by Mark Skousen
Is the sun setting on the world’s oldest freedom organization?
The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) is often called “America’s oldest freedom organization.” It predates the Institute for Humane Studies, the Cato Institute, and the Libertarian Party; its monthly magazine The Freeman (now Ideas on Liberty), was published for years before Reason or Liberty began publication. FEE was founded in 1946 by Leonard Read, a libertarian businessman and prolific writer most famous for his book Anything That’s Peaceful and his essay “I, Pencil.” For almost 60 years, the Foundation has been located in a 35-room mansion on a five-acre estate in Irvington-on-Hudson, just 20 miles north of Manhattan. Through its books, student seminars, and The Freeman, FEE has been associated with some of the biggest names in the freedom movement: Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, and Milton Friedman, among others. Even Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, and Lawrence Welk wrote letters of support to Read. (Go to www.FEE.org for a delightful color photograph of Ronald Reagan reading The Freeman, while his wife, Nancy, rests on his shoulder.)
Yet since the passing of its founder in 1983, FEE has fallen into obscurity while the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and Hillsdale College have become household names. It has struggled to survive financially and The Freeman has dropped to only 5,000 paid subscribers. A series of presidents, including Hans Sennholz and Donald Boudreaux (now chairman of the economics department at George Mason University), worked hard to resurrect the glory years of FEE. Their efforts were valiant. But despite these valiant efforts, when I became president of FEE in August, 2001, many of my friends in politics and finance had never heard of it.
So now it was my turn to take on the challenge of resurrecting FEE. I thought my background had prepared me well. I hold a Ph.D. in economics from George Washington University. I’ve been a professor of economics and finance at Rollins College for 16 years. I’ve edited a very successful investment newsletter and spoken on economics and liberty to a wide variety of audiences. Having written over a dozen books, including three textbooks, The Structure of Production, Economic Logic, and The Making of Modern Economics, I felt it was time to focus my efforts on spreading the word.
And I had a long experience with FEE. I have been an avid reader of The Freeman since the 60s, a columnist since 1994, and a financial supporter of FEE. I knew Leonard Read and have lectured at the FEE mansion many times over the past two decades. FEE published my Ph.D. dissertation, Economics of a Pure Gold Standard, in 1988 and a pamphlet, What Every Investor Should Know About Austrian Economics and the Hard Money Movement, in 1995. For many years, I have recommended FEE in my investment newsletter, Forecasts & Strategies as the one organization worthy of a tax-deductible contribution. Most importantly, economic education has always been as much my passion as the world of investing.
So when Gary North, a longtime FEE supporter, urged me to apply for the job as president in early 2001, I jumped at the opportunity. When the FEE board approved my name, our family suddenly dropped our easygoing lifestyle in Florida and moved to New York, with less than a month’s notice.
FEE has fallen into obscurity while the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and Hillsdale College have become household names.
I immediately went to work to restore the glory days of FEE, telling the board that my plan was to think big and make FEE a household name. I read everything I could about FEE, including Leonard Read’s private diaries and essays. My wife, Jo Ann, and I worked twelve-hour days, including weekends, to turn a candlestick (Leonard Read’s favorite symbol of liberty) into a lighthouse. I paid my respects to Andrew Carnegie, the legendary financier buried a few miles away in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, by following his advice to “attract attention.” The first thing I did upon arriving was to replace the 50-year-old sign at the Broadway entrance with an impressive new sign. Here are some of the other FEE accomplishments in my first year:
• We acquired Laissez Faire Books, the largest distributor of books on liberty in the world.
• We created the annual Leonard E. Read Book Award for Excellence in Economic Education.
• We publicized FEE by obtaining complimentary exhibit booths at the Money Shows and other major investment conferences around the country.
• We created the James U. Blanchard III Memorial Scholarship Fund to finance scholarships for needy international students to attend FEE seminars. We raised over $60,000 in our first year and eight international students were recipients of the Blanchard scholarships this summer.
• We updated our primary website, www.FEE.org, and created a daily news service, www.FEEnews.org, with Ron Holland as editor. He did a terrific job and FEE won an award for this new daily news service. This past summer, FEE.org was averaging 30,000 new visitors each month — not “hits,” visitors.
• We dramatically expanded our high school and college outreach program, with Dinesh D’Souza serving as our spokesman on college campuses, and Greg Rehmke expanding his debate program into the homeschool arena.
• We invited Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman to write an article for Ideas on Liberty (a first).
The FEE National Convention: First Time on Nationwide TV
Perhaps our greatest achievement was the FEE National Convention (“FEE Fest”) at Las Vegas in early May. It put FEE on the map and people are still talking about it. We attracted nearly 900 paid attendees, 100 exhibitors, and 80 speakers (including Ben Stein, Charles Murray, Ron Paul, Nathaniel Branden, and Dinesh D’Souza). FEE Fest was co-sponsored by Reason Foundation, Heritage Foundation, Young America’s Foundation, Institute for Humane Studies, Leadership Institute, Goldwater Institute, Liberty magazine, and dozens of other freedom organizations. Our seminar director, Tami Holland, put together this program in only four months and Kim Githler, president of the Money Show, was able to negotiate a contract with Bally’s/Paris Resort Hotels without requiring a minimum deposit (thus minimizing our risk). We made some money — $14,000 — on the convention, but more importantly, we made FEE visible for the first time in decades, and introduced hundreds of people to free-market economics in the course of three wonderful days. “I feel an electricity that I have not felt in many years among libertarian gatherings,” commented Nathaniel Branden. We received extremely favorable comments from attendees, and even today people write us to ask when the next FEE convention will be.
