Leonard E. Read (September 26, 1898 – May 14, 1983) was an American economist and the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, which was the first modern free market think tank in the United States.
After a stint in the United States Army Air Service during World War I, Read started a grocery wholesale business in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was initially successful but eventually went out of business. He moved to California where he started a new career in the tiny Burlingame Chamber of Commerce near San Francisco. Read gradually moved up hierarchy of the United States Chamber of Commerce, finally becoming general manager of the Los Angeles branch, America's largest, in 1939.
During this period his views became progressively more libertarian. Apparently, it was in 1933, during a meeting with William C. Mullendore, the executive vice president of Southern California Edison, that Read was finally convinced that the New Deal was completely inefficient and morally bankrupt. Read was also profoundly influenced by his religious beliefs. His pastor, Reverend James W. Fifield, was minister of the 4,000-member First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, of which Read was also a board member. Fifield ran a "resistance movement" against the "social gospel" of the New Deal, trying to convince ministers across the country to adopt libertarian "spiritual ideals." During the period when he worked for the Chamber of Commerce, Read was also deeply influenced by more secular figures, such as Albert Jay Nock, and, later, by Ayn Rand and the economists Ludwig von Mises and Henry Hazlitt.
In 1945, Virgil Jordan, the President of the National Industrial Conference Board (NICB) in New York, invited Read to become its executive vice president. Read realized he would have to leave the NICB to pursue fulltime the promotion of free market, limited government principles. He resigned as a result.
One donor from his short time at NICB, David M. Goodrich, encouraged Read to start his own organization. With Goodrich's aid, as well as financial aid from the William Volker Fund and from Harold Luhnow, Read and Hazlitt founded the Foundation for Economic Education in 1946, which, in turn, helped to inspire Friedrich Hayek to form the Mont Pelerin Society the following year. For a period in the 1940s, philosopher Ayn Rand was an important adviser, or "ghost," as they called it, to Read. In 1950, FEE published The Freeman, an early free market periodical, considered an important forerunner of the conservative National Review magazine, to which Read was also a frequent contributor. He continued to work with FEE until his death in 1983. Read authored 29 books, some of which are still in print and sold by FEE. He wrote numerous essays, including the well-known "I, Pencil" (1958).
Read received an Honorary Doctoral Degree at Universidad Francisco Marroquín in 1976.