Book Review: Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World

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Following a year of disruptions not seen in generations: a global pandemic, economic crisis, social unrest, and a divisive political season, Americans are looking for a better way.  In his new book, Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World, co-authored with Charles Koch, Stand Together Chairman & CEO Brian Hooks makes the case that this starts in the places and with people you may least expect. Today’s challenges call for nothing short of a paradigm shift – away from a top-down approach that sees people as problems to be managed, toward bottom-up solutions that empower everyone to realize their potential and foster a more inclusive society. Drawing on the experience of thousands of social entrepreneurs in education, business, communities, and public policy, the book shares lessons for those looking to make a greater difference and put our country on a better track.


Brian Hooks, Chairman and CEO, Stand Together

Greg Lukianoff, President and CEO, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)

Moderator: Dean Reuter, General Counsel, Vice President & Director of the Practice Groups, Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy



This call is open to the public: please dial 888-752-3232 to access the call.

Event Transcript



Dean Reuter:  Welcome to Teleforum, a podcast of The Federalist Society's practice groups. I'm Dean Reuter, Vice President, General Counsel, and Director of Practice Groups at The Federalist Society. For exclusive access to live recordings of practice group teleforum calls, become a Federalist Society member today at



Dean Reuter:  Welcome to The Federalist Society's Practice Group Teleforum Conference Call as, today, January 19, 2021, we discuss Believe in People:  Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World, the new book from St. Martin's Press. I'm Dean Reuter, Vice President, General Counsel, and Director of Practice Groups at The Federalist Society.


      As always, please note that all expressions of opinion are those of the experts on today's call. Also, this call is being recorded for use as a podcast and will likely be transcribed, and I think we're open to the public and open to the press, today, so please keep that in mind.


      We're going to get an interview style going here with one of the authors of the book, Brian Hooks. He's Chairman and CEO of Stand Together. He'll be interviewed, and we'll have a discussion with Greg Lukianoff. Greg is President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also known as "FIRE."


      They're going to discuss the book, but, as always, at about the 30-minute mark or so, we'll be looking to you, the audience, for questions. So please have those in mind for when we get to that portion of the program.


      The book title, again I like to repeat it, is Believe in People:  Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World; St. Martin's Press; available now at Amazon and other bookstores online and in the real world.


      With that, Greg Lukianoff, the floor is yours.


Greg Lukianoff:  Thank you so much for having me. I'm really -- I'm not used to doing interviews, so I'm more nervous than I usually am before one of these. I'm used to doing podcasts pretty much off the top of my head.


      So full disclosure first:  Stand Together is one of our supporters. They helped us to do our big survey this year, where we did a survey of free speech attitudes across 55 campuses. We're actually planning to expand that to about 150 campuses next year, which is very exciting. Also, Brian is a friend and fellow fan of the '90s band Soul Coughing. It's always nice to find someone else who adores that band as much as I do.


      And Believe in People -- I've read it from cover to cover; I've also listened to it on audiobook. It's a very good book. It's concise; it's readable; it tells stories; it gives precise advice. So here is my first question, and I think it's going to be pretty clear to the audience.


      So Koch has become sort of a boogeyman for people on the Left — I'm actually left of center myself, and I get to see it sometimes — and, actually, we're talking among Federalist Society people. And I was just reading something in which The Federalist Society was presented as boogeymen -- or boogey-folk, depending on if you want to be gender-neutral.


      And so here's one of my questions that I try to figure out. I talk a lot about what I call the "perfect rhetorical fortress," about all these little systems, sadly, particularly people, educated people, who have figured out for ways of dodging substantive engagement with people's ideas. But, Brian, given how much work guilt by association does, how do you get people -- how do you get skeptics to listen to the message of this book?


Brian Hooks:  Well, hey, Greg. Thanks for agreeing to do this. I want to echo your thanks to The Federalist Society. I really appreciate the chance to talk to you, but also to the group on the phone.


      It's true that we support FIRE and The Federalist Society, but that certainly shouldn't -- but I'm sure it won't change the hard-firing questions that you'll shoot at me.


      So right off the bat -- so we're boogeymen, and how do we work through that?


      Well, this is -- part of what we try to address in the book is, you know, people are looking for a better way. A lot of people these days, especially given the tragedies that we've experienced as a country -- as a society -- over the past year, they're kind of looking around and saying, "You know, the old ways of doing things, of thinking about things, they're just not working very well any more." And so -- or to the extent that the ever were. And I think that's very relevant to the question that you ask.


      You're right. The folks who disagree with some of the ideas that we put forward over the years have done a pretty good job of making us into the "other" for a lot of folks. But what we've found is that, when people really take a chance to get to know who we truly are, what we stand for, what the book talks about — a deep belief in people, this idea that every person has something to contribute, and, as a society, we succeed to the extent that we help to empower people to discover their gifts and apply them in a way that helps others — when folks really take the chance to get to know us, and especially when they take the leap of faith and begin to work with us, a lot of that lore and that myth and that, frankly, the falsehoods that have been shared about us, they fall by the wayside.


