Libertarian History/Philosophy

Paul Poirot, R.I.P.


Another old hand from the Foundation for Economic Education, the first modern libertarian educational organization, is gone. Paul Poirot, from 1956-87 the editor of The Freeman, FEE's journal, died last week.

Gary North, a former colleague of Poirot's at FEE, eulogizes Poirot at, and along with the usual obituary data, aptly sums up The Freeman's importance during its Poirot days, how it did what it did, and gives important clues as to the nature of Poirot's public profile:

The impact of Poirot's Freeman…would be as difficult to overstate as it would be to prove. For decades, its subscribers would pass along a copy of the magazine to a friend, with motivation similar to that of a fundamentalist passing along a gospel tract…..

How many Americans over age 50 can say, "I became a free market believer when someone handed me a copy of The Freeman"? Thousands, I suspect. I was one. I have heard many other people tell me the same thing.

The Freeman was the recruiting tool of choice, as well as a readable monthly reinforcement that reminded its readers, "No, you have not lost your mind. Yes, the government's latest attempt to make the economy better has failed. Again."
He refused to speak publicly. He also preferred not to write. His one little book, The Pension Idea, was solid but undistinguished. So, editing was well suited for him.

The Freeman reflected his sense of what would best serve readers and donors. Its articles were always readable. Some might include footnotes and be several pages long. Others were short pieces, more like editorials. But anyone with the ability to follow an argument could read any article in the magazine.

He understood that The Freeman was an introductory journal. This matched FEE's positioning. [Leonard] Read was never going to make FEE into an advanced think tank. FEE was a "Read tank," and he was not a certified intellectual. FEE was a place where small businessmen, high school teachers, and college undergraduates could come to hear a few lectures. There was no place in 1955 for them to extend their knowledge beyond what FEE provided. There were no academic economics journals written from a free market perspective.
Poirot had a wry sense of humor that he could tap instantaneously. This was known only to employees at FEE and his friends.

North's description of FEE's importance is apt; it is a rare serious libertarian activist at least through the early 1980s who did not have stumbling upon or being given an issue of Poirot's Freeman as a defining experience in their ideological and moral education. And there was no place else for decades where one could find purist libertarian economic thinking, unmarred and undiluted by some other ideas about tradition, the Republican Party, or the Cold War that tended to accrete around "right-wing" supporters of free markets, then and now. The Freeman was (and is, under the editorship today of my former colleague Sheldon Richman) mostly a primer, but an excellent one, and one with an underreported but important effect on modern American political culture. As North concludes:

There is a photo hanging in FEE's headquarters. Ronald Reagan is reading a copy of The Freeman, with Mrs. Reagan's head on his shoulder. She is asleep. The photo ran first in a New York City newspaper (not the Times). That photo recorded for posterity a representative sample of Poirot's legacy.

You are part of it, too. You have just read this. I am here because he was there.

Reagan of course didn't learn enough from Poirot, or from Reason, the magazine in which he declared that "I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism" back in July 1975. But many did, and Poirot's impact on American history will be long and profound.

UPDATE: Kenneth Gregg also notes Poirot's passing, with details on how his experiences working for the Office of Price Administration during World War II helped him appreciate market pricing.