Three years ago, I became the editor of the Freeman and FEE.org. That meant I would have to run with a torch that had been set alight by the likes of Frank Chodorov and Albert Jay Nock in the 1930s. I was to be the steward in a line that includes names like Henry Hazlitt, Paul Poirot, and Sheldon Richman. I had to honor that line, for surely some great mind would be watching from the firmament.
But to leave a trace, I would have to take some chances. And as I spend my last couple of days as editor at FEE, I want to reflect on my experiences and share my reflections with you.
There is more to freedom than policy, and more to life than politics.
Editing requires you to embrace contradictions: you are a humble dictator, a surgeon artist, an entertaining didact. Ultimately, you are taking the product of someone’s heart and mind and putting it on display, so you’d better handle it with care. Some days you are more careful than others, of course, but you have a responsibility to make connections between writers and readers.
Every editor has motivations that animate everyday work. Call them what you like — filters, biases, loves, aspirations, or rules — they’re like angels (or devils) on one’s shoulder. Whatever you call them, they are integral to the craft. To be an editor is to be a curator of perspectives. Still, every editor has biases.
During my time at FEE, I can think of at least 10 biases I brought to my work — both in what I wrote and in my editorial filters. I want to share them with you.
- Principles are just a start. Don’t harm others; people ought to engage in any activity that’s peaceful; respect the equal rights of all people. These are all fine guidelines, but they are not a bludgeon. They cannot provide for what makes an article interesting, nor can they by themselves make the case for human freedom.
- Skepticism is healthy. Our tradition is just as much about skepticism in the face of power and claims to knowledge as it is about how we ought to live or how society is to be arranged. The former kinds of questions yield answers that inform the latter.
- Thinking is nonlinear. Sometimes our worldview is strengthened and expressed more effectively in how well our premises cohere, not just in being able to make arguments in a line from a single axiom. Forming and shoring up our worldview requires daily interaction with different angles and various perspectives, the totality of which is an ecosystem of thought.
- People emphasize different values. Maybe you start with the axiom of not harming others. To violate that principle is taboo. To respect it is totemic. But imagine that there are others who begin not with that principle, but with the idea that the most vulnerable people in society ought to be cared for, or that loyalty to country comes first. Are they wrong, or are they just starting from a different place? To persuade is to communicate across values, across different ideological starting points.
- There is more to freedom than policy, and more to life than politics. Ideas have staying power. Innovations change incentives. Policy and politics are necessary evils at best. They are devoid of creativity and are almost always impediments to making the world a better place. If public choice theory has taught us anything, it’s that policy and politics are where most of our ideals go to die.
- Ideas are not consumer products. Ideas don’t start out as raw materials that get transformed in stepwise fashion like a widget on an assembly line. They are not to be consumed by some end user. Ideas are more like viruses or DNA. They are transmitted in unpredictable ways, through networks of people engaged in an evolutionary discovery process with strange, 21st-century feedback loops.
- Beauty is persuasive. Good writing and compelling imagery can be their own reward. So the first job of an editor — and of a writer — is to delight readers. They will never be delighted if they never click. And they are not likely to be edified if they are bored by the second paragraph.
- Innovation can change institutions. Excessive focus on economics and politics has impeded the freedom project. These subjects are important, but creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship are as important or more so: they drive social change.
- Movements are built on optimism. If all you know how to do is hate the state or criticize bad policies, you can find an audience, but you haven’t laid the foundation for a movement. Movements are built on possibilities — on the realization of human potential or in the idea of contributing to something bigger. Movements are built on good ideas, it’s true. But they run on nourishment for the spirit.
- Humanity is just warming up. It is a magnificent time to be alive. All you have to do is open your eyes to see not only that the world is getting better but that no government on earth — despite all the missiles and spies and guns and jails — can hold down a determined people armed with good ideas and big dreams.
I’m sure I have more than 10 biases, but these have certainly animated my work. I hope those who come after me find them useful.
Through Readers’ Eyes
To persuade is to communicate across values, across different ideological starting points.
Empathize with readers or fail. Some days you fail utterly. Other days a piece will catch fire and you can watch the minds light up, minute by minute, until thousands are reading. You are helping to move human souls, and that’s quite a power to have in your hands.
Share counts and traffic are applause. Acting as a kind of impresario, you have to step out of the limelight and let the writers shine. Can you help them reflect better versions of themselves without offending their sensibilities? Your readers must read. Can you help your readers find delight and wonder and take their medicine, all at once? Your donors must smile. Can you appeal to the free spirits of youth without offending those who’ve been reading since 1973?
Now that I’m embarking on new adventures, I hope I have left some influence on this place. Daniel Bier and B.K. Marcus will be taking the editorial reins. Each publishing day they’ll be engaged in an iteration game, but these guys have the chops and the passion to take FEE to the next level.
A Torch Passing
It was my honor and my pleasure to carry the torch since October 2012. Now, as I pass it on, I can see only a brighter future for FEE.
To all those readers and contributors who have supported me, I want to express my sincerest thanks.
To the leaders who bet on me early on and believed in me throughout — Larry Reed and Carl Oberg — thank you for your support.
To the colleagues who have labored in the trenches with me — Chuck Grimmett, Michael Nolan, B.K. Marcus, and Daniel Bier — I wish you the very best.
To those who have been both mentors and friends — Jeffrey Tucker, Richard Lorenc, and Wayne Olson — the best is yet to come.
“The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible,” writes popular science author and media theorist Steven B. Johnson, “is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.” Here’s to new combinations.
I will continue to be a voice for FEE as a writer, and I hope this place will always be a home. For those readers out there who are turning a critical eye to what comes next, I say: expect big things from FEE.
If I leave nothing else, I leave an open doorway.