Leonard E. Read's Small Tent Strategy

Those 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,

Read 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 Law, 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.

Just 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.

It 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, “Repressed Depression.” 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,

Read’s 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.

When 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.

The 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 Action. 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 Chaos (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.

August 7, 2002

Gary North is the author of Mises on Money. Visit For a free subscription to Gary North’s twice-weekly economics newsletter, click here.

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