The Foundation for Economic Education has an enviable history. For over half a century, it has sought to share the conviction that society can and should be organized on the basis of peaceful, voluntary cooperation. It has treated the key terms in its name, economic and education, with appropriate breadth — focusing not only on the contribution of unfettered exchange to human well being but also on the philosophy underlying a commitment to voluntary cooperation in the economic realm and the historical, social, and political context of the quest for freedom, while seeking to enhance understanding of the idea of freedom in a broad range of ways.
FEE founder Leonard Read famously summed up the Foundation’s vision in a simple, straightforward, powerful phrase: “Anything that’s peaceful.”
Peaceful conduct may be foolish or immoral, of course. But people have no business interfering with it by force — protests, boycotts, and educational efforts are perfectly OK, of course. Accepting a commitment to peace as the minimal requisite of decent human interaction, so that people can be expected to cooperate on the basis of persuasion rather than coercion, doesn’t solve any and all social problems. It points, however, to a context within which those problems can be addressed reasonably by free people.
Read, who wondered in retrospect whether the name he’d selected for his Foundation was unnecessarily narrow, saw that freedom was a single piece of cloth. To understand the meaning and justification of what he termed “the freedom philosophy” was to see that peace had to reign in all aspects of human life. It’s arbitrary to think about freedom narrowly in the economic realm; dedication to economic freedom makes sense in tandem with dedication to civil liberties and to peace in the international arena (and also, I believe, to a society marked by the absence of arbitrary authority of whatever sort and to solidaristic mutual aid). To talk about free trade without also talking about free immigration or the war on (some) drugs or the prison system or unjust violations of property rights by well connected corporations is ultimately senseless. While not an anarchist, Read embraced an extremely limited conception of the just reach of state power and actively promoted the cause of peace and openness to the world in the face of militarism and nationalism.
Leonard Read must be spinning very rapidly in his grave.
Even as it abandons the famous Irvington-on-Hudson headquarters Read established, FEE is apparently seeking, pointlessly, to abandon the mission Read developed, too. An organization that once fostered widespread embrace of the freedom philosophy now intends to provide basic instruction in economics to 16-to-24-year-olds. This means FEE won’t be delivering the summer seminars in advanced Austrian Economics that once enabled it to connect with graduate students. It won’t be targeting people at multiple stages of their lives seeking greater understanding of the grounds and implications of belief in freedom. And it can be expected to limit dramatically the content of The Freeman, the flagship FEE publication once edited (before its acquisition by FEE) by Frank Chodorov, shying away from discussions of peace, open borders, the involuntary confinement of “mental patients,” the drug war, cultural issues, and the history of corporatist mischief. As a result, the very 16-to-24-year-olds the Foundation wants to serve will be ill-prepared to meet the challenges they will confront in their classrooms and in conversations with their friends, as will ordinary working people in search of ammunition that will help them communicate the freedom philosophy in their homes, congregations, and workplaces.
This change in course is doubtless not a product of mischief. It may well reflect a genuine desire to see FEE vibrant and strong. But it is, I believe, a profound and quite unnecessary mistake.
FEE has a unique brand. It has sought neither to be hip nor to be reactionary; it hasn’t taken sides in freedom movement faction fights. Refusing to accept the legitimacy of inside-the-Beltway policy debates, it hasn’t focused on the construction of policy analyses. Declining to engage in technical, accommodationist wonkery, it has emphasized big ideas—and their backgrounds and applications—in ways that ordinary people of all ages could understand and appreciate, that could simultaneously enlighten novices and stimulate old hands. FEE should clarify and promote its distinctive brand rather than diluting or abandoning it.
But—for the moment, at least—that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.
No longer fostering noninterference with “anything that’s peaceful” by anyone and everyone, even as it bids adieu to long-time ace Freeman editor Sheldon Richman, the Foundation will encourage regard for peace only within a limited range of human encounters, and do so only in a narrowed variety of venues and vocabularies. Giving up on its currently stated commitment to articulating “the most consistent case for the ‘first principles‘ of freedom: the sanctity of private property, individual liberty, the rule of law, the free market, and the moral superiority of individual choice and responsibility over coercion,” FEE will effectively ignore the links between freedom in different aspects of our lives and the reality that it makes the most sense to be pro-choice about economics when one is pro-choice about everything, across the board. I hope those who are as saddened by this development as I am will help to foster the growth of institutions and the organization of events that will share, as FEE will no longer do, a comprehensive, multi-layered vision of peaceful, voluntary cooperation as the only defensible foundation for a good society.