All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 1996

Perspective: An Affirming Flame

For half a century, the Foundation for Economic Education has devoted itself to studying and explaining the principles that underlie a free society, striving to make its message accessible to people from all walks of life.

Those who assume (often automatically) that America is still the model of a free society, might view fifty years of freedom talk as pointless pondering. But others, who comprehend just how far down the socialist path Americans have walked, admire FEE as a champion in the intellectual fight to renew liberty. The seven trustees who founded FEE in 1946 correctly anticipated in their original prospectus that those most interested in FEE’s activities would “have no doubts about the decline of economic liberty in America. Coercion is being rapidly substituted for voluntary enterprise. Collectivism is displacing individualism.”

By the 1940s, this shift in ideas had marked a critical point in world history. In the United States, the last bulwark of freedom, an understanding of the ideological heritage that yielded the most prosperous country ever was quickly fading as people sanctioned government solutions and political programs to guarantee the good life. In bold contrast, a solitary FEE embarked upon its mission, and emerged as more than an educational organization.

FEE and its founder, Leonard E. Read, would come to occupy a special place in the hearts of many “students of liberty” who, before discovering this wellspring of inspiration and comfort, felt isolated in their thinking. The late Benjamin Rogge referred to Read’s FEE as “an island of sanity in an increasingly insane world” and an institution that merited total appreciation for burning “a brilliant and never-failing and affirming flame.” In rallying freedom’s thought leaders and emulators, FEE fashioned the basic fabric of the modern libertarian movement.

To say that FEE is the “granddaddy” of pro-freedom think-tanks has practically become a cliché—but true nevertheless. Leonard Read was the first to react in an effective, organized way to the rise of collectivism and statism in twentieth-century America. He imbued his institution with a style that was to become a trademark—focusing on ideas rather than personalities, searching for truth rather than compromise, and educating self rather than reforming others. FEE’s example encouraged the establishment of similar organizations not only in this country but the world over. FEE continues to serve a vital role in the revival of classical liberalism.

Attempting to distill the essence of such an organization’s half-century of activities into a single publication would be challenging (if not foolhardy). Nonetheless, this issue of The Freeman, the banner publication for the last forty of FEE’s fifty years, commemorates the golden anniversary of the Foundation for Economic Education. It is dedicated to Leonard Read and the writers, speakers, editors, staff, trustees, and students who have devoted themselves to FEE’s operations or graced the pages of its publications.

Our special issue opens by revisiting the idea that has captured the fancy of world populations and prompted the forming of FEE—socialism in all its versions. Subsequent articles survey trends in collectivist variants found in the United States—welfarism (and its massive costs), democratic statism, government schooling, civil rights legislation, environmental regulation, compulsory unionism, and central banking.

Classic reprints by Leonard Read and Ludwig von Mises illustrate the importance of free markets. We also hear about the resurgence in Austrian Economics, and three authors whose impact on libertarianism was made through the popular press.

In a special series of articles FEE staff members and associates reflect on the Foundation’s past and future, its founder, and the development of a literature of freedom—abundant today but scarce at FEE’s founding. Current president Hans F. Sennholz advises that FEE’s mission is more urgent than ever. Despite the collapse of socialist economies, the United States may be weaker today in the spiritual and moral antecedents of a free society as socialist values live on in the minds of many Americans under various labels.

Finally, the spirit of FEE’s golden jubilee could not have been captured without hearing directly from people who have been inspired by FEE. They speak for themselves as their stories and expressions of gratitude are quoted throughout this issue.

—Mark Spangler, Guest Editor

Beth A. Hoffman, Managing Editor