As a result of the convention, FEE appeared on nationwide television for the first time when C-SPAN Book TV taped speeches by Dinesh D’Souza, Harry Browne, Michael Ledeen, Charles Murray, Tom DiLorenzo, and me. C-SPAN Book TV broadcast these speeches from the FEE convention repeatedly from May until November. C-SPAN was so impressed with the FEE convention that they wanted to bring two crews to the next one.
As an added benefit of the convention, FEE acquired two new prestigious toll-free numbers, 1-800-USA-1776 and 1-888-USA-1776. These numbers — previously owned by the U.S. Bicentennial Commission — were valued by an independent media consultant conservatively at $400,000. The toll-free numbers were donated by Terry Easton, a telecommunications expert who attended the FEE convention and was so impressed with the “new” FEE that he offered to help FEE financially in many other ways.
FEE Summer Seminars: “You Changed My Life”
The FEE convention also led to the doubling of student/teacher seminars. We sold out all of our student seminars this past summer and even had to add an additional seminar because of higher demand. Over 175 students attended. One major supporter who attended the FEE convention was so pleased that he more than doubled the number of scholarships he awarded to FEE summer seminars.
In addition, we made money on all our seminars this summer (a first). We cut costs by using staffers and trustees to teach. My wife, Jo Ann, and the staff prepared 3,200 meals in the FEE kitchen, thus saving thousands of dollars. But the best part was the response of the students. (One student wrote me, “I will be forever grateful to FEE for making this life-changing event possible. It was one of the most enjoyable and productive weeks in my life.”) Of all the things we did in 2002, the student seminars were the most rewarding.
My Most Controversial Decision: Inviting Rudy Giuliani to Speak
Every year FEE plans a fall dinner in October for trustees and supporters. My goal was to put FEE on a national pedestal, so I invited the #1 speaker in America, former mayor Rudy Giuliani, to be the keynote speaker. I didn’t think this choice would be out of character, since past speakers have included Lady Margaret Thatcher, Bill O’Reilly, and Paul Gigot (new editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal). Although not a libertarian, Giuliani had almost singlehandedly transformed the world’s most powerful city from a stifling, dirty, dangerous metropolis into a thriving, safe, and clean city. Giuliani proudly points to the recommendations of the Manhattan Institute, a free-market think tank, as having influenced his decision to cut taxes, privatize, and deregulate the city’s economy. And few questioned his leadership during the terrible days after the terrorist attacks in September, 2001. I probably would not have moved to New York if Giuliani hadn’t been mayor, because the New York of ten years ago simply wasn’t safe or inviting.
In my mind, the biggest risk was financial — Giuliani gets a high honorarium and we had reserved the big ballroom at the New York Hilton. My goal was to attract the largest gathering of freedom lovers in New York history and to let them know that FEE was the place to learn more. Kim Githler again came to our aid by co-sponsoring the event and negotiating excellent terms with the Hilton. The chances of getting Giuliani were slim, however, since he turns down nine out of every ten requests. But everything fell into place when Giuliani accepted my invitation. And John Stossel of ABC News graciously agreed to be Master of Ceremonies for the event. Talk about a one-two punch! I quickly arranged pledges from supporters to buy patron tables to cover the cost of Giuliani’s honorarium, and Tami Holland went to work selling tickets. Everything was set for a spectacular extravaganza that would elevate FEE to national prominence.
However, I failed to take into account one thing — the extreme reaction of some libertarians around the country to my choice of Rudy Giuliani as a speaker at a FEE event. Many were outraged that I would select a “fascist” and a “thug” who “represents everything inimical to what FEE stands for,” to quote some of the more colorful lines from libertarians on the Internet. I was attracting attention, all right, but not the kind I was expecting. I countered by explaining that the Liberty Banquet was not an endorsement of Giuliani’s political record, but an outreach program. We wanted the general public to become familiar with FEE as the best source of sound economics, and what better way to attract the public than to invite America’s hero after Sept.11? Thousands of investors and business people didn’t know FEE from Adam, but they knew Giuliani, and by coming to a banquet with America’s mayor as speaker, they would be introduced to a powerful new organization that could change their lives forever.
The only way we are going to make a difference in this world is if we reach out to people who don’t yet agree with us. Sound economics is too important to leave only to libertarians! Henry Grady Weaver wrote in a FEE pamphlet: “I [already] believe in free enterprise. Explain it to those who don’t, not to me.” Amen!
I didn’t think choosing Rudy Giuliani to speak would be out of character, since past speakers have included Lady Margaret Thatcher, Bill O’Reilly, and Paul Gigot.
