Can an institution have a heart and soul? In one sense, an institution is only as effective and meritorious as the people who run it. Still, a spirit can pervade an institution with a deep history and a long-lasting commitment to high ideals. This spirit can provide guidance in hard times, add influence in good times, and carry its managers, donors, and employees to new heights of achievement.
The most modern technology is everywhere, all designed to get the message of freedom out to as many people as possibleThis thought occurred to me while sitting in the modern offices of the Foundation for Economic Education in Atlanta, Georgia. The staff is busy running a viral website, planning summer seminars, working with interns, and planning for the first-ever FEECon, a national event held in Atlanta, June 15-17.
Instead of the wood floors and doors of the old mansion in Irvington, New York, this office has open spaces, industrial carpet, shared seating areas, and long workbenches with laptops, more like a software firm than a think tank.
The most modern technology is everywhere, all designed to get the message of freedom out to as many people as possible — precisely as the founder Leonard Read wanted it to be. Everyone on the staff feels himself or herself to be part of a community that expands past, present, and future. It’s a great job but also a mission and a vocation. FEE’s long history and beautiful future intensifies the responsibilities and opportunities.
Light in a Dark World
With the founding of FEE in 1946, Read set out to create an institution that would be a messenger to the world. It wasn’t about politics; it was about enlightenment. In a time of nonstop advance of government and bureaucracy – darker times than anyone today can begin to imagine – he wanted the world to know that these were not the sources of civilization and progress. It is freedom, not planning, that gives life to society and prosperity.
FEE finds itself in the ideal position of having both the spirit intact and having a stellar team in place to make the crucial difference in the future.He got the message out in every way he could, using all technology available at the time and even eschewing restrictions such as copyright in order to disseminate the message.
FEE inspired an outpouring of scholarship, journalism, and education, along with myriad institutions dedicated to these ideals. It was the light in dark times. In so many ways, it is the father of the liberty-minded movement, giving rise to hundreds of institutions around the world – like a candle flame passed from hand to hand.
Today, FEE finds itself in the ideal position of having both the spirit intact and having a stellar team in place to make the crucial difference in the future.
The new offices seem completely different in their physical makeup, but the personal connections to the roots are everywhere present. The current president Lawrence Reed studied economics under Hans Sennholz, who received his PhD from Ludwig von Mises, who in turn lectured and had his work published by FEE from the time of its founding.
Larry was also my own mentor in the economics of freedom, having come to my college when I was an economics major. It only took two solid speeches on the topics of money and method to change my life. Many of the rest of the staff can credit FEE for their own enlightenment, directly through FEE-sponsored seminars or as students of those who attended them.
The Past Is Present and Future
The spirit of the founder and FEE’s long history is everywhere present. On a table in the section of the office where the seminars and programs are mapped out and managed is a stack of pamphlets, published or distributed by FEE. The authors of these original editions are people like Rose Wilder Lane, Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Read, Bastiat, and others. They are physical artifacts of an age gone by, but their content speaks just as poignantly to us as it did to them.
I had fallen in love with an idea.More than a million people use the website each month, and millions more read and share content that comes out daily. This past summer, a thousand students attended programs where this literature and the ideas in them were the subject of discussion.
This is a new generation that is experiencing exactly what I experienced when I first heard those lectures by Larry when I was in college. What I heard was a bright and beautiful message of human freedom, combined with a commitment to integrity and clarity in economics, law, and ethics as it pertains to public life. It lit a spark in my mind that quickly turned to a roaring fire. I had fallen in love with an idea.
The students this summer heard the same thing, and having spoken at some events, I can report that the results are same: the students felt inspired to embark on a new journey in which freedom is the theme. And it’s not only about seminars in physical space. FEE.org runs commentary every day and hosts 70 years of content for the whole world to discover — a technological feat that would have delighted but not entirely surprised Leonard Read.
From Old to New
Larry became president of FEE in 2008. He pushed for a change that many knew had to take place but few were willing to say outright: the old FEE mansion needed to be sold and new offices needed to be opened in a place more accessible. It must have been a very difficult decision simply because of the romance of the old place and its long heritage. It’s the kind of decision that an institution can put off for decades. But Larry decided it was time.
Sometimes the hardest decision you make can be the best decision you can make.Last year, the final goodbyes were said. Speakers at the final event gave tribute to the history and significance of what went on there. The final items were packed up and the old FEE mansion changed hands.
When I first heard of the decision to sell and move, I was shocked but then quickly realized what a remarkably good sign this really is for the future of FEE. Sometimes the hardest decision you make can be the best decision you can make.
I remembered a few years ago going through my own office and discovering that vast majority of the stuff I had accumulated no longer had utility in a digital age. Books had been digitized. I had kept huge stacks of things that didn’t matter anymore. There were file cabinets full of publications that were now online. On the one hand, I didn’t want to give any of it up. And yet, it was weighing me down and pointlessly. So I took the hard decision and hauled five large contractor bags of stuff to the dumpster.
What a liberation it was to sweep away the old physical stuff that didn’t matter any more and fully throw myself into new times! I felt modernized. Doing this cleared my mind and focused me on what really matters, which is not outmoded material things but the ideas they represent, which had taken on new forms. But I do recall how difficult it was.
This is why I came to realize that the determination to move FEE into the future was, to some extent, contingent on moving beyond the externals of the past. This was what was happening. And it bodes very well for FEE’s future.
Another big change is the new focus on the specifics of the mission. Back in the 1940s, FEE was the only game in town. It was founded by Read to give voice to the liberty agenda during very dark times. It did that work so well that many other institutions have been founded in the intervening years. There are thousands of freedom-minded research and educational institutions in the world.
Being bombarded with non-stop data bits is not the same thing as having a useful worldview rooted in a coherent set of changeless principles. What is FEE’s specific role in this division of labor? The decision was made to focus on that crucial demographic of people in the age group of high school and college. This was the very time I had discovered this body of ideas through FEE’s work. And this is an area in which FEE has always excelled. That doesn’t mean forgetting about everything else but it does mean being clear about the primary role of FEE.
To be sure, the young generation is unlike any we’ve seen. They are the first to be raised entirely in a world with the Internet and social media, a world in which all human knowledge and billions of individuals are potentially accessible through a device you carry in your pocket, a world in which enterprise is driving innovation in ways never before seen in human history.
It would be a mistake, then, to assume that this age group is all about requiring beginner material. In some ways, this is the most knowledge-exposed generation to live on this planet. Reaching this generation, then, requires a special focus. Knowledge is one thing but wisdom and principles are another. Being bombarded with non-stop data bits is not the same thing as having a useful worldview rooted in a coherent set of changeless principles. Knowing facts about the world is not the same as understanding cause and effect.
This is precisely what FEE seeks to impart, and its renewed focus can extend the influence of the core ideas with greater clarity to the particulars of the mission.
FEE Is the Light
Some things change, often for the better, but principles and truth remain.There is a vast population out there looking for answers. We are surrounded by the failures of state planning and the promise of a new world of freedom. But that reality is not always obvious to people. People get annoyed at government in all aspects of life but having a confidence in freedom as a replacement for state management requires deliberation and understanding. This can’t happen without education, influence, reach, and true enlightenment.
FEE is in a position to do just this, with its special touch of reasoned, humane, and principled teaching and commentary.
And so we are back to work, planning for FEEcon, a mere six weeks away. It’s a new world, a new FEE. What FEE does today builds on a mighty heritage, adding new capital to the accumulated capital of what came before. Some things change, often for the better, but principles and truth remain.