(Editor’s note: On Sept. 1, Lawrence W. Reed will assume the presidency of the Foundation for Economic Education and become president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which he has guided since its inception in 1988. This is an updated version of an article Reed wrote for the May 1996 issue of "The Freeman," FEE’s monthly journal, in commemoration of the foundation’s 50th anniversary.)
When G. K. Chesterton was asked why there were no statues in England to commemorate the influence there of the Romans, he answered, "Are we not all statues to the Romans?" In a very real way, statues to the Foundation for Economic Education are everywhere, in the form of people and institutions seeking to advance ideas nurtured for years by FEE; nurtured even when those ideas were not popular.
Yes, ideas do indeed have consequences — more powerful and long-lasting than appearances on the surface might suggest. FEE’s work provides ample proof.
I am one of countless people who trace their roots to FEE, "The Freeman" and Leonard Read. Back in the days when FEE kept freedom’s candle lit in a night of statist darkness, we were devouring whatever came forth from the venerable scholars in Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y. And what a cornucopia it has been — articles, monographs, books, speeches, seminars — all that freedom’s partisans on the cusp of ideological revolution could hope for from a single organization!
FEE’s work has been, and continues to be, of great importance precisely because of the uniqueness that has defined FEE since its inception. It does not lobby legislatures. It does not advise governments on how to do their business more efficiently. It does not tinker at the margins of reform. Rather, FEE’s work is that of an intellectual lighthouse; it illuminates broad principles, focusing light on the ideal. The rest of us who work to change laws and policies fill in the blanks as freedom’s light shines brightly over our shoulders.
Sam Staley, director of urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation, cut his intellectual teeth on FEE’s publications and seminars. He sees FEE’s contributions this way:
FEE was one of the first organizations that developed a complete program around communicating the concepts of classical liberalism — free markets, limited government, individual rights, and respect for civil liberties — to a non-academic audience. Its mission was broad: FEE didn’t focus only on a small audience of academics or inside-the-beltway policy insiders. It published a journal that used a principled, yet accessible style to widely disseminate the ideas essential to the functioning of a free society. I am convinced that FEE’s example laid important ground work for the now burgeoning think-tank movement in the United States and abroad.
The Mackinac Center in Michigan, the Buckeye Institute in Ohio, the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, and dozens of other state-based organizations work daily to stimulate private initiatives and tear down barriers to progress erected by governments. As the president of the Mackinac Center, I have come to know firsthand that policy organizations are constantly tantalized by compromise and expediency. The temptation to get along with the politicians, to settle for something less than what’s right, comes with the territory. Without a lighthouse like FEE reminding us of the noble and enduring principles that attracted us to this movement in the first place, we might have degenerated into a gaggle of "better government" groups.
FEE and "The Freeman" remind us that there is a higher plane of human interaction than good intentions backed by the force of the state. That higher plane is the peaceful, voluntary context in which enlightened citizens who respect life and property choose to associate. I have found myself asking this question of almost everything the Mackinac Center produces: "Does it meet the highest standards for advancing the cause of liberty?" Or as the late Leonard Read himself would ask, "Does it leak?"
Largely because the persona of FEE’s founder, Leonard Read, is so firmly embedded in the organization, FEE is more than a publisher of books and articles and a sponsor of seminars. It is an organization with a distinctive style, approach, attitude and demeanor that freedom advocates find compellingly attractive.
FEE champions ideas, not personalities. Once that is understood, new avenues for persuasion open up. The most fruitful way to advance liberty is rarely to assail the intelligence or the motives of those who believe another way. Focusing on ideas and appealing to reason are much less likely to provoke hostility. That approach, seasoned with patience and a smile, is a vital ingredient in FEE’s recipe for winning minds and hearts for liberty.
FEE promotes self-improvement in place of a condescending know-it-all attitude. If you want to be a missionary for liberty, to be vaguely familiar or generally sympathetic with the concept is not enough. Success at convincing others requires attention to the attractive qualities of a well-rounded individual. Be as good as you can possibly be, Read used to say, and others will seek your tutelage.
I think I also absorbed from FEE a sense of eternal optimism. No matter the turn of events in the short term, people inspired by FEE’s work almost always look to the future with great hope. I have never met a regular reader of "The Freeman" who despaired or felt the urge to give up and "let history take its course." The reasons for this are obvious: FEE believes that ideas rule the world and that individuals can indeed alter the course of events by influencing ideas. Moreover, FEE promotes the freedom idea in a fashion that appeals to the loftiest instincts and ideals humans possess, thereby inspiring devotees to carry forth the message. Lights go on, not out, when you read their work or hear a lecture by a FEE speaker.
The FEE recipe for advancing liberty lives on in the organization itself and in many others. On this occasion of the Foundation’s anniversary, many of us will be celebrating not only the last 50 years, but the next 50 as well. We know, beyond any shadow of doubt, with every assurance that success breeds success, that FEE’s light will lead us to a freer tomorrow.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.