All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 2013

Wanted: Missionaries, Not Monks

What Have You Done for Liberty Today?

If you’ve watched FEE programs, publications, and announcements even occasionally in the last couple of years, you’ve no doubt noticed some important changes. We’ve retooled and refocused. At the same time, we’ve reaffirmed the principles of our founding some 67 years ago. We’re using technology more (the Web, social media, videos, webinars, etc.) because that’s where our prime audience of high school and college students is. We’ve breathed new life and excitement into the message—in both the content and the way we deliver it.

Change is never easy and always comes at some cost, but as the old saying goes, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Early returns confirm that we’re on the right track, as I recently reported in my June letter.

However, certain responses from some FEE supporters prompt me to write this message today. I refer to the well-intentioned but rather short-sighted comments that I paraphrase here: 

  • I think you should go back to The Freeman as it looked 40 years ago when I was growing up.
  • I don’t use the Internet and don’t watch videos. I want to read what I can hold in my hand.
  • FEE should hold more evening events in my neighborhood that I can attend regularly.

It comes down to this: Are we out to win the intellectual battles for liberty’s future or are we just a club that services its own membership? Are we monks or missionaries?

I’m not disparaging monks. They serve a purpose, I suppose. But a monk is not a missionary. Both are among the “already converted,” so to speak, but it’s the missionary who reaches beyond himself to win others to his cause. 

I have some libertarian friends, closely associated with FEE for years, who, in effect, implore us to do more for them—more articles and publications that cater to their personal desires, more events that they can attend, etc. With all due respect, these folks are a little like the bird who never leaves the nest. My friendship and respect for them often makes it hard for me to say bluntly what I’m thinking: “Hey, you’re already won over. Now go forth and win others. Every dollar I spend on you is a dollar I can’t spend on the new birds.”

Maybe I’m impatient but I actually want to WIN this thing. So do my colleagues on the FEE staff and board. That’s why we went through a long and thoughtful strategic planning process to identify the most underserved component of the market for liberty. Sixty-year-olds who have been sold on the philosophy for the past 45 years didn’t rank high on the “underserved” list (if they had, my name would have been on it).

This “monk” thinking is not peculiar to a handful of FEE supporters. It’s all too common throughout our movement. It shows up as the organization that never changes its methods to reach a new audience; the professor who cranks out paper without caring whether it ever gets read; the guy who claims great passion for the ideas of liberty but can’t remember the last time he actually tried smartly to persuade a newcomer.

If we’re to have a shot at securing liberty for the future, we simply must become better marketers. We have to embrace the missionary mentality and practice the best techniques for attracting converts. To our founder, Leonard Read, that meant mastering the art of persuasion, seeking opportunities to open a closed mind, passing on the message in the most appealing way possible. Read was an evangelist for liberty, always looking to win friends and influence people. In any given year among the 50 he devoted to advancing liberty, he could have cited hundreds if not thousands of people he awakened because he nudged them with a pamphlet or pricked their conscience with a well-placed admonition.

Several times a year I will hear something like this from a FEE supporter: “I’m proud to tell you that I still have every copy of The Freeman published since 1955, in my basement.” Well, bless his heart. I love the devotion that news expresses. But I also wonder why those copies went straight to the basement instead of to the hands of a young newcomer to the ideas.

What if, instead of 10 hard-copy issues of The Freeman per year, we cut back to five but sent every subscriber two copies—one to keep and one to pass on? You could be both a monk and a missionary at the same time. And the number of people who come to believe in the principles of liberty would grow, perhaps dramatically.

I’m just thinking out loud here, but you get the point. Maybe we don’t need fewer monks, but we sure need more missionaries. Think of the potential if every lover of liberty set a specific goal for himself—so that at the end of the year he could honestly say, “Five or 10 people, heretofore uninterested in liberty, embraced the concept this past year because I made the effort to light a spark within them until it blazed on its own. I gave a newcomer a copy of The Freeman and explained why he should give it a look. I found a high school student I convinced to go to a FEE seminar and she says it opened her eyes. I wrote a letter to the editor so well-written it prompted a stranger to call and tell me he never thought of this issue that way.” On and on. This is how great movements are grown, and how they ultimately win.

Nobel laureate and Austrian economist F. A. Hayek famously wrote, “We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage…. Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.”

Are you a monk or a missionary? Liberty’s future may depend entirely on which of those two venerable occupations you choose.

Lawrence W. Reed is president of FEE. He invites readers to offer comments on this article, especially advice and suggestions for FEE and other readers to become more effective missionaries for liberty.

You can find a Portuguese translation of this article here

  • 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