Interview with Frayda Levy

A freedom funder talks shop.

Frayda Levy loves freedom. As owner of a book-distribution business in New Jersey she discovered that a little advocacy effort could yield large results in protecting her industry from damaging state policies. And once she got involved in public affairs, she never looked back. Today Levy is a director of Americans for Prosperity, the founder of that organization’s New Jersey membership chapter, and a board member of other liberty-oriented organizations like Club for Growth and American Legislative Exchange Council. To help infuse the wider culture with messages of freedom, she co-founded the Moving Picture Institute in 2005.

Philanthropy: How did you get bitten by the liberty bug?

Levy: It began about 25 years ago when I was a small-business owner. I sold books to schools and libraries, and I really felt the impact of government’s heavy hand. For example, I got a notice from the Department of Commerce saying that by law I was required to give the government information on my business’s shipping. They tried to pretend that I’d benefit, because it would result in all these great statistics. But it was an intense form, multiple pages long, and I had nobody available to fill out the form but me, coming in on Saturday once a month just to do that.

So I gradually got involved in advocacy. Having worked on Capitol Hill, I was better prepared than many small-business owners. And I learned that it didn’t take as much effort as I thought it would to have an impact on policy.

For instance, at one point the state of New Jersey was pushing paid family leave. I’m for paid family leave, just not government-mandated. There’s a huge difference. I found two other female small-business owners (this was before the Internet made that easier) and we visited state legislators to give them our perspective. And the next thing I knew, I got a call from one of the co-sponsors of the legislation who said to me, “They didn’t tell me what was in the bill.” After our visit she got off the bill, and it never went anywhere. I understood I could have an effect if I spoke up.

Philanthropy: What are some of your overarching goals for public services?

Levy: I’d like to see many things that the government does be turned over to the private sector. For instance, these days New York City is going through hell because of numerous problems with its subway system. There’s a lot of suffering, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Multiple private companies built subway systems in New York in the early 1900s, but the government took them all over in the late 1920s, and the systems absolutely froze in time. No innovation. No improvement. It’s a creaky, old, rundown apparatus that people have to deal with. Think how much better people’s lives would be today if the private sector could innovate in this area.

Government will never be able to innovate, change, be modern, because there’s nothing to force government to take on hard transitions. For example, in my business, my customers started calling and asking me about electronic records, so I had to learn all about them to stay in business. It was a huge challenge and I would have gladly never done it. But I had to do it. No one in government faces that. 

Philanthropy: What charities do you support?

Levy: One of my favorites is the Doe Fund, which takes guys right out of prison and fosters rehabilitation through work. It learned that even after it trained its guys many couldn’t get jobs because of employer concerns. So it started a catering business. It started an extermination business. 

Decades ago I had an ex-con apply to me, and I didn’t hire him because my employees felt uncomfortable. If I had been sent someone from the Doe Fund I could have hired him, because the Doe Fund puts them through serious tests. You can know that a person it refers has turned around, wants to be part of the workforce, gets oversight.

I’ll never forget one of the Doe Fund participants saying, “I realized my work has value, I have value.” These guys see for the first time that they can achieve, and many good things flow from that. They become self-supporting. They become responsible fathers. Some marry. I believe in second chances, and the Doe Fund is a perfect example of private charity tackling a problem that government handles poorly.

Government tends to decide on one solution, and it doesn’t matter whether it works or it doesn’t, it just plows ahead. One of the beauties of private charity is that you can have many, many solutions. And lots of inventive alternatives.

The way you raise one child is not the same way you raise another. For some ex-cons, strictness works, for others mentoring is best. Private charity allows all these experiments, and we don’t expect every one to work for all people. But if it doesn’t work well for some population, you go under. Which is as it should be. Government programs never go under.

An important element of the success of the Doe Fund is the wisdom and fortitude of the people who run it. I’m going to part ways with a lot of my fellow philanthropists who are always looking to “scale” something big. I don’t really believe in that. I think most programs work because of dynamic leaders. Now, they might grow their program. They might franchise it like a business. But the idea that you just create a model or formula and then can move it anywhere—it’s not the model alone that works, it’s the combination of the model and the right people to run it in certain conditions.

Philanthropy: Tell me about the Moving Picture Institute.

Levy: It’s a network for anyone in film and video and related arts who is right-of-center. We help them gain more skills so they can move up in the industry. And we help them develop connections so they can hire each other, reinforce each other’s projects, and give each other moral support.

Culture is critical to how people view the world. And there aren’t enough stories out there that portray the positive side of capitalism, the positive side of human nature, the positive side of individual freedom. So I wanted to get more liberty-loving messages into all aspects of culture.

One of our most popular productions is 2081, a film based on a Kurt Vonnegut story. It’s about what the world would be like if we were all the same. Forced equality. People who are too beautiful have to wear bags, people who are too smart get brain implants so they don’t surpass anyone else. It’s been a big success in schools. We’ve got a great series of videos on lawsuit abuse called “Jackpot Justice.” We connected creative talent with some research done by the Reason Foundation on the wastefulness of state roadbuilding, and Americans for Prosperity used it as a call to action.

Those are examples. More than 20 MPI-supported films are now publicly available. We hold six annual screenwriting workshops and train about 250 people in film-skills seminars and masterclasses every year. Our internship program and our fellowship awards are in high demand. MPI is a resource for the liberty movement as a whole, a way to develop those in the arts who are talented and supportive of freedom. 

Philanthropy: When you are trying to convince skeptical friends of the value of economic freedom, what do you say?

Levy: The left likes things that are organic, and economic liberty is organic. It allows small-scale invention, and lets things develop naturally. We don’t always like the weeds that come with it, but it’s better to let the economy develop naturally than to try to artificially impose a business here, or a restriction there. And the market over time works problems out.

My husband is a board member of the Institute for Justice. It’s a legal-defense group that protects the freedom of economic action of everyday people. Often poor people who just want to make a living. It’s one of those charities that helps some on the left to see the problems of government overreach.

If we leave each other alone we can get along. We don’t have to love what each other does. What I do in my synagogue I don’t try and impose on your church. What you do in your church you don’t impose on my synagogue. That’s what freedom is about.

Philanthropy: What niches still need to be filled in within the freedom movement?
Levy: One gap now beginning to be filled is the Lincoln Network in Silicon Valley. It’s doing within the tech world what MPI is doing for film. The tech world is filled with men and women who are attracted to liberty but don’t have a political home. Lincoln hosts policy events, and connects people, and acts as a clearinghouse for professionals in tech who support liberty.

Philanthropy: Tell me more about how donors can impact public policy.

Levy: It’s a multi-part process. You have to get the right people elected, and because of that I’m on the board of Club for Growth. Elect people who believe in and understand economic liberty, and have a willingness to fight.

Then you have to engage citizens to support and press legislators. That’s why I’m involved in Americans for Prosperity. When people willing to stick their necks out for liberty get to Capitol Hill, they need support. 

And for the long haul you need to shape culture. Unless you have people who understand the value of economic liberty, and the dangers from losing it, you’re not going to get citizens actively involved. So you have to create a culture that educates and motivates people.

The liberty movement hasn’t really had much support from culture-purveying institutions. Yet many people hold our views anyway. Can you imagine if we could engage culture well, how many more people we could bring along?