All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 1996

FEE: A Lighthouse for Freedom

Lawrence W. Reed, economist and author, is president of The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market research and educational organization headquartered in Midland, Michigan.

When G. K. Chesterton was asked why there were no statues in England to commemorate the influence there of the Romans, he answered, “Are we not all statues to the Romans?” In a very real way, statues to the Foundation for Economic Education are everywhere—in the form of people and institutions that seek to advance ideas nurtured for years by FEE when those ideas were not popular.

Yes, ideas do indeed have consequences—more powerful and longlasting than appearances on the surface might suggest. FEE’s work provides ample proof.

I manage an influential organization in Michigan known as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Often termed a “think- tank,” we advance a distinctive “free-market” perspective on a range of economic issues of concern to the people of our state. Starting with a staff of two and a budget of $80,000 in 1988, the center now employs 14 full-time individuals on a budget well over a million dollars. Friend and foe alike frequently acknowledge the great impact of our work and that of a growing number of similar organizations in other states. We are changing the climate of public opinion, state by state, by the sheer force of persuasive argumentation.

In no small measure, the success of groups like the Mackinac Center can be linked to the inspiration of the Foundation for Economic Education. I am one of countless people who support or are associated with free-market organizations that trace their roots to FEE, The Freeman, and Leonard Read. Back in the days when FEE kept freedom’s candle lit in a night of statist darkness, we were devouring whatever came forth from the venerable scholars in Irvington-on-Hudson. And what a cornucopia it has been—articles, monographs, books, speeches, seminars—all that freedom’s partisans on the cusp of ideological revolution could hope for from a single organization!

FEE’s work has been, and continues to be, of great importance to groups like mine precisely because of the uniqueness that has defined FEE since its inception. It does not lobby legislatures. It does not advise governments on how to do their business more efficiently. It does not tinker at the margins of reform. Rather FEE’s work is that of an intellectual lighthouse; it illuminates broad principles, focusing light on the ideal. The rest of us who work to change laws and policies fill in the blanks as freedom’s light shines brightly over our shoulders.

Sam Staley, Vice President for Research at the highly acclaimed Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Dayton, Ohio, cut his intellectual teeth on FEE’s publications and seminars. He sees FEE’s contributions this way:

FEE was one of the first organizations that developed a complete program around communicating the concepts of classical liberalism—free markets, limited government, individual rights, and respect for civil liberties—to a non-academic audience. Its mission was broad: FEE didn’t focus only on a small audience of academics or inside-the-beltway policy insiders. It published a journal that used a principled, yet accessible style to widely disseminate the ideas essential to the functioning of a free society. I am convinced that FEE’s example laid important ground work for the now burgeoning think-tank movement in the United States and abroad.

The Mackinac Center in Michigan, the Buckeye Institute in Ohio, the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, and some two dozen other state-based organizations work daily to stimulate private initiatives and tear down barriers to progress erected by governments. We are constantly tantalized by compromise and expediency. The temptation to get along with the politicians, to settle for something less than what’s right, comes with the territory. Without a lighthouse like FEE to remind us of the noble and enduring principles that attracted us to this movement in the first place, we might degenerate into a gaggle of “better government” groups.

The Higher Plane

FEE and The Freeman remind us that there is a higher plane of human interaction than good intentions backed by the force of the state. That higher plane is the peaceful, voluntary context in which enlightened citizens who respect life and property choose to associate. As for me, I find myself asking this question of almost everything my organization produces: “Does it meet the highest standards for advancing the cause of liberty?” Or as the late Leonard Read himself would ask, “Does it leak?”

Largely because the persona of FEE’s founder, Leonard Read, is so firmly embedded in the organization, FEE is more than a publisher of books and articles and a sponsor of seminars. It is an organization with a distinctive style, approach, attitude, and demeanor, that freedom advocates find compellingly attractive.

FEE champions ideas, not personalities. Once that is understood, new avenues for persuasion open up. The most fruitful way to advance liberty is rarely to assail the intelligence or the motives of those who believe another way. Focusing on ideas and appealing to reason are much less likely to provoke hostility. That approach, seasoned with patience and a smile, is a vital ingredient in FEE’s recipe for winning minds and hearts for liberty.

FEE promotes self-improvement in place of a condescending know-it-all attitude. If you want to be a missionary for liberty, to be vaguely familiar or generally sympathetic with the concept is not enough. Success at convincing others requires attention to the attractive qualities of a well-rounded individual. Be as good as you can possibly be, Read used to say, and others will seek your tutelage.

I think I also absorbed from FEE a sense of eternal optimism. No matter the turn of events in the short term, people inspired by FEE’s work almost always look to the future with great hope. I have never met a regular reader of The Freeman who despaired or felt the urge to give up and “let history take its course.” The reasons for this are obvious: FEE believes that ideas rule the world and that individuals can indeed alter the course of events by influencing ideas. Moreover, FEE promotes the freedom idea in a fashion that appeals to the loftiest instincts and ideals humans possess, thereby inspiring devotees to carry forth the message. Lights go on, not out, when you read The Freeman or hear a lecture by a FEE speaker.

The FEE recipe for advancing liberty lives on in the organization itself and in many others like mine. On this occasion of the Foundation’s anniversary, many of us will be celebrating not only the last fifty years, but the next fifty as well. We know, beyond any shadow of doubt, with every assurance that success breeds success, that FEE’s light will lead us to a freer tomorrow.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is