Leonard E. Read's Small Tent Strategy

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who are devotees of the libertarian movement have an advantage over
other promoters of unpopular and Establishment-challenging ideas.
Like Greta Garbo, they want to be alone. Well, maybe they don’t
exactly want to be alone, but they expect to be. This is an aspect
of their methodological individualism. But, after they find out
that there are others out there on the far end of the bell-shaped
curve who share their views, they are tempted to join the movement.

With the libertarian movement, this is not easy. “Take me to your
leader” is not going to solve the seeker’s problem.

There are problems associated with extending the influence of any
new worldview. The initial problem begins with establishing enough
agreement among the leaders to make possible the development of
a stream of income. When there are too many chiefs and not enough
Native Americans, chiefs tend to start their own tribes. There is
a splintering effect. The Protestant Reformation is the West’s best
example of this.

In the early phase of any new outlook, this splintering is productive.
I call it precision through division. Positions get hammered out.
Implications get followed. Choices increase.

But then, at some point, a leader who is tired of small potatoes
says, “Why are we divided? If we’re ever going to have any influence,
we will have to create a Movement. We must be large enough to get
listened to.” From that point on, the worldview’s ideas become ever-more
muddled. The promoters promote, so they go looking for common-ground
hot buttons that get people to send in donations.

Here is the marketing problem: (1) hot buttons are narrowly focused;
the hotter the button, the smaller the audience; (2) warm buttons
attract mainly warm bodies. Or, as we read in the Book of Revelation,
“I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou
wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither
cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16).


The granddaddy of all libertarian organizations is the Foundation
for Economic Education (FEE), located in Irvington-on-Hudson, New
York. It was founded by Leonard E. Read in 1946. Read had for years
been an official with the Chamber of Commerce.

Read liked to tell the story of how he went in 1932 to visit a business
executive, William C. Mullindore. Mullindore was the executive vice
president of Southern California Edison. He had been critical of
some of the positions taken by the Chamber. Read took it upon himself
to go to Mullindore, as he said, “to straighten him out.” He left
the meeting a religious convert to the free market. Bettina Bien
Greaves, for decades the archivist-historian at FEE, wrote in 1998,

could not spread his pro-freedom ideas to the extent he wished
within the Chamber. So he started an outside publishing venture,
Pamphleteers, Inc., through which he released pamphlet versions
of several pro-freedom works Frederic Bastiat’s The
, Rose Wilder Lane’s Give Me Liberty, Andrew
Dickson White’s Fiat
Money Inflation in France
, Ayn Rand’s Anthem,
and Virgil Jordan’s Freedom in America. But Read felt frustrated.
He realized he was trying to serve two masters — his employer
and his freedom philosophy.

before the war ended in Europe, Read resigned as general manager
of the L.A. Chamber to take a position in New York City as vice
president with the National Industrial Conference Board (NICB).
His job was to raise funds for its educational program, through
which he hoped to promote the freedom philosophy. But the NICB’s
idea of “education” was not Read’s. It wanted to present “both
sides” of every issue. In a world where “the other side” was already
being presented everywhere, in newspapers, radio, films, schools,
universities, and books, “the freedom side” would receive short
shrift. Disappointed once more, Read resigned.

It was then that Read went to Harold Luhnow, the nephew of William
Volker, and got a loan from the Volker Fund to buy the property
in Irvington. (Note: if ever there were a Ph.D. dissertation waiting
to be written on a crucially influential man who was barely known
in his lifetime and is forgotten today, it would be a thesis on
William Volker. You and I would not be here if it were not for “Mr.
Anonymous.” The Volker Fund’s papers are stored at the Hoover Institution.)
Luhnow gave FEE the loan, and FEE was off and running. FEE repaid
it within 18 months.