      And that, to me, is really a net opportunity that I think we can all take to heart, you know, as we try to say -- to share in the book through the stories of some of the experiences that we've had with people who are finding new ways to solve problems. You know, when you get in the trenches and you're working with an organization like we do in South Dallas, for instance — you're addressing violence in urban communities — when you're in the trenches --


Greg Lukianoff:  [Crosstalk 00:05:57] project, by the way.


Brian Hooks:  It's a great project, yeah.


      Nobody asks, "Hey, what about that crazy thing that I read about you in the New York Times?" right? They just want to know, "Hey, how can we combine our capabilities to get things done?" So we don't let that false reputation bother us, and, frankly, sometimes it can be an advantage because, when people really see what we're all about, they're even more pleasantly surprised.


Greg Lukianoff:  Yeah, I was really moved by the story about Bishop Omar and the project in Dallas, the idea that I was left with. I used to work with inner-city high school kids in southeast D.C., and I sometimes felt like people weren't taking the violent crime that was faced by that community seriously enough. And the idea of really engaging people involved in this as individuals and showing that, if you can be an influencer for gang violence, you can also be an influencer for good. That's one thing that I did -- I really loved about the book is you got out of the way of the stories, in a lot of cases, and let the people tell their own stories.


Brian Hooks:  Well that's the thing. As people who have invested in sort of the classical liberal ideas and better understanding — you know, what does it mean to live well together, kind of a holistic vision of the good society — we can get very enamored of our theory, and that's important. And there's good work that's done to better understand how to -- the ideas, the foundational ideas that kind of underpin the work that we do. But we often forget that the practice is at least as important. And so that is what we try to do in this book is just tell stories about what works.


      And the group that you're referencing, I think, is a great testament to these foundational principles, this notion that everybody has a gift, and we'll do well as we empower people to realize their gifts, and that the solutions to some of the toughest problems will be found in those who have personal experience with those problems. That's what we mean by bottom-up solutions — invest in those that are closest to the problems.


      So this group in South Dallas — a group called Urban Specialists that we worked with now for several years — to me, these are the heroes of localism. These are the folks that are actually proving out the classical liberal frameworks that so many of us have been working towards for so many years.


      In this case, a guy named Antong Lucky — who, in his early years, started the Bloods in South Dallas which became, tragically, one of the most violent gangs in Dallas — Antong goes to jail. And, in jail, unlike a whole lot of people who go into prison, Antong doesn't become more of a hardened criminal; Antong takes the time to really reflect. And, through a series of conversations that he has with people in jail, he realizes, "Wait a minute. I have a gift; I'm a leader. And I've just been making the wrong choice about how to apply that gift. I've been" -- as he says, and we tell the story in the book -- "I've been leading guys to do bad, but I can just as easily apply that gift to lead guys to do good."


      And so, when Antong comes out of prison, he joins up with just a phenomenal guy, a guy named Bishop Omar Jahwar who founded Urban Specialists, and they become, basically, a force for peace in some of the roughest neighborhoods in the country. And what they're doing is they're bringing gangs and police officers, communities that are skeptical of the police and police together, and saying, "Wait a minute, guys. We're all going to do better if we can find ways to work together."


      So Antong is a great example of somebody who is a -- what we call a "social entrepreneur," somebody who's finding new and better ways to help people overcome problems. But he's also somebody that most folks wouldn't invest in, right? Most people would sort of look at him and say, "Well, geez, that guy doesn't have a whole lot to offer." But what the book argues is, if we make those kind of decisions, pretty soon there's not going to be a whole lot of people that we think have much to offer. What we've got to do is we've got to look inside folks like Antong and say, "What is it that we can do to help him to discover that gift and apply it in a way that's going to help everybody live better lives?"


Greg Lukianoff:  So, obviously, one of the things that really spoke to me about the book in my area of expertise was you're talking about rethinking how we do education, both K-through-12 and higher education. And I sometimes run into people who are sort of surprised that, even though my job at FIRE is to defend free speech on campus, that we also talk about how important it would be to have some alternatives.


      You point out, correctly, that the price of college just keeps on going up, and some of these solutions, like paying off people's student debt -- it's just going to reward these overpriced institutions. And one thing that I say that sometimes kind of surprises people is, if there was any meaningful competition for the top schools that actually could make them a little bit nervous, my job defending free speech on those campuses would get easier because a lot of what we do is we fight these massive administrative apparatuses.


      I wanted to hear, in terms of -- you cover a lot of ground on different levels of education. What's probably the most outside-of-the-box idea that you're excited about?


Brian Hooks:  Well, I think, as you point out, we've got to really look at the system of education from first principles, right? What is it that education is intended to accomplish? We kind of take the current system for granted. We rarely step back and ask that question. And what we argue in the book is that the purpose of education really is to help individuals. We call them students; but, in fact, in today's world, everybody is a student at some point, right? With things changing so quickly, this notion of lifelong learning has become a reality. The purpose of education is to take students on a journey of discovery to find their gifts — what are they both passionate about, but, importantly, what are they good at — and then to help them to develop the skills that they'll need in order to express those gifts and then give them an opportunity to apply those gifts in a way that helps themselves by helping others.


