All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 1996

The Foundation for Economic Education: Success or Failure?

Dr. Rogge (1920-1980) was Dean and Professor of Economics at Wabash College in Indiana and a long-time trustee of FEE. This essay is an adaptation of his remarks at FEE’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebration in 1971.

The question before us is this: Has the Foundation for Economic Education, in its first twenty-five years, succeeded in its mission? Most speakers on such occasions are capable of supplying only one answer to such a question. Tonight, at no extra cost to you, I intend to give you four answers to this question. They are in order: yes, probably no, almost certainly no, and unqualifiedly yes. Are there any questions?

The reason I can give you four answers to this one question is that the phrase, “succeeded in its mission,” is capable of at least four meaningful interpretations, each calling for its own answer.

One possible interpretation is that the mission of any organization, at first instance, is quite simply to survive. That FEE has survived is testified to by our presence here tonight. Nor should any of us think lightly of this accomplishment. Given the general social and economic climate of the immediate postwar period, the survival chances of any organization committed to individual freedom and limited government could well have been described in 1946 as two in number: slim and none.

So much, you might think, for the criterion of mere survival — but survival is not as “mere” as you might think. Never underestimate the significance of the simple fact of the continuing existence of an island of sanity in an increasingly insane world. Whether this sanity can eventually turn the battle is still moot and will be discussed in a moment, but its simple existence is a very present help in time of trouble.

I am reminded of Tolstoy’s description of the role of the Russian commander, Prince Bagration, in the battle of Schon Grabern. Although himself in doubt of the outcome and aware of how little he really knew of the battle’s progress, the Prince stood serene and confident in the view of all, answering each report of the action, whether encouraging or discouraging, with a sonorous, “Very good!” — as if even the local defeats were part of an overall pattern of events that foretold ultimate victory. As Tolstoy put it:

Prince Andrew noticed that . . . though what happened was due to chance and was independent of the commander’s will, his [Bagration’s] presence was very valuable. Officers who approached him with disturbed countenances became calm; soldiers and officers greeted him gaily, grew more cheerful in his presence, and were evidently anxious to display their courage before him.1

As with these soldiers, we grow more cheerful in the presence of FEE and Leonard Read, more anxious to display our limited courage. Believe me, this is something; even though the battle itself were to be already lost, as it well may be, FEE as the island of sanity to which we repair for warmth and comfort, may still be counted a great and significant success.

A second way to evaluate an organization is to examine its chances for survival in the long run. Do we have here an organization so significant and successful that it will live through the centuries (or at least the decades) ahead?

Not only do I answer, “Probably no,” to this question but I add “and I hope not” to that answer. The real danger to an organization of this kind is not that it will simply disappear, but that its form will long survive its soul.

Do not misunderstand me; I am not forecasting an early end to FEE. It is true that even Leonard Read is not immortal, but Read’s leaving will not mean the end of this organization. It will carry on, and for x number of years continue to be a center of strength in the cause of freedom.

But times change, and people change, and institutions change; it is as certain as death itself that sooner or later FEE will be, in spirit, something quite different from what it now is. Moreover, the chances are that that spirit will be significantly alien to the spirit that now moves this organization.

When that day comes, if any of us are still around, let us have the courage and good sense to give FEE a decent burial, rather than yield to a pagan attachment to a body from which the spirit has already fled. The world of organizations is cluttered with deformed and defaming relics of noble causes; let FEE not be one of them.

Turning the Tide

We turn now to a third possible interpretation of success as it relates to the work of FEE. Has FEE succeeded in its mission in the sense of being a part of an action that promises to actually turn the tide of battle in the direction of freedom? My answer to this is, “almost certainly no.”

I offer this not as a criticism of the work of FEE but as what seems to me to be the only realistic appraisal of where the current of events is tending in this world. The situation in this world, as it relates to individual freedom, is almost certain to become much worse, before and if it ever becomes any better. Why must I adopt this apparently defeatist line and on this should-be gladsome occasion in particular?

My own none-too-original analysis of the trend of events tends to bring me into agreement with the many friends and foes of capitalism alike who believe that the odds are very much against the survival of capitalism in the decades immediately ahead of us.

This is not the time or the place for a detailed presentation of the analysis that leads me to this conclusion. Moreover, my thesis has been more cogently reasoned and more ably presented in the works of Schumpeter, Mises, Hayek, Popper, and others.

I offer only the following straws in the wind. First, there is the incredible recrudescence of the most primitive forms of utopianism. Young people (and old) possessed of superior intellectual equipment (as measured by aptitude tests) are every day repeating to me, in one form or another, the chiliastic musings of Marx in his German Ideology:

In communist society, where nobody has an exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.

I am not surprised to find that the young are enchanted by visions of a do-your-own-thing New Jerusalem, complete with almost continuous love-play; after all, even the brightest of the young tend to think largely with the heart and the loins. What shocks me is that supposedly mature scholars either encourage them in their daydreaming or hesitate to bring their schemes to full and vigorous and rational challenge.