Read founded FEE, knowing full well that the Chamber of Commerce
approach could not work. To gain the membership or level of financial
support that was appropriate to the Chamber, he would have had to
water down FEE’s philosophy, which was his philosophy. He refused
to bend philosophically, yet he raised a lot of money over the years.

is one thing to believe in, and to dream of, promoting the freedom
philosophy; it is quite another thing to actually do so. Without
an organization to put outreach schemes into practice, there could
be no promotion of the freedom philosophy, except in a very limited
way through personal contacts. It takes an organization to publish
books, briefs, and pamphlets, to hire speakers, to schedule lectures,
and to arrange seminars. This is what Read had in mind for his
foundation. And he was well-prepared for the task. He was a rare
mix of crusader, businessman, administrator, and money-raiser.
As crusader, the sincerity of Read’s belief in moral principles
infected others. His zeal and enthusiasm for the freedom philosophy
persuaded listeners to support his cause. As businessman, Read
realized that if an organization is to succeed its income must
exceed its outgo. Establishing and maintaining an organization
also required Read’s talents for money-raising and administration.

When anyone would ask him how well FEE was doing financially, Read
would say, “FEE is getting every dollar it deserves.” He never sent
out a fund-raising letter. He never did direct-mail solicitations.
He let word of mouth advertising build FEE’s support. He was always
ready to get on a plane and talk to some rich friend, but he never
talked directly about money. He talked about the freedom philosophy
and what the listener could do to live it. “I want you,” he used
to say. When he got the man, the money followed.

There was no big tent in Read’s world. There was only a core group
of ideas. You could take them or leave them, or take some of them
and leave others. Each man is responsible for what he will accept,
Read taught.

He did not believe in using FEE to extend his own name — only
his vision. He thought that anonymity was superior to personal name
identification. He used to tell me (and a lot of other people, I’m
sure), “You’ll know that you have been a success when somebody quotes
one of your ideas to you without knowing where it came from.” Even
today, there are people who recognize Irvington-on-Hudson rather
than The Foundation for Economic Education.

In February, 1967, I had my first Freeman essay published,
.” That same month, I was sitting in a fellow student’s
apartment. We had just met. He reached over and picked up a copy
of The Freeman. He was a subscriber. “Have you ever seen
this magazine?” he asked. I told him to check the table of contents.

That’s the way The Freeman was spread: one by one, one on
one. It was the printed incarnation of Read’s philosophy.

Read stressed self-improvement, not changing the other person’s
opinion in an aggressive manner. I have not always lived up to his
ideal, but I know that his strategy does work in many cases. It
surely worked for FEE. (It did not work for Murray Rothbard, but
that’s another story.)

I also have learned, as Read learned, that big tents are not appropriate
environments for people with truly revolutionary ideas. The more
world-transforming an idea, the less appropriate it is in a big
tent until well into the transformation process.

This may seem like a contradiction. How can this transformation
take place in the first place? Aren’t big tents the way to launch
a new movement? Read said no.

The libertarian movement, such as it is, can be traced to Read and
Read’s vision. It was begun at a meeting between a representative
of the Chamber of Commerce and one lone man who did not believe
that the Chamber’s big tent was appropriate.

The month before I joined FEE’s senior staff in September, 1971,
the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers
had issued public statements supporting Nixon’s imposition of price
and wage controls on August 15. Read, of course, was in no way surprised
at the decision of both organizations. He told us at a lunch session
how he had called one of his old friends at the Chamber to commiserate
about what Nixon had done, and had been told, “But, Leonard, the
Chamber has just issued a statement supporting the President.”

Read never doubted that he could not maintain FEE’s commitment to
the freedom philosophy if FEE ever adopted the fund-raising tactics
of the Chamber. A big tent was too large for the kind of creative
one-on-one evangelism that was required to gain acceptance of FEE’s
worldview. As Mrs. Greaves writes,

goal was to counteract, through FEE, the anti-freedom, pro-socialist,
New Deal philosophy of post-World War II America. The problem
was to reawaken in the people a belief in the morality of freedom.
Since people cannot be forced to be moral, their ideas must be
changed — through education. Read’s whole life became devoted
to this task, to free-market education in the broadest sense of
the word.