      If you buy that — that that's the purpose, that's the reason that we care about education as a society — then that gives you a framework to evaluate what's going on in our country. And, if you look at education, whether that's K-through-12 or higher education -- the area where you spend most of your time -- it's hard to look at that and say, overall, it's working well according to that framework.


      For some students, it works great, right? But for a whole lot of kids, the education system isn't just failing them, it's kind of doing the opposite of what it's supposed to do. So, to me, one of the most compelling facts on this point is that, students in fifth grade -- when they survey students, about 70 percent of them say that they feel pretty engaged with their school, like there's a reason for them to go. They may not like it every day, but they're finding some fulfillment in the experience. By 12th grade, 70 percent of them say they don't; which is to say only 30 percent of students find any engagement with their education. So they're not even engaged. How in the world are they going to go through that process of actually developing their gift in a way that's going to help them create a life for themselves and ultimately contribute in society?


      So we've got a real broken system. What's an out-of-the-box idea? There's a lot of them, right? Because, if you're going to find disruptive -- if you're going to find opportunities that work relative to a system that's pretty broken, most of them are going to be disruptive.


      The one that we're working on right now -- we have dozens of programs that we support to try to help to find new and better ways to improve education, but one of them is with Sal Khan, who is a familiar name to most folks who are working in education because Sal Khan started Khan Academy many years ago. But he's got a new project called "" that we're helping him with.


      I was just talking to him the other day, and it's absolutely phenomenal, what he's doing. Through an innovative approach, a technology, he's calling to question some of these bedrock assumptions that really underpin much of our education system today. What is is an online program that matches students who need to master a particular skill or a particular topic, and it matches them with people who have a mastery in that topic -- not necessarily teachers, anybody who has something to offer in terms of educating students. And, through an algorithm, this platform puts those students and masters of these skills into real-time communication. They arrange cohorts of students online.


      And so, if you think about what this is doing is -- what Sal is doing with this one technology, he's changing where students go to school — which has been a huge point of contention for literally decades, say, in the school choice movement — and in one fell innovation, Sal is offering them a better way:  where they go to school; who teaches — again, another one of those issues that's just been in gridlock for so long with teachers' unions and arguments about credentialing and that sort of thing. Sal just bypasses that argument and offers students a better way. And then he changes what they learn because he gives them the choice to really match their preference with what's on offer. And, incredibly, in really just a few months since he's launched this, he's already in conversations with the University of Chicago to make the certificates that students learn on this platform a credential that University of Chicago will accept when they're considering who to take in to attend the school.


      And so, again, another one of these bedrock characteristics of our current system, the credentialing — and all these things that parents have to go through, all these motions that you have to go through in order to make sure your kid gets into college — through this innovative approach that Sal's taking, he's disrupting that system which we have just -- all of us have taken for granted for a long time.


      So I think there's a ton of opportunity, but we've got to step back and say, "What is it that we really want to accomplish with education?" rather than just, "How do tweak the current system?"


Greg Lukianoff:  I love all these ideas and micro-credentialing-type approaches because, when I'm interviewing lawyers for FIRE, for example, I end up kind of semi-quizzing them to try to get a sense of how many books they read on their own on this stuff because, if you're really a First Amendment nerd, you've read all of these things. And if there were some ways that you would be like a -- I think it was -- Edublocks was one of the ideas of Jane McGonigal, who you talk about in the book, about ways to sort of gamify education, which I thought was really cool.


      It looks like we're getting closer to questions, so I wanted to go right to what's going to be on everybody's mind at the moment.


      First, I want to take a quick leap over to one thing that's really been on my mind. I finally read Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri, a really extremely interesting book. I mean, we come to it from completely opposite perspectives when it comes to politics. But his point, more or less -- and, starting from observing from the Arab Spring, is that the current sort of social media explosion and media explosion that we're experiencing -- it's only capable of negation. It's only capable of tearing governments down or defunding the police or ending the Fed — all of these things that have become part of our language. And so it becomes even more dangerous to make positive suggestions because, we've discovered, that, with this many eyes on any project — or, for that matter, this many eyes on any individual — they can tear it to pieces. So I was really pleased to read something that was optimistic, forward-looking, empowering. But I do wonder, as of last week, as of what happened at the Capitol, how optimistic you feel. What's your read on the overall situation for the country?


Brian Hooks:  Well, let's get specific on the question of what's happening in the country right now. But, before we do, I think this point on offering solutions rather than just dwelling on the problem is really important and, I think, really timely, not just given what's happened in the past couple of weeks. And that's what we do in the book.


      We wrote this book really to be a guide for people who know that the country can do better, but they're just not really sure what they can do to help make a greater difference. So, yeah, two-thirds of the book is offering ways to apply some of these fundamental principles of empowering people from the bottom up, of really helping people to discover their gift, of uniting with anyone to do right -- kind of searching for common ground rather than focusing on our differences. And I think that that is what informs our optimism, and it's an optimism over the long term, right? I mean, we want to be very clear-eyed about the magnitude of the challenges that are in front of us because they're significant.


      But the book tells plenty of stories of people throughout history in this country that found ways to overcome situations and obstacles that conventional wisdom would say were insurmountable at the time. And that's the story of progress of our country:  people coming together to find new and better ways to get things done.


