Ever since FFF was founded in 1989, some people have periodically asked me, “How does FFF measure its success?” My answer: There is no way to adequately measure the power of uncompromising ideas on liberty. What matters are the purity of the message itself and the importance of introducing it into the overall marketplace of ideas.
I grew up in Laredo, Texas, as a liberal Democrat. After graduating from law school in 1975, I returned home to practice law in partnership with my father. I firmly believed that a primary role of government was to help the poor. I served on the board of trustees for our local Legal Aid Society, a government agency that provided free legal assistance to the poor. I also was the local representative for the American Civil Liberties Union.
In the 1976 elections, I participated in the campaigns of several state and local Democrats, every single one of whom lost. I was feeling a bit disconsolate over the election results but, more fundamentally, something just didn’t feel right with respect to my political philosophy and what was going on in Laredo and in America.
One day, I walked into the Laredo Public Library and headed toward the political-science section to look for something to read. My eyes focused on a four-volume set of books in different colors. They were entitled Essays on Liberty and had been published some 20 years before, during the 1950s, by an organization I had never heard of, The Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.
As I thumbed through the essays, I was absolutely stunned. I had never read anything like that in my entire life. The essays were entirely libertarian, mostly economic in nature. Most important, they presented a totally uncompromising case for individual liberty and free markets.
I checked out all four books, took them home, and pored over them, reading them twice.
Those four little books ultimately changed the course of my life.
Well, actually, it was the man who founded the foundation that published those books, Leonard E. Read, who changed the course of my life. It was he who ingrained within me the importance of never compromising when it comes to principles. As Read emphasized, principles cannot be compromised — they can only be abandoned.
Some 10 years later, in 1987, I left the practice of law to go to work for FEE, the organization whose work had had such an enormous impact on my life. By that time, Read has passed away. The September 1988 issue of The Freeman, FEE’s monthly journal, published an essay I wrote entitled, “Leonard Read Changed My Life.”
The reason the essays in those four books had such a powerful effect on me was that they presented the uncompromising case for individual liberty and free markets. If they had instead presented a moderate and compromising case for reforming or improving America’s welfare-warfare state way of life, I might still be practicing law in Laredo.
Suppose someone had asked Read in the 1950s what success he had had with publishing Essays on Liberty. He might have responded with the number of books that FEE had sold, or with the number of new subscribers to The Freeman that the books had generated, or the number of reviews that had been published of the series.
But one thing is certain: Read could not have responded: “The books have changed the life of a young man in Laredo, Texas” because that wasn’t going to happen for another 20 years.
That’s why it’s impossible to measure the success of ideas on liberty. One simply has to have the faith in their power — the power to change the course of people’s lives and also the course of societies.
Of course, there is no guarantee that seeds of liberty will find fertile ground within every mind in which they are planted, but there is always a chance that such seeds will find fertile ground, germinate, and grow, as they did within me. One thing is certain, however: If people never come across uncompromising ideas on liberty, it is a virtual certainty that they will never stop to consider them.
One final point: I came to libertarianism entirely fortuitously. No one converted me to libertarianism. Four little books that had been published 20 years before in a small New York village somehow found themselves in a public library thousands of miles away in a small city on the Rio Grande. The ideas in those four little books converted me. The manner in which I discovered libertarianism proved to me the importance of spreading ideas on liberty far and wide, with the conviction that they have a power that simply is not measurable.