This is interview #10 in JohnsonForAmerica.com’s “Important Voices” series, where we talk with key figures, such as elected officials, candidates, authors, commentators, and policy experts, about the issues of the day. A new interview is released every Monday and every Thursday, so check back often!
Our guest for today’s Important Voices interview is Lawrence Reed. Larry has been president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) since 2008. Before joining FEE, Reed served as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland, Michigan based free-market think tank. To date, he remains Mackinac’s president emeritus. Reed’s interests in political and economic affairs have taken him as a freelance journalist to 69 countries on six continents since 1985. Over the past twenty-five years, he has reported on hyperinflation in South America, black markets from behind the Iron Curtain, reforms and repression in China and Cambodia, and civil war inside Nicaragua and Mozambique.
Josiah Schmidt: How did you come to hold such a liberty-oriented philosophy?
Lawrence Reed: I was born outside a little Western Pennsylvania town called Beaver Falls in 1953. That’s where I grew up and lived for the first 24 years of my life. I went to two Pennsylvania colleges for my B.A. and M.A. degrees: Grove City College and Slippery Rock State University. Western Pennsylvania was home to the Whiskey Rebellion, and I think my Scottish ancestors who were a part of that must have passed on some authority-questioning genes to me. I moved to Michigan to start teaching in 1977 at Northwood University.
No one on either my father’s side or my mother’s side of the family ever had much interest and even less involvement in political, economic, or current affairs. But my father imparted some basic, no-nonsense, anti-authoritarian and pro-freedom instincts which really blossomed in the late 1960s.
One of my first encounters with government was when I was in the third grade and my father wanted to take me to Florida for a week in January to visit relatives. The public school officials protested. They called my dad and said he couldn’t take me out of school just for a vacation. He told them in no uncertain terms that I was his kid, not theirs, and while he was taking me to a warm place, they could pack their bags and go someplace a lot hotter. He hung up on them.
My mother took my sister and younger sister and me to see “The Sound of Music” in 1965, and that proved to be a powerful catalyst. I was only 12 and I didn’t want to go, but the movie really had an effect on me. State oppression vs. people who just wanted to be left alone–that’s the way I saw it. It was the first time in my life that I realized that other people in the world–past and present–didn’t enjoy the basic, day-to-day freedoms I had taken for granted. It prompted me to do a lot of reading on pre-World War II history, especially the Nazi takeovers of Austria and Czechoslovakia.
When “Prague Spring” blossomed in Czechoslovakia in early 1968, I was glued to the TV set and the newspapers. Warsaw Pact troops put a stop to it when they invaded in August. I was angry and wanted to do something, but what could a teenager in Beaver Falls possibly do about a problem half a world away?
Within days, I saw a newspaper story about a group called Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) which was organizing an anti-Soviet demonstration in downtown Pittsburgh. I went to it, burned a Soviet flag in Mellon Square, and joined YAF. In those days, YAF sent all new members copies of books like F. A. Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom,” Henry Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson,” Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law,” and Henry Grady Weaver’s “The Mainspring of Human Progress.” It also arranged for new members to receive “The Freeman,” the journal of the organization I would assume the presidency of almost 40 years later to the very day. I devoured all this material, gained an appreciation for economics, and liberty has been my primary passion ever since.
So the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia made me an anti-communist activist before the age of 15, and that led me fairly quickly into free market economics. I learned early that the most effective anti-communist was one who understood and could defend the moral and economic foundations of liberty.
Dr. Hans Sennholz, one of four scholars to earn a Ph.D. under the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, was my teacher at Grove City College. His eloquence was a huge inspiration. Leonard Read, who founded the Foundation for Economic Education, was a big influence on me both as an author and a friend before he died in 1983. I wrote my first of more than 200 articles for FEE’s journal, The Freeman, in 1977 and I regard it as a singular honor to have served from 1994-2002 as a member of FEE’s board and as its chair for three of those years. Leonard’s persona–his optimism and his gentle persuasiveness in particular–left a very large and permanent imprint on me.
