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How Lew Rockwell Copied Leonard E. Read and Took Over the Libertarian Movement

Gary North
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May 26, 2009

Lew Rockwell asked Jeffrey Tucker to run www.Mises.org in 1995. Tucker is a genius. Why do I think he is a genius? Because he knows how to borrow and then implement other people's great ideas. This is a sign of genius. "Steal from the best!"

One of the most important ideas he ever appropriated is Leonard E. Read's strategy of giving everything away. Read's Foundation for Economic Education published The Freeman, the monthly magazine of free market ideas. FEE copyrighted the magazine. Then it released everything into the public domain, unless an author requested copyright protection. Henry Hazlitt did. A few other did. Most authors did not. I was one of these, beginning 1967.

Why did he copyright the magazine if he gave everything away? To keep others from copyrighting it after FEE published it. Smart!

There was another reason. To get librarians to catalogue it, it had to have a Library of Congress catalogue number. FEE had to copyright the magazine to get this.

Tucker has written about Read's policy here: http://mises.org/story/3392. He wrote this as an introduction to his posting of all original copies of The Freeman. You can access them here.

But wait! Aren't these also on FEE's website? Not in their original form.

You mean FEE sat on this collection of articles for 14 years, not posting this treasure? Yes. But isn't the Web Leonard Read's dream come true -- a way to give away ideas, because digits are free? Yes.

FEE's presidents from 1995 to 2008 never really understood the power of the World Wide Web. Lew Rockwell did. So did Jeff Tucker. This is why LewRockwell.com and Mises.org have a large traffic, and FEE.org doesn't. Rockwell got there first and captured the libertarian market by giving away everything. You can buy printed copies of the books Mises.org gives away. Result: Mises Institute sells more libertarian books than any other organization.

You mean that giving away a download of a book sells the book? Yes/ But why? Because most book lovers suffer from what I call Picard's syndrome. Like Jean-Luc, they want to hold a book in their laps. They don't like to read a book in a 3-ring binder. They can read a chapter on-line. Then they say, "Nuts to this. I'll click a link and buy it." Print-on-demand technology lets the Mises Institute list hundreds of books in its on-line catalogue (free). Inventory problems? Nothing to speak of.

Want to test drive any book it sells? Go to the Literature section of the site.

Read understood this marketing principle from the beginning. His post-Web successors did not. They did not bother to post all of the old copies for the public to read. They haphazardly posted only a few articles. I used to complain about this, but I gave up. They were not interested.

This policy changed partially when the new president of FEE, Lawrence Reed, took over in 2008. He immediately had all of FEE's articles scanned and posted. He told the webmaster to publish all of them in HTML. They are here: http://www.thefreemanonline.org/archives-2

But there is a problem. These articles' files are one long page. They do not appear as PDFs of the original magazine. What is wrong with that? Simple: an article cannot be footnoted properly. The original images let a scholar cite the page number of any idea or direct quotation from an article. An HTML page lets him cite only the article, not the page. Tucker has solved this problem.

I hope Reed tells his webmaster to put links to the Mises website's PDFs of The Freeman. This will make FEE's HTML versions more valuable.

It is not just FEE that has failed to recognize the value of archived publications. This blindness afflicts most conservative and libertarian organizations. The John Birch Society has never posted American Opinion or Robert Welch's monthly letters. The same is true of the Reason Foundation. It has never posted all copies of Reason. I call this the memory hole for Right-wingers. It is as if these organizations are embarrassed about their past. Surely, it reflects a lack of interest. "Old ideas are useless. The past is useless. We're the now generation!" In two decades, they will be yesterday's generation. Forgotton. Cast into the outer darkness: off-line.

Three other academically oriented foundations have posted archives of their journals, but not their books: The Intercollegiate Studies Institute , The Cato Institute, and The Independent Institute. The Liberty Fund publishes a lot of materials on-line, but not its books.

When a site posts new information, it gets a higher Google ranking. This brings in more traffic.

When a reader finds a free article on Google, he goes to the site. This builds traffic.

Rockwell and Tucker have understood this better than anyone else in the libertarian movement, which FEE launched in 1946. The result is that their websites are dominant in the libertarian movement.

All this was there for the taking in 1995. Rockwell took it when he launched www.Mises.org in 1995. He added www.LewRockwell.com in 1999. He got there fustest with the mostest. All other libertarian sites have played catch-up ever since. They are not catching up.

Today, people allocate their site-visiting time carefully. Their time is valuable. They visit about a dozen sites regularly. To get onto their list, you must persuade them to drop an existing favorite. You must change people's habits, and this is difficult. This is why Rockwell has the edge. He is unlikely to surrender it. He got there first.

Rockwell was the original appropriator-in-chief. He applied Read's strategy when he launched Imprimis for Hillsdale College. The president of Hillsdale, George Roche, had worked for Read until he became president at Hillsdale in 1971. (I replaced Roche at FEE.) He wanted The Freeman for Hillsdale, but of course could not get it. So, he hired Rockwell to start Imprimis. Hillsdale gives the newsletter away. As with The Freeman, the letter is based on ideas, not appeals for donations. This became the most financially successful fund-raising newsletter in history, raising several hundred million dollars for Hillsdale. It now has over 1.7 million subscribers. It is the college's lifeline.

The strategy works for profit-seeking companies. This is why I offer my Tip of the Week. It is why I have 20 free departments on my site. I intend to add more, including a 100% free site on personal debt reduction (target date: June 1, 2009).


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