The Secret History of the Club (Part 1)
“Launch” has been the watchword of late in the world of Laissez Faire Books. It’s been on everyone’s mind since the brilliant idea of a club first emerged in the early weeks of 2012.
When the launch finally happened, I experienced one of those moments: “Pinch me so that I know I’m not dreaming.” I was, at that very moment, flying through the air on an airplane, logged into the Internet with my portable laptop, running about five different applications that allow real-time interactions with the mortals on earth.
This was not even possible a few years ago. It’s like a dream world, a miracle that is part of our daily lives, a gift to us from the entrepreneurial class working within a market framework. It has produced results no one could have expected only a few years ago.
I was reflecting on this amazing reality when suddenly, there was a stillness that I detected from those doing the work at the home office. The texts and chatter had stopped. I texted Doug Hill, who has worked so hard on this project from his position at Agora Financial.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Rockin’,” he said.
I pulled up the page to see what he meant. Rockin’ indeed. The Laissez Faire Club was live. We existed. It finally happened. The thing that was a dream only a few weeks ago was suddenly a reality.
Here is the proof of a notion that has consumed me for years, a theory I gleaned from my years of reading the works of Ludwig von Mises: The world we see is the realization of the ideas of the past; the world of the future will consist of the ideas we hold today. We need only to dream, create and act, and the course of history is changed.
I don’t doubt that there will be books written in the not too distant future about the early days of the Laissez Faire Club, this history-changing idea. The future of this venue, the combustible mixture of commerce and intellectual work, might determine the future of human liberty itself. It is a reinvention of the whole project of creating and distributing the best ideas.
This short account is just the beginning. There are so many moving pieces, so many creative minds and talented people involved, so much extraordinary drama. Had this launch been made in a reality television show, it would be bigger than The Office.
The genesis stretches back in time before I got involved. Agora Inc. has long had an interest in the acquisition, preservation and refurbishment of undervalued assets. Look at the properties it owns in Baltimore, Md., the historic buildings that it has made its own. Look at the land in Nicaragua now becoming a luxury resort. Look at the way this company has changed the lives of so many people around the world by giving them the tools to manage their own lives.
Laissez Faire Books was one of those undervalued assets. It had a mighty history stretching back to 1973, but since the digital age, there was a wide perception that it had been in decline, changing hands every few years and never quite able to change with the times. Addison Wiggin and Bill Bonner decided to take it on with the goal of doing for this company what Agora had done for so many physical properties.
I came into the mix in November 2011, and the first task was to migrate to a modern Web space. For those who have never attempted this, you would be amazed at the work here. We were talking about a large inventory that had to come to life in a new way. Building a commercial space from the ground up takes time, but it is doable; migrating a giant store from one space to another is not unlike moving a city from one state to another.
But it finally happened, and in a relatively short time. The release came the first week of January. It was thrilling and wonderful, a perfectly beautiful website. Yet we all knew the truth: We had just begun. There had to be something else. There was something wonderful waiting to happen; we just had to discover what that thing was.
The pieces came together gradually in late January. It began with Joe Schriefer from Agora, who said that we really need a small set of great books that offer a total economics education in one small package. Brilliant! Addison Wiggin and I talked it through, and it was rather obvious what these had to be: Hazlitt, Hayek and Garrett.
But is that really all? Surely not. Let’s talk e-books. What if we gave them all away for free with the purchase of the physical books? Sounds great to me: I love nothing better than free books. And how many of these free books can we actually give away? Dozens, hundreds, thousands. How about one per week, forever? Perfect. It can be done. Each will have new editorial notes, new introductions, amazing art, the best possible functionality.
Still thinking. What if we provide a way for people to discuss these books? There are public forums everywhere, but I knew from experience that their value is limited and unstable. What if we make them private, a members-only deal, so that everyone has a stake in keeping them as civil and intelligent as possible? We were all beginning to see how this works. Big ideas, a community of discussion, reckless generosity, practical effects.