Among the authors who have greatly influenced me are: Mises, Frederic Bastiat, F. A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, R. C. Sproul and believe it or not, Dale Carnegie (whose classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People” remains one of the best self-improvement books ever written). And of course, how could I possibly forget Henry Hazlitt, whom I came to know personally in the last years of his life!
Josiah Schmidt: Libertarians undoubtedly are familiar with names like Mises, Bastiat, Hayek, Rand, and Rothbard, but I think every libertarian needs to be familiar with Dale Carnegie–I’m glad you mentioned him. So, how did the Foundation for Economic Education come to be? And also, explain who Leonard Read was and why he was so important.
Lawrence Reed: FEE was founded by Leonard Read in 1946. Prior to that, Leonard’s views had undergone a profound shift from a mundane, “pro-business” perspective that was sometimes sympathetic to FDR’s “New Deal,” to a thoroughly principled and authentic libertarianism. At a time when the world was embracing central planning and the prospects for liberty seemed dark indeed, Leonard saw the need to light a candle. So he created FEE. The organization was pretty much alone in championing liberty for quite a while, proving in the long run why it was so critically important for there to be a place that kept the right ideas alive. Leonard and FEE churned out books and pamphlets and speeches, spawning generations of new advocates for liberty. Many famous names drew inspiration from FEE and knew Leonard personally: Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan, to name just four.
I couldn’t begin to do this great man justice in a few paragraphs of an interview, so I urge your readers to visit our web site, www.fee.org, and key in the name “Leonard Read.” They’ll find a treasure trove of his works, and praise for him from many other people. I call your readers’ attention to one piece in particular if they want to know more about Leonard the man and his founding of FEE. It’s entitled “Leonard E. Read, Crusader” by long-time FEE staff member Bettina Greaves and it appeared in the September 1998 issue of our magazine, “The Freeman.” Here’s a link to it: http://www.thefreemanonline.org/featured/leonard-e-read-crusader/.
Josiah Schmidt: What are some of FEE’s most important accomplishments?
Lawrence Reed: I don’t think one can over-estimate the contribution that FEE made by keeping the ideas of liberty alive when the world was hell-bent in the other direction. That will always the signature accomplishment of FEE in its first couple of decades.
Over the years, FEE has been the primary promoter and distributor of some important classics in the literature of liberty, such as Bastiat’s “The Law” and Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson.” We’ve introduced untold thousands, including men and women who later became great economists and people of influence, to the “Austrian” school of economics. Our seminars, public presentations and debate programs instruct hundreds of eager minds every year in the moral and economic foundations of a free society. We are encouraging newcomers and old-timers in the liberty movement with our magazine, “The Freeman,” a very robust web site full of articles, commentary, and audio and video lectures (www.fee.org), a Facebook fan page, books and monographs, a vigorous program for high school and home school debaters, and an endless stream of lectures to audiences all around the country.
Josiah Schmidt: What are your top three favorite books?
Lawrence Reed: That’s a tough one. I’ve read so many that I hesitate to single out just three as my favorites. Certainly high on that list would be the books I’ve already referred to in this interview, plus the books of the New Testament, Burton Folsom’s “The Myth of the Robber Barons,” Eric Metaxas’s “Amazing Grace,” Charles Murray’s “What It Means To Be A Libertarian” and Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”
Let me answer your question further this way: I think a lover of liberty should regularly read more than the great works of free market economics. He should read biographies of great men and women such as William Wilberforce, David Livingstone, Harriett Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Grover Cleveland, William Ewart Gladstone and Frederick Douglass. He should read biographies of great entrepreneurs because those are the people who actually create the wealth that politicians only redistribute–at the point of a gun. He should read good history so he knows the lessons of the past, from ancient Israel through the Roman empire to the rise of America. And he should read the works of great teachers of character because without character, neither a person nor a nation is going anywhere.
I’ll take the liberty here to recommend some superb movies too: “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” “Amazing Grace,” “Cinderella Man,” “The Sound of Music,” “Chariots of Fire,” and “A Man For All Seasons,” for starters.
Josiah Schmidt: Who is the most underrated and underappreciated libertarian writer, in your opinion?
