A Great Institution
in Freefall Seeks Quantity, Not Quality
by J. H. Huebert
It must first be understood that morals are not determined by a show of hands.
Since the publication of my previous article, "A Great Institution in
Freefall," letters have poured in expressing disappointment in The Foundation for Economic Education’s betrayal of its original mission by honoring the likes of Rudolph Giuliani in an attempt to reach out to the masses.
But the couple now operating FEE remains undaunted. Mr. Skousen’s wife posted a
reply on FEE’s website, essentially conceding that FEE has turned its back on the ideas of its founders in an effort to reach greater numbers. As Mrs. Skousen put it:
[W]hen [Mr. Huebert states] that “reaching the Remnant, not the massman, [is] the libertarian way,” we at FEE vehemently disagree. We want to take the ideas of liberty to the public, because that‘s where these ideas are needed most. And if using Rudy Guiliani’s name will help us attract large numbers, then that’s what we will do.
The question is, attract large numbers of what?
To provide an example of the sort of person the new FEE “reaches out” to, Mrs. Skousen wrote:
We chatted a few minutes, and then she said, “[Your daughter] said you have Rudy Giuliani speaking at a dinner you’re giving in the fall. Wow!! What exactly do you do?”.... Suddenly she realized: FEE must be important, to attract someone of Giuliani’s stature.
So this, apparently, is who FEE now targets: the masswoman who oohs and aahs and coos at political titles, thinks that “importance” is measured by political power or stardom, and believes that you must be “important” if you’re willing to shell out an enormous amount of money to have Rudy Giuliani come give his canned speech on his own greatness to your club.
With so many rational but lost and lonely young minds in the world that are hungry for truth, why would you spend your time and money trying to drum watered-down free-market ideas into the mind of such a sheep? And what would make you think that this sort of person won’t be even more impressed by the next group that comes along, that not only attracts big-name political speakers, but also has, say, bumper stickers with amusing slogans? Then the only way to compete with that will to be to up the gimmicks more, while watering down the message further. The result: more hucksterism, less learning. The precise opposite of what Leonard Read had in mind for FEE.
Contrary to the vision of its founders, today’s FEE is big on hucksterism and carny gimmicks. For example, Mr. Skousen’s latest fund-raising idea is the “1776 Club,” to which you are invited to donate any amount of money that has any part of the number “1776” in it. And if you gave $1776.00 at the National Convention, you got to ring a liberty bell 21 times, in front of everybody in the convention hall. It’s an old sales trick, and it works because, believe it or not, that sort of thing gets many dysfunctional people excited. It’s also certain to send a member of the Remnant running in the opposite direction. But Mr. Skousen wants the masses; Mr. Skousen wants money; and, perhaps most of all, Mr. Skousen likes to make noise, so on it goes, the needs of the Remnant ignored.
For further evidence that today’s FEE prefers making noise to making sense, consider what Mr. Skousen billed as his “soon-to-be-famous irreverent tour of the bookstore.” In this much-touted convention event, FEE’s new president walked through the Laissez-Faire Books tables in the convention’s exhibition hall, microphone in hand, and, carnival barker style, made inane comments and unsuccessful attempts at humor about the various titles, in a way that would convey almost nothing of any value to a serious student. The number of people actually interested was slim, but all in the exhibition hall were forced to listen. I observed the more dignified libertarian scholars just close their eyes and shudder.
Still, Mrs. Skousen insists that FEE’s educational programs are “booming,” pointing to the 900 paid attendees at their Las Vegas convention as proof. But attracting a crowd and educating are two different things. The old FEE drew serious students who wanted to learn, because that was the only reason to seek out FEE and come to its programs. But when you lure people with a glitzy location and the possibility of meeting and greeting celebrities, you’re no longer necessarily attracting minds that have any desire to learn, but instead are most likely drawing many people who just want to see, be seen, and have a good time. If successful education were about how many people you bring in, government schools would be the world’s greatest success story.
Besides, if FEE really wanted to attract attention, the Skousens could always hire an ecdysiast to go behind the glass wall on the Today show, hike up her skirt, and pull down her undergarments, with FEE's web address undulating sensuously somewhere in the middle of it all. So why not do that, if it's all about numbers?
In response to my original column, aside from Mr. Skousen’s emotionally-charged
reaction, I received only one other piece of negative e-mail. This correspondent wrote, among other things, that he used to disapprove of Giuliani as much as I do, especially because of Giuliani’s shameless political opportunism throughout his career and his ruthless prosecution of the heroic Michael Milken. But that’s all changed now, he said, because of Giuliani’s performance after September 11, and because Ben Stein explained in his talk at the FEE Convention that Michael Milken deserved to go to jail.
I don’t know why Giuliani’s 9-11 performance makes him worthy of respect—what would he have had to do differently to not have performed well? More importantly, this person’s letter illustrates FEE’s steep slide down the slippery slope: Ben Stein has a few “free-market” credentials, yet cannot be considered anything close to a libertarian. But because he’s a celebrity and an accomplished, likeable guy, no one complained much about his appearance. Then, Stein used the forum FEE provided to express an anti-libertarian idea (that laws against insider trading are somehow morally acceptable and appropriate), which lodged itself in at least one otherwise-libertarian convention-goer’s mind. Then Mr. Skousen invited Mr. Giuliani to speak, and the idea that Michael Milken was an evildoer who deserved Red Rudy’s politically opportunistic attacks was firmly cemented. That is the price of compromise and the desire to draw the masses at any cost.
Despite these ill effects, the Skousens continue with a religious fervor, arguing that, with themselves at the helm, FEE is in a position to heal the world:
When another teacher of new and controversial ideas was criticized for socializing with “publicans and sinners,” he responded, “they that are well hath no need of a physician, but they who are sick.” Similarly, we are willing to eat with publicans and sinners (if that is what you want to call those who admire Rudy Giuliani) because we think that we have the power and the skills to heal them of their misguided thinking.
That may sound pleasant, but it would take a large leap of faith indeed to believe that FEE will somehow sway the heretofore ignorant masses either with powerful arguments or by chanting things like Mr. Skousen’s “AEIOU.” If making your ideas win were a matter of just getting the word out, our job would be relatively easy. But the task before true libertarians, identified by Leonard Read in Elements of Libertarian Leadership, is more difficult because it’s a never-ending job of self-improvement, of rationally recognizing that there is but one unit of society that we can improve for certain, and that is ourselves, and that this is a full-time job.
For that reason, Leonard Read, Edmund Opitz, and FEE’s founders always held firm to this principle: “No missionary work.” The new FEE, however, literally wants to do missionary work. At his closing speech at the Las Vegas convention, Mr. Skousen announced a “FEE Ambassador” program. Participants in this scheme will get special training at FEE headquarters, then return to their communities, where they will invite friends and neighbors into their homes to hear the Good News about liberty. This is another old sales trick, also popular among religious groups, particularly the more cult-like sects, sure to rope in the weak of mind, and sure to disturb the Remnant. As Albert Jay Nock noted in his essay, “Isaiah’s Job”:
[One] certainty which the prophet of the Remnant may always have is that the Remnant will find him. He may rely on that with absolute assurance. They will find him without his doing anything about it; in fact, if he tries to do anything about it, he is pretty sure to put them off.
Unlike Nock, the powers that be in Irvington-on-Hudson appear to fail or refuse to understand that quality is more important than quantity in matters of genuine education. The masses may show up, cheer, and even give their money, but will learn little in a reform school setting. And, as always, the Remnant will remain quietly in place, looking for a worthy prophet, and all the more frustrated by the sudden lack of any support at FEE.
2002 J. H. Huebert