Profiles in Liberty: Fred Smith
As he prepares to name a successor, Fred Smith has big plans for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). Since founding the think tank in 1984, he has grown the organization into one of the most well-respected free-market organizations in Washington, but he knows how much hard work is left.
“If you look at the whole liberty movement across the world, let’s say .0001 of the world economy is devoted to defending freedom. You can be optimistic about how much value we’ve created with such little money, but you can also see how much more we could do,” Fred says, “The good news is that we don’t have to be the best, we just have to be better than the other side.”
However, Fred thinks there will be great opportunities to drive reform and return to free-market principles in the near future. “Statism is always failing,” he says, “We just have to stay around long enough to be there to suggest liberty as an alternative. Our system is falling apart now too. Our job will be to pick up the pieces and put it back together in a better way.”
He points out the ways that societal and technological changes (such as the internet in the last 20 years) have been able to drive political change: “We don’t even know what will generate growth and wealth in the next 20 years—it hasn’t been invented yet.” CEI is committed to staying vigilant, and staying around to ensure that “remolded” societies 20 years from now are more fundamentally committed to liberty than they are now.
Fred is confident that the next president of CEI will be up to the task, saying CEI will find someone a little more management-oriented. “There are a lot more issues,” he says, “and we have to get a lot bigger.”
Preparing to step down from the CEI presidency has given him a chance to reflect on how he got there in the first place. Growing up in the 60’s, Fred initially thought his support for the civil rights movement meant he was a liberal. He eventually began working for the EPA, but he was soon shaken by the inefficiency and corruption of big government bureaucracy. This experience illustrated the importance of free market principles, but it also left him impressed with how well environmental groups organized themselves. He realized that the liberty movement was falling behind in this regard.
This realization prompted him to form CEI, an organization that could promote freedom across many policy areas, from developing the “intellectual ammo,” to marketing ideas, to forming alliances, to advocating policy change. This “vertical structure” made CEI unique amongst its peers, but its early years were frustrating. Fred was unable to pay himself a salary for his first year building the organization.
Of course, CEI grew quickly and flourished, thanks to the hard work, vision, and entrepreneurial spirit of Fred Smith and many others. “Nobody thinks they’re entrepreneurial,” he says, “You look back and realize it later.”
Fred’s experience and eventual success has given him a lot of wisdom to share with the young liberty-minded entrepreneurs of today:
“There’s a lot to learn. You want a certain cockiness, that’s useful, but you don’t want to act like you know it all already. DC is a strange place. Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. By being willing to express ignorance, you can learn more. Be a journalist: call people up and ask them to help you understand issues. Read.”
“You don’t have to be the expert, you can be an advocate. You don’t have to be the expert, but you have to know who the experts are. You can be a facilitator. Alliance-building is all about outreach. Market yourself, sell your ideas, and be alert for what people are doing in your field. Look out for things you can improve on and people who have the resources you need to succeed.”
Smith offers valuable advice for young people—the same people who will have to “pick up the pieces” and “suggest liberty as an alternative” in tomorrow’s world.