting fact intrudes itself into this analysis: approximately 50 percent of those who do not think for themselves are furious with what they see on the political horizon-which is but their own reflections! And to assuage their discontent they exert vigorous effort to change the reflections from Republican to Democrat, or vice versa.  As should be expected, they get no more for their pains than new face making mentalities remarkably similar to those unseated. It cannot be otherwise.

I will leave it to the reader whether any of this is applicable to our time…

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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