Free Market Central Interview: Lawrence Reed On Libertarian Heroes [Watch]
From football stars to entertainment figures to politicians, it seems that every other day America witnesses the fall of yet another icon.
Are we celebrating the wrong people? Exactly what makes a hero? Lawrence Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education, recently spoke to Free Market Central about his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories Of Courage, Character and Conviction."
Your latest book is called “Real Heroes.” Why did you write it?
For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed reading and learning about men and women of strong character, especially those who worked to advance the liberty of others. I think we owe such people our gratitude. One way to express it is to remember them by way of both the written and spoken word.
What makes someone a hero?
In my book I focused on a different kind of hero—one who speaks truth to power, takes risks to advance liberty, stands courageously for what he or she knows to be right, refrains from taking the easy way out.
Liberty is a major theme that runs through these profiles. Why is this important to you?
Liberty is what makes life worth living. You can’t be the unique person you are if you’re coerced into living a life prescribed for you by others with political power. So if you’re a person who sufficiently recognizes the importance of liberty to devote much of your life and resources to it, you’re a hero in my estimation.
Many of the individuals you write about are not known to most readers. Can you tell us about a few people in the book and what makes them heroes?
The English abolitionist Thomas Clarkson helped end the British slave trade in the first decade of the 19th century. His efforts led to the liberation of millions from the stain of human bondage. It was a battle that consumed 61 years of his life. He set aside his plans to be a minister to devote himself to it.
The German statesman Ludwig Erhard did more than any other single individual to strip socialism from post-World War II Germany. The country, in 1945, was defeated, demoralized, occupied and devastated. It had been through a war and a decade of top-down, centrally-planned economic nonsense. As Germany's economics director during the British and American occupation, and later as chancellor, Erhard resolved to get rid of as much of socialism as he could. He slashed taxes, deregulated, introduced free trade and a sound currency, and ended rationing. Erhard implored the German people to pull themselves up by their own personal efforts and investments. Within a decade, the “German Economic Miracle” through free markets saved the nation. What a powerful example to this day—especially for countries beset with the crushing effects of Big Government!
Father Jerzy Popieluszko of Poland is a very special hero to me because of my love of Poland and the Polish people. Father Popieluszko [helped] bring an end to the Evil Empire of the old Soviet Union through his activities with the opposition trade union, Solidarity. He never gave up his hope for freedom for Poland. He resisted the communist state in the 1980s at great risk to himself. By speaking out as he did, and providing comfort to those fighting tyranny, he was marked as “an enemy of the state.” He was killed by secret police in 1984 but his example remains a powerful inspiration for freedom-fighters everywhere.
Another underappreciated hero—or heroine— was Prudence Crandall, an early advocate of equal rights for African Americans, and women.
Prudence Crandall was a remarkable woman in Connecticut in the 1830s. She was a devoted teacher, and very good one. She was also an educational entrepreneur, starting two schools. But when she insisted on teaching “young ladies of color,” many in her community of Canterbury rose up against her. Racist feelings led to the state passing a law that effectively put her out of business, for no other reason than that she was teaching blacks. I admire her spunk and her principle. She knew the risk but felt that providing an education to young black ladies was what she wanted to do, at a time when it was risky for man to do so, let alone a woman. She was for equal rights for women and for blacks when both were supposed to keep quiet and out of sight.
Adam Smith is of special interest to our readers. Why is he one of your heroes?
Adam Smith was an intellectual giant, a man who expressed good ideas so well that they transformed the world.
Smith grew up in a world which thought that economies needed to be planned and directed by government officials. It was widely accepted as late as the middle of the 18th century that kings, queens and ministers should have considerable power to shape a nation’s economy because there would be chaos otherwise. Smith explained brilliantly that those officials don’t have a clue what they’re doing (other than feathering their own nests). He explained that the “invisible hand” of the profit motive, free enterprise, entrepreneurship and consumer sovereignty is infinitely more effective at growing an economy than the mandates of potentates. He showed us that self-interest in a free market is channeled into the most constructive directions, resulting in economic prosperity.
The heroes in your book present a stark contrast to modern icons of popular culture. We recently witnessed the spectacular fall of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby for moral transgressions. Yet for years they were celebrated for their achievements. Does achievement trump morality in the 21st century?
So often these days, it does seem that economic or political success gets you fame and fortune in spite of one’s personal flaws. If those flaws are minor, or offset by the value to others that you actually create in the marketplace, then I’m not so troubled. But when your flaws are significant and harmful to others and covered up and, worse yet, even rewarded—then I’m outraged. I believe that justice awaits all of us—whether in this life through a guilty conscience or a jail term, or in the hereafter. So ultimately, no, “achievement” does not trump morality.
Who in the present day do you consider heroic?
Instead of names, may I identify some personal heroes by category? I would want to recognize home schoolers as heroes. They are, at sometimes great sacrifice to themselves, saying 'no' to the corrupt conformity of government education and assuming their proper responsibility as parents. Another category of heroes are those businesspeople who are true capitalists, not the crony kind, because they build their businesses without reliance upon special favors from government.
You are one of the country’s leading libertarian voices. Are people surprised that you speak so often of the importance of public morality? Doesn’t being a libertarian mean having the freedom to do what you want?
Sometimes I do get a little pushback from people who mistakenly think I’m pushing some personal, moral agenda on them. But I’m for a society where people do the right things because they want to, not because they have to. By calling upon people to raise their standards of honesty, responsibility, respect for others, self-reliance and courage, I am in keeping with the best traditions of true libertarianism. I’m not asking the state to force us to practice these virtues; if we ever get to where we think those virtues are best advanced through state action, then all is lost.
Liberty (or libertarianism) has never meant to any rational person “the freedom to do what you want.” It means the right to do as you wish so long as you do no harm to others or in any way infringe on their rights, the same rights you are insisting on for yourself. The Golden Rule, in other words.
A few years ago you gave a captivating talk at FreedomFest, the annual gathering of libertarians. You said, “No people who have lost their character have kept their liberties.”
Do you think America has lost its character—and, if so, how do we get it back?
We are definitely in the process of losing it, though measurements of that erosion are difficult to come by. More people today are directly dependent upon transfer payments and the redistributive welfare state than ever before in our history. The rise of intolerance for speech we don’t like is a disturbing development. The disdain among our campus academia for private property and entrepreneurship is appalling.
How do we restore character? Not by any act of Congress, though Congress could certainly help by ceasing its endless subsidies for bad behavior. Character is something that comes from within each of us. We must refresh and strengthen it through education and example, by personal commitments to do what our consciences tell us is right. Each of us must resolve to make his or her character of the highest priority. That suggests an inner renaissance, one person at a time.
Finally, would you like to say a few words about The Foundation For Economic Education?
FEE is an educational organization devoted to providing the ethical, economic and philosophical case for a free society to young people. We seek to inspire high school and college students with a message that links liberty to personal character. FEE reaches tens of thousands of students each year in face-to-face events in schools and on campuses and other venues. We communicate with millions more every month through a robust web site, an array of online courses, books and pamphlets, daily emails, and seminars and presentations all over the U.S. and abroad.
Thank you for your great work, and for talking with us today.