      When it comes to what's happened in the last couple of weeks, I want to approach that with a lot of humility. I'm sure there's people on the phone that have strong feelings about what's going on there, as well. I think one of the things that strikes me is that, when we sort of lose the vision for our country — which I think, ultimately, as I said before, is about this notion that everyone has the ability to contribute, and that we succeed as a country when we empower people to figure out what their path is and combine our efforts to get things done — when we forget that the vision of our country is how do we best empower people, and we focus more on who should have power over people, different groups can end up justifying some pretty terrible things.


      I think we need to learn the lessons not just of the past couple of weeks, but really of the past couple of decades, probably, and say we've really got to recommit to this fundamental American project of empowerment rather than power because that's the history of the world, right? For the most part, over the last couple thousand years, society has been ordered based on who should have power over others. And the beauty of the American experiment is that we turn that on its head. We can talk about the particulars of the last few weeks or the last several years, but I think, fundamentally, what it's going to take is a recommitment to the liberal project and respect for the dignity of everybody, a commitment to disagree without being disagreeable — all of these things that build from that. But that's -- the book argues that's ultimately what the future of our country depends on, is that we recommit to those fundamental principles that have driven progress throughout human history.


Greg Lukianoff:  Among the projects that I read about, one of the ones that intrigued me the most was Narrative 4. Could you tell us all a little more about that?


Brian Hooks:  Narrative 4 actually has a lot of relevance to what's going on in the country right now. Narrative 4 is a wonderful project that really helps people to believe in others, to start to see that others, no matter how different they are or how much we disagree with them -- to see them as people who have something to contribute in society.


      So it's this wonderful project that was started by an author, a guy named Colum McCann, an Irish novelist and a storyteller. And what it does is it brings people together — often people who have very visceral disagreements on issues, so they are rarely in the room with this group of people that would come together.


      One of the first experiments that I saw on this was on people who have very different positions on guns in this country, on gun control. So you had guns-rights folks with anti-guns group members in the same room, and they're kind of looking at each other and thinking, "I don't have anything in common with you." And what Narrative 4 does is it pairs people off into twos, and it says, "Spend some time together, and tell each other a deeply personal story about some experience that you've had with this issue." And they take some time -- a couple hours, ideally -- to really get to know each other's stories.


      Then what they do is -- Narrative 4 brings this group of folks back together. And, in these pairs, the one person will tell the other person's story, but they'll do it in the first person. They'll tell the other person's story as if it was their own story, as if they were in their shoes. And it's that expression of the first person's story -- telling somebody else's story that really helps to bring that connection between those two people that didn't think they had anything in common. And, through that storytelling, they begin to develop an empathy for each other, and, by extension — because other people are in the room — there's an empathy that develops amongst the group. With that as kind of the baseline, you can move on to having discussions about what we might do to look past our differences, find some common ground, and ultimately get some things done together.


      It's a wonderful group, and it's a group that we support to do this with students in high schools who come from just very different parts of the country, very different experiences, to help them see people — that they might otherwise see as, you know, completely different and potentially to whom they may have some animosity — to start to see them as people.


Greg Lukianoff:  Very cool. I've done a lot of Federalist Society events at law schools over the years, and they've had some -- sometimes they turn into sort of semi-debates. Actually, one of the ones I did, unfortunately, was — I mean, not unfortunately, because it was lovely — Deborah Rhode was a famous Stanford law professor who was my sparring partner, and she recently passed away from COVID. That's just something I remembered from actually having experiences from Federalist Society talks. Federalist Society, just like lawyers expect, we do this -- you know, we're more prone to want debate. But I've really come around to a lot of these listening projects, like, just the idea of what you're going to do is you're going to get someone in a room; you're going to hear their story; and your goal is not to change their mind. Your goal is to actually figure out where they're coming from.


Brian Hooks:  Well, I think there's a lot of wisdom to that, and certainly there's plenty of value to debates. I mean, there's -- an argument --


Greg Lukianoff:  Absolutely.


Brian Hooks:  -- is a great way to get groups. But what we found is that, if you take a step back and you start to look for common ground with just about anybody, you're going to find that you've got it. And it doesn't mean you put your differences aside or that they become any less important; you want to continue to push for what you believe in. But, if we take the time to really find the common ground that we have with folks, we can get a lot more stuff done.


      And, you know, as divided as the country is right now — and it certainly is; there's no doubt about that — there are a lot of things that the majority of people in this country agree on that we haven't been able to make progress on. And I think, if we started to work on those -- and we give the example in the book of criminal justice reform. A lot of people -- members of The Federalist Society were very key players in some of the progress that has happened in reforming the criminal justice system over the past five or ten years. This is an issue that, for 25 years, was kind of off limits because people focused on the areas where there was disagreement. But we said, "Look, let's continue to disagree on those things, but let's not focus on them; let's focus on the areas where we can agree." We've been able to get a ton of stuff done even in a very, very divisive environment. And we think that's a lesson that can be applied to a lot of other issues, and we go into some of that in the book.


Greg Lukianoff:  Yeah, it was great reading this book and coming away with, you know, not really disagreeing with any of it. And I think it's going to be -- I think it has the potential to build bridges. I think people will be very pleasantly surprised. I also -- I'm a big fan of how you make nonfiction engaging, and I really think you've -- everything from length to tone to how big the units are, it's very well done, so congratulations.