Lawrence Reed: Without a doubt, that would be economist Thomas Sowell. Among libertarians, he’s well-known and revered. He has a following beyond that because of the newspaper column he writes and the excellent books he’s authored. But if the literary world placed a premium on wisdom for the ages, it wouldbe showering him with awards. Perhaps no one has better distilled the nature of the enemy liberty faces than Sowell did in his book, “The Vision of the Anointed.”
Josiah Schmidt: Do you have a couple interesting stories to share with us from your extensive traveling abroad?
Lawrence Reed: I’ve visited nearly 70 countries on six continents since 1985, many of them several times. When I was involved in anti-communist work in the 1980s and early ‘90s, I went to the Soviet Union five times, China three times, Nicaragua five times, Poland twice, and even Cambodia. I was arrested only twice–in Poland and in Nicaragua–and only thrown out of one. That was Poland in 1986, after spending two weeks living with the anti-communist underground.
After I befriended the leader of the rebel opposition in Marxist Mozambique in 1991, a colleague and I made an incredible, surreptitious trip to that country and lived with the rebels at their bush headquarters in the midst of a devastating civil war. That was unlike just about any other trip I’ve ever made anywhere.
I’ve studied hyperinflation in Bolivia and Brazil, voodoo in Haiti, and underground movements in the old East bloc. Foreign travel is an enriching experience but after awhile, it’s a killer trying to keep up correspondence with friends you’ve made all over the place. And these days, as I approach the tender age of 60, I’m slowing down a bit.
I learned a great deal from all that travel. I’ve seen firsthand that the planned economy–socialism in all its preposterous and destructive manifestations–is a cruel joke that never works. Socialists have said that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, but as I’ve written in a number of places, socialists never make omelets. They only break eggs.
I’ve learned that the prism of individualism is the only way to see the world. Stereotyping a people or a nation is always a false, ignorant, and dangerous way to view them. I’ve learned that individuals are often phenomenally enterprising in the face of enormous, artificial roadblocks. I saw so much in the way of black markets and private enterprise in places where such things were repressed that I’ve come to regard much of what government does in the way of pushing people around to be utterly futile. If it’s a peaceful activity with no real victims, leave it alone.
The activists in the Polish freedom underground in the late 1980s will always be among the most interesting to me because of their perseverance in the face of the Soviet empire. I remember visiting with a couple in Poland in 1986 during martial law, Zbigniew and Sofia Romaszewski, who had just been released from prison for running an underground radio. They were active once again on behalf of freedom because it meant everything to them. I asked them many questions including, “When you were broadcasting, how did you know if people were listening?” I’ve recounted Sofia’s reply hundreds of times to audiences all over the country, and my eyes still well up every time I think of it. She said, “We could only broadcast a few minutes at a time and then had to go off the air to avoid detection, but one night we asked people to blink their lights if they were listening and were supportive of freedom for Poland. We then went to the window and for hours, all of Warsaw was blinking!”
Of all my worldly possessions I picked up on those travels, none is more valuable to me than a copy of Milton Friedman’s book, “Free to Choose,” illegally translated into Polish and printed and distributed by the Polish underground. It contains a handwritten inscription from a leading Polish freedom-fighter, thanking me for raising the money in America that made it possible.
Josiah Schmidt: What advice would you give to libertarians reading this interview?
Lawrence Reed: Anybody who has read this far might think I’ve offered too much advice already. But here’s a little more anyway: Be an optimist if you want to attract others to the cause. Follow the Golden Rule and don’t pick fights with allies, remembering than a person doesn’t have to agree with you on everything to be an ally. Consider your time on earth as a lifelong character-building exercise–own up to your faults, fix them, and be the best example you can be for all those who come into contact with you.
This little essay explains why I think character is so critical to liberty: http://www.thefreemanonline.org/columns/ideas-and-consequences-character-liberty-and-economics/
Josiah Schmidt: Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
Lawrence Reed: Smile. Stick to your principles. Don’t ever give up. When you’re about to go to your reward some day, be able to look back on your life and say truthfully as the apostle Paul did, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
And in the meantime, if you’re on Facebook, send me a friend invite.
Josiah Schmidt: Definitely. Thanks for taking the time to share some of your wisdom with us.