Read was no man’s mouthpiece, other than his own, but he did seek
confirmation of how his idea of freedom could be applied to economic
theory. He recognized early that Ludwig von Mises was the closest
that any academic economist came to his position.

Read needed economic advice, he relied on others, especially Austrian-born
economist Ludwig von Mises, who had joined FEE in the very beginning.
Mises, a refugee from war-torn Europe, had arrived in the United
States in 1940, jobless and practically broke. Mises had been
well known and well established in Europe, but in this country
where Keynesian big-government, big-spending ideas reigned supreme,
his free-market ideas were considered old-fashioned. One of FEE’s
founding trustees, economic journalist Henry Hazlitt, urged Read
to take Mises on as economic adviser.

Hazlitt-brokered relationship benefited all concerned: Read, FEE,
and Mises. Mises lent advice and prestige to the Foundation. Through
the years, the Foundation spread Mises’s teachings by providing
a platform for him to speak at seminars and to write for its magazine,
The Freeman. FEE also helped with Mises’s 800-plus-page economic
opus, Human
. A FEE secretary finished typing the manuscript
and staffers prepared it for publication by Yale University Press,
which occurred in 1949. Once it was published, FEE helped to place
it in libraries. The Foundation itself has also published some
of Mises’s books — the first was Planned
(1947) and assisted in the publication of others.


For decades, FEE remained one of the two educational institutions
that built its program around Mises’ economics. The other was the
economics department of Grove City College in Western Pennsylvania,
which was run by Hans Sennholz, one of four men ever to be granted
a Ph.D. under Mises. Sennholz was married — and still is —
to Read’s former secretary. Mary Sennholz wrote Read’s biography,
Leonard E. Read: Philosopher of Freedom (FEE, 1993).

This is not to say that The Freeman would publish only articles
written by followers of Mises. The editor, Paul Poirot, was wiser
than this. But for anyone who reads the old issues of The Freeman,
he will discover a constancy of vision — a grid, if you will —
that shaped message of the magazine. It was a small tent magazine
that would selectively publish articles written by people from larger
tents or no tents at all.

Neither Read nor Poirot ever solicited articles or money. They did
not target groups. They targeted individuals. They did this by making
available a free magazine and a list of books that, taken as a unit,
promoted a consistent viewpoint. There was never any doubt what
that viewpoint was. It was associated with the Hudson River, not
Lake Michigan.


For those who were influenced directly by Read, or who served on
FEE’s staff, the idea of the big tent does not appeal. Read had
left the Chamber of Commerce at great financial sacrifice. He told
me that he had been offered the job of running the International
Chamber for a salary of $100,000 a year. In 1946, that was simply
immense. Instead, he left the Chamber to pursue ideas too radical
for the Chamber. The ideas were worth more to him than the salary.

The ideas that Read espoused are far more widely shared today than
in 1946. Some of them are even widely believed, such as the evil
of rent controls, yet 25 miles south of Irvington, New York City’s
rent control system, which was established as a temporary wartime
measure during World War II, still is in force.

The penetration of these ideas into the minds of the voting public
is in the toddler stage. The public is willing to accept modified
versions of these ideas, but the modifications serve to spread additional
error. Vouchers are a good example. The principle of free market
education is this: “Parents alone are legally responsible for their
children’s educations.” This means that parents should pay for their
children’s educations. The big tent application of this principle
is vouchers, i.e., “Taxpayers are responsible for other people’s
children’s educations.”

This is why we still need small tents and sharp visions. Now is
not the time to exchange clarity of vision for a slightly larger
tent. The Web has shown us the way: one-on-one, 50,000 times a day.
That each “hit” does not produce a donated dollar is one of life’s
depressing little realities.

7, 2002

North is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.freebooks.com.
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