Brian Hooks:  I appreciate that.


Greg Lukianoff:  Since Coddling of the American Mind has come out, I get a lot of people who send me books to kind of, like, review, and I'm always really pleased when I come across one that's as well put together as yours.


      We're just about at the half-hour mark. I'm always really excited to get questions. It's actually one of my favorite parts of any discussion. So, Dean, you wanted me to grab your attention when we're ready for that.


Dean Reuter:  Yes, sir. Thank you very much, gentlemen.


      If you joined late, we're, of course, speaking with Greg Lukianoff from FIRE and Brian Hooks who's the author of the book we're discussing today. The title, again, is Believe in People:  Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World. It's out, already, from St. Martin's Press, available everywhere you can buy books.


      As Greg just mentioned, we're now to that portion of the program where we check in with the audience for questions. While we wait to see who rings in with a question -- our lines are wide open -- but, while we wait to see who comes in with a question, I will ask a question, if I could, Greg.


Greg Lukianoff:  Absolutely.


Dean Reuter:  In the book, Brian, you mention the four core institutions of society:  community, education, business, and government. This is a portion of the book where you're talking about how the problems have developed, and you mention that you conclude those are broken. Can you just give us a little more background on that and tell our listeners why you think these institutions are broken, and, to the extent they are, what's your positive solution there?


Brian Hooks:  Sure. And this really is kind of the core thesis of the book. We talk about some of the challenges in our country. To me, one of the most -- the best way that this has been put is by Nobel laureate Angus Deaton. He looks at the decline in life expectancy in our country which happened in 2017 and 2018 — well before COVID — and he asked the question, "Why is that happening? In a time of this country when so many things are going right, why is it, on average, that our life expectancy is declining?"


      And, as he unpacks it, he says it's due to this phenomenon that he calls "depths of despair," which is really a profound idea. He unpacked that idea with his data, and he says suicides are on the increase; deaths from alcohol, deaths from drug abuse — on the increase. In those years, something like 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, and the numbers have only, frankly, skyrocketed during the COVID crisis. That's more Americans than died in the entire Vietnam War, just to put it in context.


      Ben Sasse and others have written on similar phenomenon. Tim Carney has a great book on this where he really unpacks "What does this look like in the communities where people are suffering?"


Greg Lukianoff:  It's a very good book. I definitely recommend that, too.


Brian Hooks:  It's a great book, and we cite to it in ours.


      So you look at that, and you say, "Well, why is that?" And there's a lot of people that will say, "Well, look, the pace of change is just too fast for people to keep up with," or whatever the explanation is. And we don't find any of those explanations satisfying. So what we do is we look and we say, "Well, what's supposed to happen in this country? How do people succeed, and how do they avoid these kind of depths of despair?" And the explanation through history is that there have been these institutions that are intended to empower people.


      And so, as you say, Dean, education empowers people. It helps people to develop the skills that they can use to overcome the barriers and the burdens that life brings to them. Strong communities — something that we all depend on to succeed, to the extent that we have. Businesses — business plays a critical role, when it's doing its job, in helping people to really climb up the ladder and figure out how to live better lives. And then sound public policy — policy that empowers people rather than picks winners and losers or holds people back.


      So when you -- if that's your vision of what it means to have a successful society, then, when you look at those institutions you say, "Well, how well are they doing at empowering people to succeed?" And what you find is it's a really mixed bag. And, as I said before, some people are doing just fine. But, for an increasing number of people, they're looking at those institutions and they're saying, "Look, these are failing me. They're not actually helping me to succeed." And the data bears that out. I shared a fact that stuck with me on the education system. It's not engaging people, and so they never really get the chance to benefit from it. You look at similar statistics throughout these institutions. About 70 percent of people also say that they don't find any fulfilment in their work. And, when they don't find that their work is actually engaging their gifts and allowing them to contribute, rather than being contribution-motivated, they become deficiency-motivated, right? And so, rather than having it be a virtuous cycle, it becomes a vicious spiral.


      So the book is putting forth this thesis that, if we want to address these problems, we've got to invest in these core institutions so that people become empowered rather than held back.


Dean Reuter:  I've got a follow-up question unless, Greg, you have another question.


Greg Lukianoff:  Nope.


Dean Reuter:  I'm curious about the book and how much of it -- when I look at community, education, business, and government as the four core institutions that are struggling, I think of education and government as sort of public-sector things, and community and business as private-sector. How much of the solution of this book is accomplished through the private sector and individual responsibility and awareness versus government solutions?


Brian Hooks:  Well, the case we make is that each one of these institutions has an important role to play, and that's true for government just as it is for the others. But there's a right way to do it in each one of these institutions, and there's a wrong way. And the wrong way is what we describe as a top-down approach. And, while it's most obvious, probably, that top-down approach in government — policies that seem to redistribute rather than empower, for instance — we see this top-down approach in business; we see it in education and in communities.


