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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Brad Polumbo: Reflecting on My FEE Journey

From young reactionary to principled messenger for liberty.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Most people don’t know the story of how I came to the liberty movement. I started out as a pretty non-political college student. I went to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, not out of any particular drive toward activism or politics but simply because it was the best public university that I could actually afford to attend. I didn’t know it at the time, but it also happened to be a far-left echo chamber dominated by social progressivism and economic Marxism.

I don’t say “Marxist” here as a pejorative. I didn’t know it at the time, because I simply signed up for the major that interested me the most, but UMass Amherst is actually home to the only openly-Marxist economics department in the United States. I had professors who praised the Soviet Union, described the New York Times as a “center-right” publication, and derided Bernie Sanders as an establishment moderate. (Yes, seriously.)

Meanwhile, the campus was dominated by a loud minority about as far-left on social issues as one can imagine. We had “free speech zones,” a single designated area on campus where one was allowed to protest only at certain times on certain days of the week. The public campus was a Second-Amendment-free zone, but trigger warnings were commonplace, meant to warn students who might find lecture or discussion material potentially offensive. For goodness sakes, halfway through my time at UMass, they elected a student body president who was affiliated with Antifa!

I entered all of this without a firmly-rooted ideology or clear political principles. I quickly realized that all of this far-left extremism, be it anti-capitalist dogma or hard-left social justice, was simply not for me. Yet I was left wrangling with an internal question. I knew what wasn’t for me—but what, exactly, did I believe?

I didn’t grow up religious. And, around the same time, I was coming to grips with the reality that I was gay. All this meant that traditionalist social conservatism felt foreign to me. I never had any interest in an ideology that would impose morality on others—I agreed with my “woke” classmates on this much, at least, until I realized that they simply wanted to impose their own moral worldview. This was also around the same time that Donald Trump was ascending to political prominence. I was always alienated by his brash persona and found some of his economic policies, on issues like trade, too eerily similar to the progressives’ whose ideology repulsed me.

Like millions of other Americans, I found myself drawn to the Libertarian Party’s 2016 presidential nominee, Gary Johnson. He was a flawed messenger of liberty, to be sure, but he still seemed to be the only one making any sense at that time. Was I a libertarian?

I wasn’t even sure what that meant. It was around that time that I first discovered FEE.org, our website here at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). My initial interaction with FEE’s work was minimal, a few articles here and there, but they gave me a grounding in the economic ideas that simply were overlooked or derided in my actual university’s economic coursework.

When I went on to work at the Washington Examiner after college, I took some of these ideas with me. But I was still largely engaging in political journalism and commentary at a surface level. After my fellowship at the Examiner ended in the summer of 2020, I was looking for work and connected with FEE. I initially joined FEE part-time as a Thorpe fellow. For the first time, I was exposed to the true ideas of liberty.

I read Milton Friedman for the first time, Free to Choose, Capitalism and Freedom, and more. I read Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell, Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, and works by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. At the same time that I was being exposed to these ideas, I saw them playing out in the real-world in overdrive amid the disastrous response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hayek’s prescient warnings about the abuses of “emergency powers” came to life as the CDC commandeered the national rental market, governments locked people in their homes, schools were closed by force, and so, so much more. Friedman’s poignant philosophizing about the inherent inefficiency of government spending came to life as the feds wasted hundreds of billions of dollars on disastrous, fraud-rife “stimulus” programs—and only managed to “stimulate” 40-year-high inflation.

And so, so much more.

In my personal work and career, I reached new highs during this time with FEE. I testified before the US Senate, appeared countless times on Fox News and Fox Business—and even Dr. Phil!— and made my debut in national publications like Newsweek and the New York Post. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my time at FEE corresponded with me hitting new heights. Yes, I naturally grew as a writer and a personality, but I also gained a new depth of principle and perspective through FEE’s educational approach that elevated my work to new levels.

Friday will be my last day at FEE. I am shifting to focus on new projects including my Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship and my new independent media project, BASEDPolitics. But I will take the lessons and principles I’ve learned during my time here into all the future work I do to advocate for, in the immortal words of FEE founder Leonard Read, “anything peaceful.”

A special thank you to Dan Sanchez and Jon Miltimore for their guidance, mentorship, and support over the last two years.