When Leonard Read, a Chamber of Commerce executive from Los Angeles, set out to launch The Foundation for Economic Education in March of 1946, the world was facing tremendous problems of readjustment and recovery from the upheavals of World War II. The country was suffering from persistent, ugly confrontation between labor and management, from vacillating governmental policies on price controls, and incredible food shortages resulting from the price controls over meat, sugar, and cereal. For most of the year the Office of Price Administration (OPA) was controlling more than four-fifths of industrial production through its 68,000 inspectors and agents. And thousands of businessmen were facing criminal charges in the courts and press for having violated OPA orders.
Socialism was reigning supreme in all parts of the world. Surely, its nationalistic version, fascism, had been crushed by allied forces, but its two blood relatives, Soviet communism and democratic socialism, were alive and well. In the United States, capitalism was commonly blamed for depression and unemployment and condemned for intolerable economic and social inequality. The 68,000 federal inspectors were the vanguard of a new social and economic order.
The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) was meant to be an intellectual fort of resistance and, hopefully, a rallying point for this country to re-establish the enduring principles on which it was founded. The FEE plan was a great design, the restoration of an order of freedom and harmony. Leonard Read surrounded himself with half a dozen scholars and journalists, men and women of excellence, seekers of knowledge, and students of liberty. Most of them spent a few years with FEE and then moved on to other important pursuits in industry and education. Some were to become famous educators, captains of industry, and founders of enterprise. One of the most eminent scholars was Professor F. A. Harper, who subsequently was to found a think tank of his own, The Institute for Humane Studies in Menlo Park, California, now in Fairfax, Virginia. Another was George C. Roche III, who was to lead Hillsdale College to new heights of leadership and educational service. A few scholars stayed on and dedicated their productive lives to the noble tasks of the Foundation. Paul Poirot was to edit The Freeman for thirty-one years; W. M. Curtiss was to direct the business affairs of FEE for 27 years, Robert G. Anderson for 19 years. Bettina Bien Greaves was to reach out to school children of all ages, and the Reverend Edmund A. Opitz was to explore the moral and spiritual foundations of liberty. There was unassuming greatness in their dedication and will, their faith and moral strength.
The Foundation was guided and assisted by two great men who will be remembered and cited for centuries to come: the dean of Austrian economics, Ludwig von Mises, and the illustrious journalist, Henry Hazlitt. Mises served as advisor until his death in 1973, at the age of 92, and Hazlitt served as one of the seven founders who met on March 7, 1946, for the inaugural meeting. He remained on the Board of Trustees until his passing in 1993, at the age of 98.
Throughout the decades, FEE was ably supported and greatly encouraged by men of finance, commerce, industry, and the professions. Some of them joined the Board of Trustees, meeting regularly and supervising not only the business affairs of the organization but also its educational work. But most supporters, some 10,000 to 20,000 strong, consist of two kinds of people: those who subscribe to The Freeman and purchase its books and services and those who make voluntary donations.
The buyers who subscribe to FEE’s celebrated monthly journal, The Freeman, are probably the staunchest friends of FEE. They identify with the journal because it makes the spiritual, moral, and rational case for liberty. Standing far above the fray of politics, it emphasizes ideas rather than party programs and political agendas, prescriptions for public policy, and government edicts. It never argues ad hominem or denigrates other peoples’ motives with wit, sarcasm, and ridicule.
The buyers may also avail themselves of more than one hundred books and booklets published by FEE and another three hundred titles stocked and shipped by FEE to all corners of the world. Or they may attend a seminar, a round-table discussion, or a summer school. They all support FEE by being FEE customers.
Throughout the decades the Foundation has reached and touched millions of individuals with its freedom message. When there were no other voices defending the free society, The Freeman spoke clearly and convincingly. Its ideas and arguments influenced and guided countless millions around the world. For five decades, FEE has been the Rock of Gibraltar of sound economics and moral principle, of devotion to individual freedom and the private property order, in a turbulent and dangerous world. No one can know the intellectual effect and end result of its labors, but we do believe that conditions have improved immeasurably during the life of FEE and that FEE has contributed its part to the improvement. World communism has disintegrated under the weight of its miscreation and inhumanity, and socialism in all its colors and designs is in full retreat.
No matter how we may want to compare the political, social, and economic situation in 1946 with that of today, half a century later, we believe that economic knowledge has advanced visibly and that conditions are on the mend. Surely, the voice of political power and bureaucratic control continues to be heard in the halls of Congress, in the press, and in the U.N., but it no longer dominates the American scene. The American people of the 1990s seem to be more knowledgeable in social matters and wiser in the affairs of the political world than their forebears in the 1940s. They may have learned what had to be unlearned.
Hans F. Sennholz