      So the private sector has a critical role to play, right? I mean, that's -- the voluntary sector is the creative sector. That's where production comes from; that's sort of the lifeblood of a free society. But, if the private sector is acting in a way that doesn't empower people, if the private sector is acting in a way that treats most people like they don't have much to offer in a top-down way, we shouldn't expect that to be very productive.


      So, to me, it's not about private or public. It's about, where the public sector has a role, are they acting in a role that empowers people? And, similarly, where the private sector has a role — which is an enormous role — are we, as a private sector, acting to empower people, or are we making the same mistake that we discuss in the book that we've made for so many years? Are we acting in a top-down way, treating people as problems to be solved rather than the source of solutions?


      And business is a good example of that. Business is the productive engine of a free society. And, to the extent that business sees its employees as people who have something to contribute and business sees their role as poised in a position to discover new and better ways to create value within that business, not only is the business going to benefit, but the business is also going to help to benefit society. It's going to create value in society.


      But a lot of businesses don't behave that way, right? A lot of businesses sort of treat people as cogs in a wheel — as, "Look, just do what you're told, and come in, and punch the clock." And you might get by for a little while doing that, but you're certainly not going to realize all of the potential in your people, realize all the potential in your business.


      So we make the argument in the book that these ideas — this kind of paradigm shift away from this top-down approach towards a bottom-up approach that empowers people — we all need to kind of take that medicine. We all need to take a look at the way that we are interacting and embrace this notion that we've all got a role to help improve society and make sure that our actions are better aligned with these principles of human progress. That's the case we make at least.


Dean Reuter:  Very good. We --


Greg Lukianoff:  I did, actually --


Dean Reuter:  Go ahead, Greg.


Greg Lukianoff:  I did have one question. There's some really infuriating stats on corporate welfare, and you spend some time talking about that in the book, and it's definitely something that unites a lot people across the spectrum -- is finding some of these subsidies kind of outrageous. But I did have a question about that one being the one that seems least conducive to a bottom-up approach. How do you fight corporate welfare from a bottom-up approach?


Brian Hooks:  Well, corporate welfare is this idea that businesses will profit through political means rather than creating value in society, right? So they'll seek subsidies rather than seeking to create value for customers. I think the only way that you address that is from a bottom-up approach because the way that corporate welfare happens is businesses get together with government, and they collude to rig the system in their favor at the expense of society. So it's sort of the poster child of the top-down approach.


      The way that you fight that is you've got to overcome the public choice problem, right? You've got to overcome this idea that there are concentrated benefits for these industries, but disburse costs across all of society so no one person really has the incentive to stand up against it. But, if you can organize the millions of people and sort of empower the voices of the people who otherwise, on their own, aren't going to be able to overcome this, that's where you can see big changes, and I think that's the opportunity to push back against corporate welfare.


      And we see that. We see that increasingly, now, in states that are rejecting some of these policies — whether it's occupational licensure that holds people back in favor of incumbent businesses; certificate-of-need legislation on the healthcare system which, again, helps the incumbents by excluding would-be competitors — some of those things are changing in some really important states, and it's happening because people are getting organized and speaking out against this cronyism, this corporate welfare that's hurting society — and, ultimately, it's hurting the business sector.


Dean Reuter:  We do have a couple questions in the queue, now. Let's see if we can check in with the first caller.


Caller 1:  Do you think that the principles that you all speak about in your book could be applied to making changes in the delivery of health care and the cost of health care? Because aren't all the solutions we are searching for this massive problem is a top-down approach rather than a bottom-up approach?


Brian Hooks:  Absolutely. In fact, not only do I think that they could be, I think that's really the only way that we're going to reimagine health care in a way that works for the country. And it's not just theory; this is borne out in practice. COVID has been a tragedy that none of us could have imagined before it's on us, but it's also created the will to make some of these bottom-up reforms in our healthcare system, and the results speak for themselves. They're helping to improve people's lives.


      One of the examples that I think about, there, is with telemedicine. Telemedicine, in one form or another, has been around for a long time, but it's not been acceptable. In fact, in many states, it's been banned. When COVID hit, all of a sudden, the idea that we would prevent a doctor from seeing a patient online to do a routine medical check, say — which enables them to talk to their patient without asking their patient to come into an office and potentially spread or contract this virus — all of a sudden, the notion that we would prevent them from doing that is ludicrous, right? And so, what we're doing by removing some of these restrictions on, say, telemedicine or other regulations within our healthcare system — the other top-down policies — is we're empowering doctors and patients to find new and better ways to serve each other.


      It's a simple example; I think it's one that clearly makes sense. And now there's been almost a couple dozen states that have repealed the prohibitions on telemedicine just in the past several months. But I think you can extend that principle to a lot of different aspects of our healthcare system. What does it mean to empower people who are closest to the problems to be part of a solution rather than assuming that most people don't have much to offer, and so we've got to kind of mandate stuff from the top? I think that's absolutely the path forward on health care.


Dean Reuter:  Thanks. We've got one question in the queue.


Marc Levin:  Hi. Marc Levin, here. Thanks for the shoutout on criminal justice reform and all the brilliant insights so far.