It didn’t seem to matter that John Stossel, a true libertarian hero, was willing to appear on stage with Giuliani, or that Giuliani had done wonders to restore the value of life, liberty, and property (the libertarian trinity) in the city of New York. I was amazed how closed-minded my libertarian friends were to Giuliani’s positive contributions. “It’s like inviting the devil to church,” accused John Pugsley. My response: “I already did that when I invited Doug Casey to speak at the FEE National Convention on Sunday, May 5.” Many Christian libertarians, including me, were offended by Doug’s attack on Christianity, but I was willing to listen to his opinions. I wish libertarians could be more tolerant and open-minded, more willing to have a dialogue with those whose views differ from their own. As Ben Stein, our keynote speaker at the FEE convention, said, “It’s funny how libertarians are so controlling.” (I was criticized for inviting Ben Stein, too, because he wasn’t a pure libertarian.)
Ironically, another organization, Washington Policy Center, dedicated to “advancing limited government and free markets,” promoted their own banquet in Seattle two weeks before ours. The keynote speaker? Rudy Giuliani. They had over 850 attendees in a very successful outreach program.
It was during this ongoing debate over Giuliani that I received a startling telephone call from the chairman of the FEE board. He said the executive committee had met and decided to ask for my resignation. He did not go into details, aside from saying the board did not share my grand vision for FEE. He cancelled the Liberty Banquet and all future FEE national conventions.
I must admit that this move was the most shocking and disappointing event I’ve ever experienced in the freedom movement, and it came at a time when FEE was on the verge of once again making a real impact. Over the past ten years my wife and I had put our hearts and souls, as well as a good deal of money and reputation, into FEE and then it ended like this! It seemed unfair to us and destructive to FEE’s future. I have no doubt that the board members are good people and well-intentioned supporters of liberty. They volunteer their time, donate funds, and attend board meetings without compensation. Several board members were quite supportive of my presidency and wrote letters on my behalf. But I did not want to cause further controversy by fighting a divided board, so I agreed to resign. I still feel a great sadness about this.
Looking back, I made lots of mistakes as president, things I would do differently if I had the benefit of hind-sight. I would have worked more closely with the board and spent more time raising money. I probably tried to do too much too soon. But I think we did some things right and, in large measure, fulfilled the mandate I was given.
When I became FEE’s president, the organization was coming off a difficult year financially and charitable giving was plummeting across the country. I am pleased that in the six months before I was asked to resign, FEE’s revenues were up 30% and contributions were up 20%. And I am proud of the FEE convention and the student seminars.
When I was asked for my resignation, it was the most shocking and disappointing event I’ve ever experienced in the freedom movement, and it came at a time when FEE was on the verge of once again making a real impact.
After the executive committee cancelled the fall dinner, I was worried about the financial burden the cancellation of the Liberty Banquet would put on FEE, since it would still have the expense of honoring Giuliani’s contract while returning the patron table donations. So with the help of my publisher, Tom Phillips, and Kim Githler of the Money Show, we resurrected the Liberty Banquet and it went off on schedule Oct. 25 at the New York Hilton. It had lost momentum after the initial cancellation and a three-week delay in sending out the major promotions, but we still managed to attract 250 paid attendees. Rudy Giuliani was the perfect gentleman and quite a few libertarians gave him a standing ovation.
Jo Ann and I have appreciated the many letters and emails of support we have received during this difficult period. I continue to teach on college campuses, write my investment letter, speak at conferences, and author books. Instead of writing a column for Ideas on Liberty, I am now a contributor to Liberty magazine. I have my free time back but, to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, I’d rather be the slave of some great cause.
Jo Ann and I will persevere, but what about America’s oldest freedom organization? An aggressive new FEE is unlikely under the current board. The new toll-free numbers have been returned to Terry Easton (upon his request), the daily news service is dormant, and the Blanchard Scholarship Fund is looking for a new home. There’s talk among a few board members of selling the FEE mansion and distributing the assets of FEE to other freedom organizations. Such an action would be most unfortunate. As one FEE supporter wrote, “it would be a crime to discontinue FEE since it was the first free-market foundation preaching in the wilderness to the business community which was then plagued with Keynes’ dogmas.”
FEE deserves to survive and prosper. Many organizations do a fine job of lobbying in Washington, researching public policies, supporting important libertarian scholarship, and fighting the enemies of freedom. But only one organization is dedicated solely to educating students, teachers, businesspeople, and citizens on the principles of free markets and sound money. And, if there’s anything the world needs desperately, it’s a strong dose of sound economics and an enthusiastic FEE. Jo Ann and I sincerely hope FEE can regain its influence.
When the Founding Fathers signed the Constitution of the United States in 1787, Benjamin Franklin, looking toward the half-sun carved on the back of the president’s chair, observed, “I have often in the course of the session, looked at that [chair] behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”
In a similar vein, as I was leaving FEE at the end of my presidency, I stood before the large portrait of Leonard E. Read located above the mantel in the living room of the FEE mansion and wondered whether Len was smiling or sad. I think that, for a year at least, he was smiling.