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Strategic Notes from FEE—Seeing is Believing

June 2014

Dear Friend of FEE,

When a student encounters a new idea or proposition about the world, before considering the question—“Do I believe this?”—he or she needs to see it in the mind’s eye.

The economic, ethical and legal principles of a free society are not visible phenomena. If it’s true that seeing is believing, this invisibility presents a challenge to an organization with “economic education” in its name.

Our first goal with newcomers is not to sell them on free-market ideas. Job One is to show that our ideas correspond to life in the real world. We seek to enable our students to see the principles of economics in action when they observe everyday occurrences. Only then are they prepared to believe that the free market can produce miraculous outcomes.

After an introductory class in physics, students should see that water can change form to a solid or a gas, depending on the temperature, get the underlying principle and be prepared to believe that rocks can melt. After a FEE seminar, students should be able to see clearly that incentives matter as much in government regulation as they do under laissez-faire, and be prepared to believe that liberalized markets are better at curing poverty than government programs that claim such a goal.

A fair description of our teaching method for any economic, ethical or legal principle is “Show, Explain, Ask,” that is, “Show first, then give a little explanation, then ask students to identify other examples from their own observation and give their own explanation.”

To show ideas means to wrap the didactics within a framework of narrative, setting and character. The most famous example of this approach is the essay “I, Pencil” by FEE’s founder Leonard Read.

First, Read shows us vivid descriptions of real people engaged in labor, investment and trading in all sorts of exotic places, culminating in the production of a pencil. Only then does he discuss the underlying ideas that he’s focused on—the dispersion of knowledge and the spontaneous order that emerges to coordinate production in a global marketplace, without any central planning.

Spontaneous order is one of a dozen or so principles that, collectively, are the lenses that will enable students to see economic forces at work in everyday phenomena. Over the course of a FEE seminar, whether in-person, on-line or a hybrid of the two, our goal is to enable each student to see all of these basic economic, ethical and legal principles in action and recognize them in their own subsequent experience.

Once students see for themselves how these principles are manifested in life as they observe it, only then will they accept the validity of these ideas and be prepared to believe their extraordinary implications.

I invite you to learn more about our strategy and the impact we are making together by joining me at FEE’s Annual Retreat 2015, entitled “Investing in Freedom’s Next Generation,” from January 30 to February 1, 2015 at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point in Bonita Springs, Florida. Registration is now open at You’ll meet some of the amazing leaders who have gone through our programs and connect with supporters and alumni from around the world.

As always, please do not hesitate to contact me at [email protected] with any comments or questions.


Wayne Olson
Executive Director
Wayne Olson
Wayne Olson

Wayne Olson is the executive director of the Foundation for Economic Education. He previously served for six years as the chairman of FEE’s board of trustees.