      I just wanted to ask a couple of things. First is:  Have you drawn any lessons, perhaps, from other nations? I know in my area, New Zealand, for example, a pretty substantial percentage of cases are resolved through restorative justice, such as victim-offender mediation — which is, of course, very much bottom-up. And, secondly, any comments, perhaps, on the geographical divides — urban-rural, and so forth — that we see not only in the U.S. but, frankly, in other countries:  Great Britain, obviously, with Brexit; Turkey, where, of course, in Istanbul, predominantly, people disagree with the Kurd regime, whereas, in rural and more religious areas, there is the opposite. So I'm just curious. Your thoughts on all of that?


Brian Hooks:  Hey, Marc. Thanks for being on the call. I'm a big fan of yours and the work that you've done on criminal justice, so I appreciate that.


      There's a lot in your question. The lessons from other countries — you bring up New Zealand with restorative justice. I was a colleague of one of the ministers in New Zealand from the 1990s, somebody who was involved in kind of reimagining their government there, a guy named Maurice McTigue, my former colleague at the Mercatus Center. And I think there's certainly a lot of lessons from his experience in believing in people and really empowering people — even folks, say, who work in government agencies in New Zealand. Maurice used to tell a story about empowering folks to make better decisions and rewarding them or holding them accountable for the outcomes of those decisions — something that's very difficult to do in this country, given the way that public-sector employees are employed.


      One of the things that we point out in the book in a lesson that's been helpful to me as we think about the challenge with the top-down approach is a term that Bill Easterly, the great development economist, coined, and that is "the Tyranny of Experts." This is an application of a concept that Hayek shared called "the Fatal Conceit." But Bill's got this wonderful experience at the World Bank, and, as he's leaving the Bank, he writes a book called, The Elusive Quest for Growth:  Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics. It's a great book, if you haven't read it. It's got a lot of lessons not just for the developing world, but also for us.


      But the main thesis I take away from that is, despite all of the best intentions, despite all of the resources that the world could muster, development projects that are done to people rather than that are done by empowering people who are closest to the problems that are trying to be solved are projects that typically fail. And this was such heresy, when Bill published this book, that instead of being sort of honored on his way out of the World Bank, he was kicked out of the door because he dared to sort of challenge the orthodoxy of the top-down paradigm at a place like the World Bank.


      But I think that those lessons are just as relevant for the challenges that we're facing. When people who don't have much experience with the problem think that they know better than those who are closest to it, we shouldn't expect the outcomes, the results of those interventions, to do very well. And, unfortunately, our country is littered with examples of that failure just as the developing world is.


Greg Lukianoff:  In my work with Coddling of the American Mind, we do a lot about polarization, and how population density increasingly predicts what your politics are is just becoming stronger. And this is also global phenomenon. My father grew up in Yugoslavia, and there always seemed to be the battle of what they consider the scary people out in the country and the people in the cities.


      But I do think that, in order to address this — just like what we saw last week — some of the projects that Brian has been involved in look like Narrative 4, but many more. I think we actually actively have to get people knowing people. You know, rural folk knowing city folk. There was a project that involved a mining town in Kentucky having sort of like a forum with Amherst Massachusetts. And they all got to actually, literally meet each other and hear where they're coming from. I think we're going to need more projects like that that actually get people to know people from completely other backgrounds as people.


Brian Hooks:  Yeah, that's right. And, you know, there's a lot of reason to be concerned, based on the polarization that's happening in this country. There's also a lot of reasons to be encouraged, though.


      You know, one of the issues that we work on a lot is immigration, out of the idea that, people who want to come here to contribute ought to be welcomed to come and contribute, and we can do that while keeping those few people who would come to do us harm out. And, despite the way that that issue has become so polarized in the political rhetoric, especially over the past several years, positive sentiment towards immigrants in this country has actually gone up even in the past four years. And, today, for the first time, more people in this country believe that we should have more immigrants here than believe that we should have fewer.


      So once you get beneath some of this really ugly and divisive rhetoric on an issue like immigration — but on other issues as well — you find that there's quite a bit to build on towards a positive outcome, towards a positive solution. So we ought to be very concerned, Greg, about what you talked about — the polarization. For sure, that's real. But I think we can also find reason for optimism in the resilience of the country and the shared values that do still exist in a whole lot of people here.


Dean Reuter:  We've got about nine minutes left. Again, we're speaking with Greg Lukianoff and author of the book Believe in People:  Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World written by Charles Koch and Brian Hooks. Brian is with us.


      Brian, while we wait to see if there is a final question from the audience, let me ask you:  How is the book being received, and how is your rollout? Are you doing lots of interviews? I've noticed, on Amazon, it's well ranked, and you've got lots of five-star reviews. But I'm wondering if you can say more about how it's being received.


Brian Hooks:  Well, I've been really encouraged by the way that people have received the book. You talk to Charles about this; this is a project, he'll tell you, that he was working on this for five years. I think it's more like 60 years, right? This is more the culmination of a lot of the lessons that he's learned throughout his entire career in business and philanthropy. And so you hope that it can be helpful to people. And I think for -- we certainly didn't plan to release it at this time, with all that's going on in the world, but it turns out it's awfully relevant to what's happening right now. So, yeah, I think people are looking for a better way, and what we try to offer them in this book is a very practical guide for how they can build on what they're passionate about and what they're good at to make a difference in society.


