The Fable of the Bungling Firemen

By: Gary Galles

From the time I was an undergraduate, I can remember reading many articles by Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education. I found his insights valuable enough that I eventually wrote a book, The Apostle of Peace, about what I considered were his best sustained arguments. Many of his shorter arguments were not included. But every so often, I go back and read one or two of his books in search of overlooked inspiration. I did this recently for his 1980 book, Seeds of Progress, [free online at mises.org] for its 40th anniversary.

There, I found a fireman analogy I thought was worth sharing.

Bungling Firemen

  • Imagine this fictitious situation–the firemen of a community answering an alarm and rushing to a burning home. Failing to extinguish the fire immediately, they spray the home with kerosene. The fire worsens. The remedy? Spray it with gasoline! Still worse! On and on with “remedies” galore, each more moronic than the former. These imaginary firemen resemble the millions of political bunglers whose actions lead to “the misery and ruin of many thousands and millions of people.”
  • How do our political bunglers resemble the fictitious firemen…First and foremost, they have no more understanding of how freedom works its wonders …Thus blinded to reality, they see what to them appears as a societal flaw, and then employ coercion to correct it. Their remedy does not work. They then double their coercions. Worse than ever: more flaws appear! Deeper into the mire of our present mess! Their cure? More and more of their foolish interventions!
  • Those who do little if any thinking for themselves are inclined to follow the millions of bunglers who loudly proclaim their know-it-all-ness and promise a heaven on earth.

What Do Bungling Firemen Miss?

  • The keynote to the good life is freedom…To pare over-extended government down to its proper role is to maximize liberty…that heavenly power which releases human creativity.
  • When the free and unfettered market prevails, there is a race for excellence.
  • Each of us should do our little creative things and let everyone else–no exceptions–do theirs. These trillions times trillions of little things are, indeed, the seeds of all human progress and are founded on liberty for one and all.

Living with Bungling Firemen

  • We are living under government by unwise men. And the reason is that many of the wise men among us…fail to see what they could and should be doing to limit government to its principled role of keeping the peace with justice to all.
  • The most bothersome, frustrating and destructive of all are the millions of dictocrats who…sincerely believe that it is their duty to solve your and my problems.
  • Ever so many seekers of political office…actually “think” that we know not how to run our lives; but they never doubt that we are wise enough to select them as our masters!
  • Limiting bungling firemen
  • Individual liberty depends on the general observance of the principle of equality before the law.
  • Liberty and justice are inseparably associated.
  • An ideal government…is where no one “rules” another! Government is an agency of defense…keeping the peace and invoking a common justice. Period!
  • What, in all good conscience, should be inhibited? The moral codes give the answer: fraud, violence, misrepresentation–thou shalt not steal or kill or do any evil. And government cannot perform this role when over-stepping its proper bounds.

In millions of words over many decades, Leonard Read spent his life trying to “advance freedom by an improved phrasing of its truths.” Those efforts yield those of us who wish to advance freedom today much wisdom, in small as well as large ways. Seeds of Progress is just one example of how even a small investment can yield us substantial returns to that project.

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