Nowhere is this denial of reason, of process, of rational choice more clearly revealed than in the approach of the more demented environmentalists. In one of the best critiques of this approach I know, an article in The Public Interest, the author writes as follows: “Those who call for immediate action and damn the cost, merely because the spiney starfish and furry crab populations are shrinking, are putting an infinite marginal value on these creatures. This strikes a disinterested observer as an overestimate.”2

But the voice of reason is rarely raised and is shouted down by the new romantics (and the new barbarians) as soon as it is raised.

Lady Chatterley’s lover, once a hero of the young and the teachers of English literature for his sexual acrobatics, is now their hero as the man who said, “It’s a shame, what’s been done to people these last hundred years: men turned into nothing but labor-insects, and all their manhood taken away. . . . I’d wipe the machines off the face of the earth again, and end the industrial epoch absolutely, like a black mistake.”

It is symptomatic of the times that a call like this for over 90 percent of those now living in the Western world to be wiped out (for such would be the effect of such a proposal) is hailed as a voice of humanitarianism and love, while those who dare to offer even gentle caveats are derided as gross and disgusting materialists.

So much for the treason of the intellectuals, a treason that Mises and Hayek and Schumpeter forewarned us of, and one that is now largely a fact. If FEE is to be judged by its success in swinging the intellectual vote, then it has failed indeed.

What of the businessman? Surely FEE and its companion organizations have been able to make secure for freedom this section of the American public! At this point, it is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. There is not one piece of lunacy put on paper by some academic scribbler or spoken by some public demagogue that is not to be found in at least one, if not more, of the published statements of the self-designated spokesmen for the business community.

For reasons that I don’t have time to develop here, it is also clear that the larger the firm, the more certain is its leaders’ commitment or at least lip service to the philosophy of statism. Study the changing character of the business firms that have contributed to FEE over the last twenty-five years. In the first years, at least a dozen of the largest, best-known firms in this country were making direct contributions to FEE. Less than a handful are still on the list of donors. Those socialists and those defenders of capitalism who expect the average American businessman to put up a desperate fight in defense of the system are simply out of touch with the situation as it really is.

Yes, even the businessman is more likely to be a part of the problem than a part of the solution, and FEE’s failure, so judged, could not be more obvious or complete. But of course, contrary to the popular impression, there is no reason to expect the businessman to be more committed to the system of economic freedom than anyone else. Not only is he not the greatest beneficiary of that system — he is not even the principal beneficiary.

Again contrary to the popular impression, it is the “little man,” the member of the masses who, far from being the exploited victim under capitalism, is precisely its principal beneficiary. Under all other arrangements, those possessed of intelligence, high energy, and a strong desire to achieve (i.e., precisely those who tend to become the entrepreneurs, the businessmen under capitalism) get ahead by using their positions in the political or caste or religious hierarchy to exploit the masses. Only under capitalism can the stronger get ahead only by serving the weaker — and as the weaker wish to be served! (Ralph Nader to the contrary.)

The strong tend to survive and prosper under any system, and strength does not necessarily carry with it a sophisticated understanding of systems. The American businessman has probably been, on balance (wittingly or unwittingly), the most important single force working against the capitalist system.

This brings us to another of the straws in the wind. If further evidence of where we seem to be headed is needed, I offer you the current [Nixon] administration in Washington, D.C. It is manned by a number of intelligent, capable public servants of roughly conservative outlook and headed by an intelligent, well-meaning man of sound conservative instincts [sic]. Yet I am prepared to wager that history will reveal that no administration in modern times did more to move the country away from freedom and toward socialism and authoritarianism than the one now in power.

I say this in sorrow, not anger, sorrow at the fact that the prevailing ideology of the day traps even the apparent foes into serving its cause, once they acquire political power. If the prevailing climate is interventionist, a conservative administration will not only be compelled to serve that climate of opinion but will be able to command a larger consensus for interventionist actions than an openly left-wing administration could ever command. In addition, the man on the street (who, in my opinion, also has generally conservative instincts) is less on his guard when a group identified as conservative is in power — and is thus largely unaware as one socialist scheme after another is imposed upon him.

In other words, wherever we look — to the intellectuals, to the businessmen, to the political leaders — we find the score to be Lions, 100; Christians, Zero. If FEE’s mission has been to win such games in the here and now, then it is indeed a one-hundred carat failure. Not only has FEE not turned the tide of battle, the situation in this country has gotten steadily worse in every one of the last twenty-five years and promises to get even worse in the next twenty-five.

Am I predicting that we are inevitably headed for a great, all-encompassing crisis at some time in the next few decades? I am not. In the first place, nothing is inevitable. What has happened has happened because of decisions made by human beings and could be undone by the decisions of human beings in the years ahead. I am simply saying that if things continue to go as they have been going (as seems likely), we are going to move further and further away from reasonable prosperity and substantial freedom, and toward stagnation and authoritarianism.