      So, yeah, we've been doing quite a bit, and it's been really encouraging. People from all different perspectives, lots of different backgrounds -- some folks coming out of the woodwork that we worked with a couple of decades ago and sort of seeing this as a rallying cry for what needs to happen next. So we're in this for the long haul, and this is by no means sort of just a book for the moment. We think it ought to have staying power. But I do think that it offers some pretty practical guidance for people that are concerned about what's happening in the country right now, and that seems to be the way that people are receiving it.


Dean Reuter:  And it sounds like you're fairly optimistic, going forward, if we can only get over some of these issues; is that fair?


Brian Hooks:  Well, you know, optimistic long-term.


Dean Reuter:  Right.


Brian Hooks:  I think that's the important thing. I think it's really important not to be Pollyannaish about the challenges that we've got. We've got to know the severity of the challenges that we're facing if we're actually going to muster the strategies to meet the moment and to really be effective, and I don't want to underplay the challenges. But I do think that the liberal project — this notion that free people can accomplish extraordinary things, as long as we've got a society that's organized to empower them to do so — that's true. And there's a lot of organizations, there's a lot of energy. I mean, I'm talking to folks that work for two of the most effective organizations in this project — FIRE and The Federalist Society — and, you know, people are fired up. And I don't think there's any reason to be discouraged about the opportunity that we have to continue to make progress towards a free society, one that helps to empower people to contribute and to succeed as they help others. But that's not to say we don't have our challenges; we certainly do.


Dean Reuter:  Yeah, I agree with that, and I do feel a sense of urgency. So that leads me to some optimism. And I have to say, from my perch at The Federalist Society, you know as well as our audience does, of course, that one of the things we're known for is engaging — trying to get panels together and debates together where we have people who are decidedly left of center making their points. And I have the benefit of being exposed to those people, the ones willing to engage, so that makes me, perhaps, an eternal optimist.


      We're just about out of time. I think we've had our final question from the audience. I want to give each of you a chance to express a final thought, if there's anything you want to say by way of wrapping up. Greg, since you're our interviewer/moderator, let me give you the first shot at that.


Greg Lukianoff:  Absolutely. So a real pleasure with talking to Brian. It's kind of fun to try out being interviewer for a switch.


      I really must recommend the book. Like I said, it's on audio; it's a quick read; it covers a lot of ground. There's probably not a serious problem faced in America today that they're not trying to help in some way, whether it's addiction or gang violence or corporate welfare or education. It really covers a tremendous amount of ground.


      One last thing I want to say before we go about the bottom-up approach is that, from my very first book Unlearning Liberty and from long before then, I think there's a major divide between people who actually try to help real people in the real world and people who think in terms of homo abstractus — kind of like the academic creation of the abstract human being. And one thing I've noticed is, my friends who live in the abstract world and don't actually have a lot of experience in helping people on the ground -- is that they tend to get much more radicalized in their belief, as if the feelings in their hearts being strong enough can somehow improve the world by itself. But everybody I know who is out there working in refugee camps or helping with criminal justice or actually helping actual students, it gives you this kind of pragmatic, can-do thing. So I do think the very thing that Brian is talking about — community engagement at a grass-roots level — has a lot of wonderful spillover effects at the same time.


Dean Reuter:  Brian Hooks, a final thought?


Brian Hooks:  Well, I want to say thank you, Greg, for doing this, and also for those kind words. I appreciate your enthusiasm for the book, and to Dean -- to you and The Federalist Society, as well. As I said, I think you guys are part of two of the most effective organizations in this project.


      And, to me, I take a lesson from all of our work, and that is that the work that we do, the ideas that we talk about in this book -- the stakes are really, really high. The ideas that we're advocating for and the application of those ideas — to your point, Greg, the kind of getting your hands dirty and seeing how these ideas work in practice — they matter a lot. So the real message for the book is:  We have the opportunity to have a successful future and to accomplish things together as a society that we couldn't even dream of right now, but it's not inevitable, and it's going to depend on each and every one of us finding the way that we can contribute based on who we are and what we do best. The cavalry's not coming; nobody else is coming to save us. We've all got to do it ourselves, and we've all got to do it together in this project.


      So I hope that the severity of the moment causes all of us to kind of take a step back and ask ourselves what more can we do to really make sure that we do all that we can to make this project -- our society -- the kind that our founders imagined in the Declaration of Independence and the kind, I think, that our organizations have been working for for a long time.


      So I'm optimistic about that; I'm excited about that, but it's going to take a lot of work, and I'm pleased to be in the trenches with you guys, so thanks.


Dean Reuter:  I thank you both, Greg Lukianoff, Brian Hooks. Again, the title of the book:  Believe in People:  Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World.


      I want to thank our audience, as well, for dialing in and for your thoughtful questions. And a reminder to our audience to check our website and monitor your emails for notice of the next upcoming teleforum conference call. But until that call, we are adjourned.


      Thank you very much, everyone.





Dean Reuter:  Thank you for listening to this episode of Teleforum, a podcast of The Federalist Society's practice groups. For more information about The Federalist Society, the practice groups, and to become a Federalist Society member, please visit our website at