And what is the context in which this appears? The government is growing and wrecking the physical world in every possible way. Standards of living are slipping. Despair is growing. Politics provides a nice diversion of energy, but no real answer. Ah, but the digital world is different: It allows us to create our own civilization.
Now the fullness of the possibilities is emerging. We need our own private city, not so that we can hide, but so that we can think and discover in peace. This new world should be a place where ideals rule, where friendships blossom, where we can all learn together. We can disagree without being nasty or argue, and expect to learn at the same time, checking our experiences and ideas against others.
The time between the period in which we had only glimpsed this and when it all came together was no more than a few days. Then it was born: the Laissez Faire Club. Now we have it. Here, we combine the magic of the commercial marketplace with the thrilling uncertainty that comes with a free thinking society of ideas.
Having the model is one thing. Building the software infrastructure is another. This is where the fun began, and this is when I really got to know the inside culture of this place called Agora. There have been so many times when I wished that everyone could see what I’ve seen in this place. It represents the very best of what modern commercial life has to offer, an institution that is a great servant of the market that drove its creation and growth.
Every employee has something to contribute. The diversity of the cast of characters is a real kick. Regardless of their official title, they are all interested in ideas. They might be technicians or accountants or customer service people or database managers, but they care about so much more than what they do. Any topic is fair game.
As an example… On my way out of the office one day, the mastermind behind the database infrastructure of Agora’s Web family gave me an inspired painting that he had done. It is a treasure, a scene from a graveyard in France in which a 500-year-old statute is brought to life amid spring blooms.
Another example… A book author was talking about how she anticipated with fear and joy an open performance she would attend the following night. The opera is Charles Gounod’s Faust, and she is right: scarier than any modern movie.
A cover designer was looking for inspiration. It was provided by a payment systems operator who knew the book in question very well. He pounded out a great paragraph explanation for the designer while I was still thinking about the question. The result was genius.
I wish I could write a personal tribute to each one. They’ve all made contributions to making this dream come true.
The place can be quiet and solemn one minute, and then, just as quickly, become a place of frenzied fun and wild laughter. Employees work to the point of exhaustion, all in the service of the customer, but somehow never seem exhausted. At the end of the day before launch, I was slumping over a desk, holding my head up with my hands, feeling as if the last ounce of energy had been drained from me. I picked myself up and went out into a large room on the second floor where the copywriters and editors work. They had all been through what I had been through. But there were no long faces. They were still brimming with energy and excitement about what was coming. They were smiling and joking. Instantly, I felt a change come over me. The inspiration came back, as did the energy.
In any office like this, in which everyone cares so intensely about the results, there will be arguments, and even explosions and strong words. Everyone is used to differences of opinion, passionately expressed. They are allowed. No one holds back, even in a manner that disregards the company hierarchy. There is nothing phony about the culture here. If you are going to explode, bring it on.
But what is truly wonderful is that even the most-tense moments, even following sharp exchanges and argument, normalcy and collegiality returns with ease. At one point before launch, things were getting pretty tense in the conference room. Suddenly, the head of media affairs showed up with a box of “Agora Financial stress balls” and dumped the whole contents on our heads. Balls were bouncing everywhere. The whole place broke up in laughter.
These moments pass quickly. There is no grudge. We all want the same thing. We are on the same team. Each day is new. Each hour is a chance to do something great.
Reflecting on how this could be, and why this culture of honesty, innovation and collegiality is so sadly lacking in other sectors of life, it finally hit me. The gaze of this institution is always outward and upward, toward the North Star of the commercial marketplace: the consumer. At Agora Financial, he even has a name: Bob. Bob is the archetype of the person we serve. He is smart, searching, inquisitive and hoping for a better life through better ideas.
Well, Bob has a new home. A happy home of ideas and friendship. We made it for him. We are developing it every day. We invite him in so that we can serve him generously and for as long as he finds benefit in what we do. Bob might be you.