Liberty In the Books

With Amanda Teresi I co-moderate Denver’s Liberty In the Books, a monthly reading group that discusses free-market literature.

UPDATE: Please see the new home page for Liberty In the Books, which includes links to review questions.

I strongly recommend that others around the country start up their own free-market discussion groups. I believe that our nation is at a crossroads and that advocates of liberty need to step forward and articulate the case for economic freedom. One critical element of effective free-market activism is familiarity with relevant economic principles and history. Participants in a discussion group can help educate each other as well as offer support and encouragement for free-market activism. With that goal in mind, here I describe how the Denver group functions and what we’re reading.

Please note that I cannot personally evaluate or endorse other reading groups that might use my recommendations or discussion notes. Thus, potential participants are strongly encouraged to independently investigate any other group claiming to use discussion notes for Liberty In the Books. Amanda owns the rights to the name, “Liberty In the Books.” I own the copyright to any material I write about the group or about selected readings. Thus, whether you use the name “Liberty In the Books” is between you and Amanda. I suggest you pick a unique name for your group and perhaps say something the the effect that you follow the Liberty In the Books model, without claiming any formal ties or endorsement. Groups are free to distribute my review questions at will, so long as no claim is made that I endorse any group other than my own.

If you have an interest in starting an economic liberty reading group in your area, how should you proceed?

The first thing to do is to refine your purpose. Amanda and I decided to focus on the relationship between economic theory and history. Thus, the complete title of our group is “Liberty In the Books: Economics In Action.” I do NOT want to discuss the arcane debates between the Austrian and Chicago schools. I do NOT want to discuss the finer points of Austrian praxeology versus positivism. I do NOT want to discuss libertarian anarchism versus the minimal state. (I’ll discuss such things elsewhere, but not in this group.) Instead, the purpose of the group is to learn about the application of basic free-market principles to modern and historical political policies. It is a “political economy” group in the traditional sense of that term.

So far the Denver group has read the following works:
* Lin Zinser and Paul Hsieh, Moral Health Care vs. ‘Universal Health Care'”
* Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man
* Thomas Sowell, The Housing Boom and Bust
* Henry Hazlitt, Economics In One Lesson
* Alex Epstein, “Vindicating Capitalism: The Real History of the Standard Oil Company”

Later I’ll post discussion questions for works the Denver group has read. (I’ll use the blog label “Liberty In the Books.”)

Your group needs clear leadership. Amanda and I co-moderate the Denver group, and our decisions regarding the group are final. You might opt for a more democratic structure (though I think that may invite pointless and time-wasting debate). I choose the readings for our group in consultation with Amanda. (Obviously I’m open to suggestions from other members.) Another discussion group I’m in selects readings by informal, mutual agreement.

After you decide to start a group, you need to get members. You might want to start a very small group among friends. In that case, you can simply contact your interested friends and set up meeting times. Otherwise you can advertise for the group via existing activist networks in your area.

Another reading group I participate with, the Atlas Shrugged Reading Groups, successfully advertised for members with Facebook ads. You can also issue media releases and post your information on public calendars.

How should you handle membership? I’ve now participated in three Colorado discussion groups, and I’ve experienced no problem with troublesome members. Instead, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know others from the community and discussing important ideas with them. Nevertheless, I do think it’s important to have membership guidelines, just in case you need to ask a disruptive participant to leave.

I endorse the Atlas guidelines: “The goal of the group is to better understand [the reading material] in a friendly and constructive way, not to engage in acrimonious debate or proselytizing.”

Following are the guidelines I sent to the Liberty In the Books membership:

The purpose of Liberty in the Books: Economics in Action is to provide a fun forum for free-market advocates to discuss economic principles and history and their application to the important issues of the day, with the goal that members will be better able to publicly articulate the case for free markets.

Members should strive to regularly attend meetings and read the selections. Readings generally will run less than 100 pages per month and will cover various areas of policy as well as basic economic principles. Some readings will be available online, others through special reproduction rights acquired by the event’s organizers. Occasionally members will need to purchase a book, which typically will provide readings for several meetings.

In order to keep the discussions interesting and topical, members should focus their comments on the reading material, though of course they may draw upon additional information that sheds light on the readings.

The group assumes a general support of free markets, enabling members to discuss matters of history and economics in greater detail than would be possible if members fundamentally disagreed about economic liberty. While membership is open, the moderators may, at their discretion, limit discussion that falls outside the purpose of the group.

While the group will discuss economics in history and theory, discussion should not assume any prior, specialized knowledge of history, economics, or policy, other than what is provided by the selected reading material. Discussion should remain accessible to any intelligent layperson familiar with the reading material, rather than veer into highly technical issues of interest only to a few.

While the moderators welcome feedback and advice from members, the moderators’ decisions pertaining to Liberty In the Books are final. Moderators may, at their discretion, begin with a short presentation, invite outside discussion leaders, establish other parameters for discussion, ask disruptive members to leave, alter the location or time of meetings, change future reading selections, and in other ways guide the group.

Members are the guests of the club’s organizers, who will strive to make Liberty In the Books consistently fun, inspiring, and informative.

Where to meet? If you are meeting with a small group of friends, where everyone knows each other well, you can meet at someone’s home. However, if you plan to start a larger group with more open membership, I strongly encourage you to meet at a public location, such as a bookstore, library, or coffee shop. I’ve found that Borders Books is often particularly open to reading groups. The Denver group meets for two hours. Meetings of 1.5 hours also work well, and longer meetings may suit your group’s needs, though you’ll need to plan for a break.

To organize meetings, I suggest a Google group or a comparable method of communicating with members. (Make sure you get somebody’s permission to add them to a such a group.) You need to set a reliable meeting location in advance (and check on the location close to the meeting), assign the reading material, and send out review questions and any other related notes.

How should the moderator conduct the meeting? I basically serve as the moderator for the Denver group, in collaboration with Amanda. You might want to ask for volunteers to help moderate.

The moderator has two key roles: start and end the meeting on time, and keep the discussion focussed on the reading material. The moderator must use some discretion in deciding when to cut off tangents. Obviously a major goal of the group is to apply knowledge of history and economics to modern problems, so discussion is bound to stray from the reading material at times. However, a meeting that constantly veers off track into marginal (or heated) debates or unrelated topics will tend to alienate the better members.

The moderator should strive to get everyone involved in the discussion without making anyone feel pressured to talk when the person would rather just listen.

A meeting that devolves into rancorous debate between two or three participants is a disaster.

I have found that, unless a reading group consists of friends who know each other and the reading material well, discussion questions form the basis of an effective meeting.

I write the review questions for Liberty In the Books. Diana Hsieh writes excellent review questions for the Atlas groups.

The moderator should be guided by the review questions without being bound by them. The goal is NOT to cover every single question and to spend the same amount of time per question. Rather, the moderator should use the questions to get the discussion started and keep it basically connected to the reading material. Some questions are more important than others, and some questions can be omitted from the discussion.

Moderating a good discussion group is an art. A good moderator is sort of like a good pilot; passengers usually only focus on what the moderator is doing when the flight gets bumpy. Your job is to keep the discussion going smoothly and to point out the nice views.

Participating in a local free-market discussion group can be enormously rewarding. You can deeply enrich your knowledge of economics and history. You can find motivation — and motivate others — to actively promote economic liberty. And you can make and maintain important friendships. If you are not already part of a reading group in your area, why not join an existing group or start one yourself?