We are living in dark times. The leviathan state has cast its shadow over the world, leaving economic devastation, war, and civil strife in the wake of its rampage. The light of liberty seems barely a flicker, on the verge of being extinguished.
Yet, never underestimate the power that even the smallest of lights can have against the darkness.
That was the message our founder Leonard E. Read delivered many times over in his famous candle presentation.
At the end of every FEE seminar, Read would turn out the lights in the lecture hall and turn on an electric candle, dimmed to its lowest wattage. The little light, engulfed by so much darkness, would look hopelessly overwhelmed.
But looks can be deceiving.
“What then,” he would ask, “is the purpose of this wee candle? Well, maybe there’s just enough light for one standing right here to find and light his own candle… Those two may make it possible for a few others right nearby to find and light their own candles, and it might go on until everybody in this room has lit their candles…” (This is a direct quote, transcribed from a recording of one of Read’s talks available on YouTube.)
A single candle can spark a brushfire of enlightenment, and, as Read pointed out, the surrounding darkness is powerless to stop it.
In the same way, even amid pervasive ignorance of and disdain for liberty, one person who understands the truth can, by sharing his understanding with others, kick off a chain reaction of learning and a resurgence of liberty.
This may seem naively optimistic, but Read was speaking from experience.
Leonard Read lived through dark times, too. One would be hard pressed to find a year more dismal than 1933. That year began inauspiciously with Adolf Hitler becoming Chancellor of Germany. It was also the second year of the Holodomor Terror-Famine that the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin inflicted on Ukraine, killing millions.
And in America, 1933 was the worst year of the Great Depression and the first year of the New Deal. An economic disaster caused by interventionist government policies was met by even greater government intervention, which only did more damage. Sound familiar?
Anti-freedom ideologies—Communism, Nazism, and New Dealism—were ascendant. Central planning was widely considered the wave of the future, and the ideas of liberty that had emancipated and enriched the West were disregarded as obsolete relics of the past.
Even Leonard Read was no exception to the interventionist zeitgeist. In 1933, Read was a loyal New Dealer, enforcing the party line among the business community as a high-ranking official in the US Chamber of Commerce. He caught wind of a corporate executive who had been openly critical of the National Recovery Administration: William Mullendore, Executive Vice President of Southern California Edison Co. So Read paid the dissenter a visit in his office to set him straight.
“At the meeting,” wrote Read’s biographer Mary Sennholz, “Leonard at first expounded the advantages of NIRA to business while William Mullendore listened attentively. But then Bill spoke for an hour, analyzing and refuting, and patiently explaining individual liberty and the private property order. According to Leonard, it was the best explanation he had ever heard.”
Read called the experience a “sudden illumination.” He instantly saw the light that Mullendore had shared with him. Like Paul on the Road to Damascus, the scales fell from his eyes, and the man who walked into that office as an anti-liberty inquisitor walked out as one of liberty’s mightiest apostles. Read promptly began using his enormous influence as a Chamber official to spread the light of liberty and vigorously oppose the New Deal.
In 1946, after pursuing his new life mission for over a decade, Leonard Read launched an initiative that would light candles in the minds of millions: the Foundation for Economic Education. At the time, big government was still in vogue and liberty was still held in disdain following the economic regimentation of World War II. But the public appreciation of liberty recovered over the decades that followed. And the march toward central planning, while never halted permanently, was slowed and in some vital ways arrested and reversed.
Through its life-changing seminars and its enormously influential publications (FEE’s beloved translation of Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law, Economics in One Lesson by our founding trustee Henry Hazlitt, The Freeman, Read’s own I, Pencil), FEE played a pivotal role in keeping, kindling, and cultivating the light of liberty throughout the second half of the 20th century. American (and thus world) history might have taken a much darker path had it not been for Leonard Read and FEE.
Leonard Read was living proof of his own “candle contagion” theory of social change. His intellectual benefactor Edward Mullendore could not have known what momentous results would ripple from his decision to patiently and generously share his truth with the fellow who came to lecture him about the New Deal. Yet, even in 1933, when the authoritarian darkness was overspreading the earth, Mullendore made the hope-affirming choice to share the light of liberty with the younger man before him, who, as a result, was able to find and light his own candle. And since that younger man happened to be Leonard Read—an incredible cross between an entrepreneur and a sage—he went on to help millions more to do the same. The whole world became brighter as a result.
Now the light of Leonard’s candle has been passed to us. We who understand and love liberty today are inheritors of a legacy of light passed down by men and women who, like Mullendore and Read, chose hope over despair, even in the darkest of times. To honor that legacy, we must emulate their hope. To carry on that tradition, we must pass on that light. That is why, no matter how dark things get, FEE will relentlessly persist in helping as many young people as possible find and light liberty candles of their own. You never know what amazing things any one of them will accomplish.
Never underestimate the power of even a single light to drive back the darkness and illuminate the world.
This essay was originally published in the winter 2022 edition of Notes from FEE.