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Freeman Essay #10: “The Unique Role of FEE”

I took over the reins of the Foundation for Economic Education in June 1997.  Below the fold is my inaugural Freeman essay – in the June 1997 issue – as president of that venerable institution.

Succeeding Hans Sennholz as president of FEE is humbling enough, but attempting to fill shoes once worn by Leonard Read is downright intimidating. Leonard Read was one of this century’s most eloquent and passionate champions of liberty, whose writings continue to inspire me—as they have inspired so many others for the past half-century or so. (I dare not try to count the number of times I’ve begun a lecture with the marvelous story told in “I Pencil.”)

I cannot begin to express my gratitude to FEE’s Board for trusting me to meet the challenge of continuing Leonard Read’s mission. I can only say that this challenge is one that I will strive to meet with every ounce of my energies.

When founded in 1946, FEE stood alone as an advocate of free markets and strictly limited government. Today, much to Leonard Read’s credit, FEE is one among dozens of foundations dedicated to maintaining a free and open society. Such a proliferation of classical-liberal foundations might seem to place FEE at a disadvantage. With all the fine work done today by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Reason Foundation, Liberty Fund, the Political Economy Research Center, the Institute for Humane Studies, the Independent Institute, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and other members of the State Policy Network, and the many other such “think tanks,” what role remains for FEE to perform?

Is FEE destined to become a victim of its own success in promoting classical-liberal ideas?

My answer is a resounding “No!” I would never have accepted the task assigned to me were I not convinced that FEE does indeed have a unique and important role to play as we enter the 21st century. Before identifying that role, let me clarify what FEE is not.

FEE is not a policy advocate. The job of analyzing and explaining policies consistent with liberty belongs to Cato, CEI, the Institute for Justice, and similar organizations. These organizations do a superb job alerting politicians, bureaucrats, judges, and business leaders to the details of sound alternatives to statist “solutions” for various real and imagined social ills.

FEE is not a surrogate graduate school aiming directly to expand the frontiers of academic research. The Institute for Humane Studies, the Center for Study of Public Choice, and other academic centers excel at identifying promising intellects and encouraging talented individuals to produce top-quality research.

FEE is emphatically not partisan. For both practical and ideological reasons, FEE supports no political party or candidate. Indeed, FEE’s premier goal is a depoliticized society. FEE would be hypocritical in the extreme if it were aligned with any political party or group of candidates. FEE—which lives by the motto “Ideas Have Consequences”—proudly stands apart from politics, recognizing that partisanship is the natural nemesis of truth.

FEE’s immediate charge is continually to educate people in the moral and intellectual principles of liberty. And while FEE reaches out to all people, special effort must be directed toward the young—for it is the young who search most fervently for moral and intellectual guidance. By directing many of our efforts at high-school students and college undergraduates, we not only earn a long-term payoff from our successes—20 year olds will live for an additional 60 years or longer—but we tap the impressive energies that young people bring to matters about which they are passionate. One fact I’ve learned from teaching at the university level since 1982 is that young people who are exposed to the intellectual case for the free society quickly see the truth in these ideas and appreciate the immeasurable moral superiority that a depoliticized society enjoys over a politicized one.

FEE’s ultimate goal is to remove the burden of proof from those who oppose government intervention and to place this burden where it belongs—namely, upon those who endorse political means. Although today’s intellectual climate is more hospitable to free-market ideas than it was in 1946, the burden of proving our case remains on those of us who oppose political means. The popular mind is distressingly oblivious to the amazing capacities of a free people to create all manner of institutions that promote peaceful and productive cooperation under myriad circumstances. Too many people still impulsively believe that government should commandeer tax dollars to pay for, say, flood relief and scientific research; too many people impulsively believe that government health and safety regulations are worthwhile; too many people impulsively believe that discretionary government control over the money supply is necessary . . . the list goes on and on. In short, too many people continue mistakenly to believe that government coercion is generally superior to voluntary exchange and interaction as a means of engendering civil society.

Because we proponents of a depoliticized, private-property-based society still bear the burden of proving our case against political action, policy-oriented think tanks such as Cato and PERC must struggle ceaselessly to hold back the tide of the Leviathan state. To the extent that FEE succeeds in shifting the burden of proof to advocates of active government, the work of free-market policy shops will be much more effective.

Through The Freeman, through our op-ed distribution program, through our seminars, and through our various outreach programs, FEE complements our sister free-market foundations. FEE’s efforts to spread widely the timeless truths of fundamental economics and the principles of liberty work as a lever for organizations at other stages in the educational process. By changing the underlying presumptions and attitudes held by most citizens—by making people generally more receptive to private property and free markets—FEE helps to fashion an intellectual and political climate that is much more congenial to policies that promote individual liberty.

Again, the single most effective means of re-establishing the primacy of classical-liberal ideas is to introduce these principles to young people. We must be aware that competition for the attention—and for the hearts and minds—of the young is today more intense than ever. I will do my very best to ensure not only that FEE’s message remains true to Leonard Read’s ideals, but also to his insistence that these ideals be conveyed clearly, crisply, and creatively.