If any of you have seen FEE’s mission as that of winning now and winning big, then you have no choice but to label it a failure. But as I have understood him, his thinking, and the organization he brought into being, I have always believed that Leonard Read saw his mission as something quite different from (and quite superior to) that of winning tomorrow’s election or next week’s idea popularity poll. He seems little interested in triumphs as spectacular and as short-lived as the hula hoop.

Again let us be honest with each other. I suspect (I know) that this aspect of FEE’s thinking has been occasionally irritating to many of you and particularly to the more activist-minded of you. Read must have been about as satisfying to you at times as would be a football coach at your alma mater who asked for fifty years to do a rebuilding job with the team. Who knows, they might not even be reporting the scores to the local papers where Rogge and Read and many of you will be fifty years from now. You would like to see (and in person) the old scoreboard light up and read, Christians, 100; Lions, Zero. If that really is your goal, then you are at the wrong dinner for the wrong man.

Not only does Read not promise us a win in the near future; not only does he not guarantee us a win in the distant future; he has the unmitigated gall to tell us that we still don’t even fully understand the game or how to recognize a win when we see one. Finally, he refuses us even the consolation of the assurance that while we may not know the full truth, he does and will tell us all about it. Stop worrying about such things, he tells us; “the readiness is all.” Here are some typical statements from this strange and difficult man:

Not a man among us is entitled to look down his nose at any other; scarcely anyone has more than scratched the surface. And there are reasons aplenty: the complexities of this subject are akin to the mysteries of Creation.

Always skeptical of activist efforts, I have, until this moment, agreed that our own work has only long-range prospects — preserving the remnant, as it were. Now I see it the other way around; the chance of getting results here and now lies exclusively in the study and exposition of ideas on liberty.

The freedom idea is in fact a recent, idealistic, elevated acquisition of the human mind. Not being rooted in tradition and having little in the way of second-nature behaviors working for its security, it lacks stability; it is easily lost; freedom concepts are fragile, wonderful ideas, few of which we’ve yet embraced by second nature within our relatively unconditioned consciousness.

Freedom will always be insecure; it will forever be touch-and-go. Even eternal vigilance and devoted effort can do no more than to set the trend aright, as high an aim as we should embrace. And this expectation is warranted only if we view our problem realistically, see it as profound and difficult as it really is. To assess it superficially, to think of it as requiring anything less than practices consonant with freedom becoming second nature, is to waste our time and energy, to spin our wheels, as the saying goes.

Is this too dismal a prospect? Not to those among us who enjoy a challenge; it’s magnificent!

How can he call magnificent a challenge where the odds-makers have installed the Lions as 100-point favorites? Because, he tells us, “it is the effort, not the outcome, that counts in the life of the human being.” “Cervantes’ `The road is better than the inn,’ should serve to remind aspiring men that there isn’t any inn for them, but only the road, now and forever. It is the effort along the trail that matters.”

The Measure of Success

And now the final interpretation of the phrase “succeeded in its mission”: Leonard Read’s own definition of how the success of a FEE (of a Leonard Read) should be measured:

“To measure a teacher’s success, to evaluate his work, one must ask: Does the teaching induce in others what Aristotle termed `activity of soul’?”

It is to this question that the final and unqualified and only significant “yes” can be given. Throughout this country, throughout the world there is “activity of soul” underway that would never have been undertaken but for the work and the inspiration of Leonard Read and the Foundation for Economic Education. Some of it all of us in this room know about and can identify with FEE; some of it is known to only one or two of those in this room; the greater part, and probably the most important part, is totally unknown as yet to any of us (including Leonard Read) and will come to light only in the decades and centuries ahead — and much of it will be done by people who will never have heard of this foundation and will have no awareness that the activity of soul in which they are involved is the last link in a long chain that goes back to something that was started by this foundation in the middle of the twentieth century.

I close with a piece of verse that seems to me to capture what I have been trying to say. It is from the remarkable poem by W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939,” written at another dark moment in the history of the Western world. Here is the final stanza:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

For these twenty-five years of showing a brilliant and never-failing and affirming flame, our most serious and total appreciation, Mr. Leonard Read.

1. Tolstoy, War and Peace, Inner Sanctum ed., p. 193.

2. Larry Ruff, “The Economic Common Sense of Pollution,” The Public Interest, Fall 1970, p. 74.

  • Benjamin A. Rogge (1920-1980) was Distinguished Professor of Political Economy at Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana. He held degrees from Hastings College (A.B.), the University of Nebraska (M.A.), and Northwestern University (Ph.D.), and was a member of both the American Economic Association and the Mont Pelerin Society. He had a gift for rendering into clear English the vital principles of economics, all with a touch of unforgettable humor. He opposed compulsory, state-funded education and sought market alternatives. Among his intellectual mentors was Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek.