What’s the best way to teach the principles of economics and individual liberty to people? Is having ‘good character’ a timeless virtue?
Lawrence W. Reed joins us this week to discuss his work at the Foundation for Economic Education and FEE’s history in the worldwide free market movement. He also shares a few stories about ‘Real Heroes’ of liberty.
Show Notes and Further Reading
Aaron mentions reading Reed’s essays on character and liberty. They are available here, organized into a short book The Great Hope: Essays on Character and Liberty.
Reed’s ongoing Real Heroes series can be found here. New features are released every Friday; here is Reed’s account of the life of Witold Pilecki.
Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianims.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: And joining us today is Lawrence Reed, President of Foundation for Economic Education. Welcome to Free Thoughts.
Lawrence Reed: Hey, it’s a pleasure to be with you, Aaron and Trevor.
Aaron Powell: I guess let’s start with having you tell us just a bit about the Foundation for Economic Education, which has been around for quite a while. It’s one of the granddaddies of the free market movement.
Lawrence Reed: Yes, it is. It was founded in 1946 by the late Leonard Read—no relation. He spelled his name R-E-A-D, whereas mine is with two E’s. But I did know him in the last 7 years of his life before he passed away in 1983. He was a remarkable man, born in Michigan, became interested in first of all just private enterprise and general business principles early on. He was a business man himself for a time and worked later for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. But he had an epiphany at one point when he was with the Los Angeles Chamber. Thanks to another gentleman who acquainted him with very principled ideas of liberty and genuinely free markets, so he transitioned from a pro-business guy to a pro-enterprise free market guy. And over the years that he ran FEE from its founding in 1946 until his death in 1983, he was amazingly prolific man, a gentleman of the first order and really kept the flame of liberty alive at a very dark time in the late ‘40s and ‘50s especially when FEE was practically alone in promoting these ideas of individual liberty.
Aaron Powell: This distinction you just made, his shift from being pro-business to pro-free markets, that’s often a distinction that I think gets lost on a lot of people especially non-libertarians, non-free market sorts. What is that difference?
Lawrence Reed: The difference is huge; in fact, there’s an awful lot of people who have come to oppose what they think free markets are or capitalism because they think that these things involve businesses using their political connections to get something at other people’s expense or use the political power of government to stick it to their competitors in some way, a kind of cronyism. I know the term often is used crony-capitalism but I like to say if it’s capitalism it is a cronyism. The more cronyism that’s practiced, the more it looks like some form of socialism with political power determining who gets what. So I think it’s important in a genuinely free market. There are no favors, free and open field for people to compete, to start businesses, to compete with the biggest of existing firms and no special favors from the government in the form of subsidies or goodies of one kind or another that disadvantaged anyone else in the marketplace.
Trevor Burrus: So, in the original incarnation of fee was the idea for an educational as it has—Has FEE changed much in basic mission since 1946? It’s still focusing on educating young people in the ideas of economics? Was there anything very different back in the ‘50s?
Lawrence Reed: Yeah in those early years because FEE was alone for the first decade or more. It spoke to almost anybody of any age, any occupation and so it was probably rather difficult to market in that FEE never really focused on a particular demographic and I can understand that. I think at the time that’s what it had to do. But over the years, in part because of FEE’s progress in spawning a lot of other groups, we’ve had to make some changes with FEE. Now we focus exclusively on young people, high school and college, and even within that demographic, we’ve focused more narrowly on those young people who are newcomers to ideas of liberty. If you come to us and say “I want to come to a FEE seminar because, you know, I’ve been to Cato University, I’ve been to an IHS program, I’ve read Human Actions three times,” we say, “Wonderful. We’d be happy to connect you with the next level, but you’re not what we’re looking for.” We want to be thought of as the first start, the first portal into liberty ideas for young newcomers to ideas of liberty. That’s how we’ve changed, but our core principles have not changed one iota.
Aaron Powell: Is there a difference in the way that—I mean aside from maybe the degree of knowledge that you assume on the part of the person you’re talking to. Is there a difference in the way that you go about teaching young people versus older people about these ideas?
Lawrence Reed: Yes, there is. The younger the audience, the more you’ve got to make use of technology. I think the younger the audience, the more stories are important to communicate the message. That’s what young people remember. That’s what they relate to. If you—for instance, one of our key themes is the indispensible connection between liberty and personal character. If we talk about that in any kind of a preachy condescending way, you know, we’d lose our audience. But when you’re talking to young people, I think in discussing matters of personal character and its connection to liberty, I think the best way to do that is through stories. So, we become great storytellers at many of our programs. We’re getting our principles across by talking about exemplary people living and from the past who have been advocates for liberty and walked the walk.
Trevor Burrus: I wanted to ask you about someone who—actually, I don’t think we’ve really mentioned much on Free Thoughts before but who was very associated with FEE, Henry Hazlitt. I wanted to ask you about him and for listeners who aren’t familiar with him and aren’t familiar with his excellent book, Economics in One Lesson, could you tell us a little bit about him and his association with FEE?
Lawrence Reed: Absolutely. Henry Hazlitt was a very good friend of Leonard Read’s. He was on the board of FEE for many years. When he passed away in the 1990s, he bequeathed his personal library to FEE which we still have. He was a remarkable man and contributed so much to our understanding of communicating ideas of liberty and free markets to a broad lay audience. He was not a Ph.D. in Economics but he had an uncanny ability to communicate ideas so that anybody could understand them and actually get excited about them. He certainly did that in his classic and best-known work Economics in One Lesson. FEE has helped to keep that book alive. It remains to this day available on our website and in our bookstore. You can get it from other places as well, but we’ve made sure that it’s always in print and it’s one of our best-sellers, but Hazlitt was just a phenomenal guy. One of the most treasured things I have is a correspondence, letters that he and I exchanged way back in the early ‘80s and, yeah, I just—he’s a remarkable guy.
Trevor Burrus: And so—when we talk about communicating free markets to young people or anyone whatsoever, I’m sure you have a lot to say about the fact that we have—since Adam Smith, we seem to know a lot about how markets work, but it seems to be very difficult to convince people that markets are a good thing. Why is it difficult to convince people that markets are a good thing?
Lawrence Reed: Well, I’ve often said that, you know, anybody can be a socialist. All it takes is the desire to have something that belongs to somebody else and the willingness to use political power and force to get it. But to be an advocate of liberty and to be a consistent one is actions follow on from the principles, you’ve got to practice things like restraint. You can’t just take a claim on somebody else’s possessions just because you want it or have a good idea. I think liberty is the only social-political-economic arrangement that requires that we live to high standards of character. I’ve never in all my reading of history seen a single civilization where the people have lost their character and kept their liberty. So, it doesn’t take much to be a socialist, but it does take a higher level of understanding and of moral character I think to live your life within the principles of character and liberty. You’ve got to keep your hands off of other people’s pockets. You’ve got to associate with others in a way that respects their lives and their property. Sometimes the human desire to be secure, those things go by the boards if we think we can grab something no matter how we get it.
Aaron Powell: So then what would you say to some young people right now—Bernie Sanders is quite popular and the Bernie Sanders supporters might respond to what you just said by saying “Don’t you have it backwards that—” So the free markets capitalism is motivated by acquisitiveness, by greed, by you know competition that grinds people down and leaves people out whereas it’s the socialism or the social democracy that is based on the character of sharing, of recognizing when you have enough and other people don’t and using the mechanisms of the state not to steal but to better the wars off, give everyone a leg up, give everyone a chance.
Lawrence Reed: Well, I would call it sharing if you have to do it at gunpoint and that’s what socialism ultimately reduces to. I think it’s important for people to understand that each of us comes into this world with the right to do anything that’s peaceful and we are each obligated to respect the lives and the property and the wishes, the choices of other people so long as each of us leaves each other alone. But socialism departs from that and assumes that if it’s a really good idea, we can use the political force of government to get it. I want a society and I think this is true of every libertarian where people do the right thing because they want to, not because they have to. I think it’s great that kids can go to college and I think it’s great that people contribute to scholarship funds to enable them to go to college. But it wouldn’t occur to me as a believer of liberty to call the cops and to at gunpoint take from people so that anyone can go to college and that’s not because I think, you know, government—or that the private enterprise is inherently greedy or anything.
I think we all have a sense of acquisitiveness. There’s nothing about socialism that does away with that. It’s just that under socialism, your acquisitiveness can only be satisfied by using a political force to get what you want; whereas in free markets, if you want something, you’ve got to persuade. You’ve got to convince. You’ve got to produce. You’ve got to freely associate. You don’t use the force of government to get what you want.
Trevor Burrus: Given that you’re in the free market education business in the world—well, not business. Life pursuit is a better way to put it. Have you come to a conclusion of something that you think is sort of the main reason people free market and I mean specifically with Aaron and the Bernie Sanders thing. Is it that they don’t think that the market would supply these things or do a good job of supplying healthcare so they just don’t—the people don’t know enough about the mechanism of the market that can make these things work to have healthcare, education and charity? Or is there something more rapacious in some of these people who really just want to take from people who have something to give it to people who don’t because of their view of justice? Maybe not rapacious, but at least more just about forcible redistribution for justice’s sake.
Lawrence Reed: Yeah. I think there’s something to that, but there are other factors at work as well. I’m trying to remember how you exactly put it at the opening of your question there.
Trevor Burrus: Well, the question was just about—yeah, the question of just they don’t have the belief that the market works. I mean—and so—I mean maybe the first thing we have to do is just convince them that it does because they think that they’re comparing Bernie Sanders’ promises to Mad Max chaos of the robber barons era or some sort of image they have of what markets are like that they’re probably wrong about.
Lawrence Reed: Yeah. People often judge markets against a perfect ideal, and if you judge anything according to that, it’s going to be found wanting. They don’t have the same high standard when it comes to government. If they did, they’d be looking around right now and saying, “Holy cow, we trusted it with providing education but we’ve got 40%, 50%, 60% dropout rates in government schools that are graduating kids claiming that they’ve got a 12th grade knowledge but in fact, it may be 7th or 8th grade, unprepared for the future.” We’ve got massive government failures in so many areas that get so many people seem to think, “Well, that’s okay, at least we mean well when we do it through the government.” But if they apply the same standards to the private sector, they’d be horrified. So I think part of the problem here is we’re just going to get people to realize you can’t judge markets against an ideal and judge government against far lower standards and then end up saying, “Well, we just have to have more government.” I mean what if it’s a massive failure and I would argue that it has been in so many areas.
Aaron Powell: So I’m curious about your thoughts on one issue in convincing people of the value of markets and the freer the markets, the better. I mean a lot of us around the country and all of us in D.C. are both baffled and reeling at the rise of Donald Trump and his anti-immigration and his anti-free trade arguments. And when I have criticized Trump on my Facebook page or elsewhere, one of the arguments that people make about why his supports—about why we got to be more sympathetic to his supporters than we might otherwise be is that free trade brings enormous benefits overall and it brings enormous benefits in the long-term. But free trade can also hurt people who lose out in that competition that, you know, you allow people to exchange with other countries and suddenly, you know, the high-paying and relatively low-skilled factory jobs move overseas and so now you’re saying, “Look, free trade is good, you know, GDP is up and the country is becoming wealthy over time—”
Trevor Burrus: And you don’t have a job.
Aaron Powell: Yeah, and you don’t have a job and the skills that you have are now worth a third or half as much on the open market as they used to be. So, how do you go about promoting the value of economic liberty specifically to the people who have been hurt by the competition that comes with economic liberty?
Lawrence Reed: Yeah, it is a tough issue. There’s no question about it because people are interested in the here and now often more so than they are the future and they’re more interested in themselves of what immediately affects them than what might affect them next year or in 10 years. Part of the problem we always have in advocating for free markets is to get people to think longer term. What strikes the eye, as Henry Hazlitt would put it, isn’t necessarily the full story. So, there is no question. We cannot deny the fact that when you allow people greater freedom to trade with people elsewhere in the world, that some individuals will in the near term be hurt, but that’s no different than it is in any other aspect of an economy even when domestic competition arises. One hamburger joint puts another one out of business because consumers say, “I’d like the new burger better than the old one.” So these are changes I don’t think you can ever get completely behind us. It’s the nature of a dynamic economy that’s based on the right of individuals to freely choose with whom they want to do business. So, yeah—
Trevor Burrus: It might not convince everyone, but it’s one way of doing it I guess.
Lawrence Reed: That’s right. And if you get people to realize, hey, it may be uncomfortable to have free trade for some people, but it’s even more uncomfortable and probably for a lot more people if you try to freeze the market in place, close the door to things like competition from overseas, new options, lower prices, more choices and so forth. In the long run, that does benefit everybody better and no one has the right to use the political force of government to feather their own mess to keep the job that they presently have. You have the right to convince people, “Hey, buy from me instead of that guy,” but you have no right in a free society to use the force of government to compel somebody to buy from you or to hire you instead of whoever they may choose otherwise to deal with.
Trevor Burrus: Now, you’ve been doing this for a while. Have you found sort of methods of communication to talk about free markets that (a) you think are particularly useful and good and we mentioned stories as a really good way of doing, but if you sidle up to someone at a bar and he just sort of started talking, you know, what’s the first kind of thing you say to them? And then the second part of the question is, do you have any particular pet peeves about the way that some people might talk about markets that you think are counterproductive and not really helping the situation?
Lawrence Reed: Sure. I do have thoughts on these issues and in many cases they were prompted originally by my reading of our founder’s work, Leonard Read. He had a uniquely special way of communicating to people. He was always calm. He was always gentle. He never came across and say, “what’s wrong with you? I got to beat this into your head until you get it.” And he strongly believed that if you are a humble person and your humility shows in the sense that you communicate to people that you don’t think you know everything that you’re willing to listen, then certain barriers come down right away. But also I think another important tip is be patient with people. Sometimes you see someone advocating for liberty who is just so impatient to get you to come aboard 100% on everything as quickly as possible. Sometimes it works better just to convince people of a few points here and there and be very encouraging to them as they rethink their premises. Let it take a little time and ultimately you’re going to have a greater chance of a guaranteed convert that if you try to beat them over the head with everything all at once.
Aaron Powell: So I want to go back to this project that you talked about on exploring the relationship between liberty and character. I had recently read your essay on this topic and I was struck by the line that you mentioned earlier about how free markets and liberty is the system that demands of us high character and is unique in that regard. And I was wondering how that fits with the—there’s this other defense of a system of ordered liberty and a system particularly of free markets and of capitalism that says, you know, one of the really neat things about this is that it works even if people are of let’s call it lower morale character or in particular are greedy because it channels that. It turns what looked like vices into productive virtues in a way that other systems don’t. So is there a conflict there between the system requiring moral virtue and then this argument that it seems to make productive vice?
Lawrence Reed: No, I don’t see a conflict at all. I think you can come out of it from both angles and in my mind, sometimes it’s—you know, which came first chicken or the egg issue. But I think the two things together are—work powerfully together that before a society can become free, I think people have to understand such things as respecting the lives and the property of other people. I don’t think a society of thieves will likely emerge into society of freedom. So at some point, you got to raise your character and recognize that there are others in society and they deserve just as much respect from you as you would expect from them. But then I also agree with the argument you phrased that free markets have among its many benefits, a free market has the benefit of encouraging progress. Every time I go into, say, Walmart or any store for that matter, I’m greeted by people who would otherwise have no reason to ever say hello to me or “What can I do for you?” or “How can I help you?” But the very fact that they’re part of an operation that is designed to curry favor to begin and get my patronage means that they’ve raised their standards. So I think it works in both directions. What I’m most convinced of is that a people who abandon strong elements of personal character, who become largely dishonest or impatient or timid or irresponsible, I think it’s only a matter of time before whatever freedoms they’ve got will be lost.
Trevor Burrus: Some people might listen to you say character and think that you sound antiquated is the word I want to—that the discussion of character belongs in a different era. It’s the kind of thing that leave it to beaver, talk about and, you know, sits down whiley in the beave and he tells some about these things and we don’t really do that anymore. It all seems kind of quaint to talk about character with such earnestness. So, two questions, if you agree with it that that’s kind of changed, why do you think that has changed and is it a valid critique to say that character has kind of—it’s kind of passé and we need a new way of talking about markets.
Lawrence Reed: Well, you could certainly advance ideas of character or at least pretend to advance them in effective ways like wrapping yourself in the stories or analogies that’s even like yesteryear to a lot of people. But I think it’s more important to stress today that how many out there really don’t want to live in a society where people deal with each other honestly? Would anybody really upon reflection want to live in a society where everybody is lying to you all the time, stealing from you? Or in other ways, are irresponsible or impatient with you? I mean these are timeless values and, yeah, it’s true that times have changed and our heroes are not the same that they once were, but the timeless values underneath strong character I think are just as valid as ever. Most people—overwhelmingly, most people want to live in a society where they are respected, where others deal with them in an honest fashion, so I don’t see these core character values as being in any way outdated. It’s just how we sell them that can be seen as outdated.
Trevor Burrus: Now that’s kind of interesting because—I mean people might be thinking about character less and we do have—again, to bring up Donald Trump again which I mean it’s important to talk about it because it’s a crazy phenomenon.
Aaron Powell: Post-character.
Trevor Burrus: It’s a post-character, yes. Does that mean that maybe people aren’t drawn to good character anymore? They just—they want someone who’s a clown and funny and says whatever pops into his mind?
Lawrence Reed: Well, I think what’s motivating the sympathy for Trump is—and I admit it’s far greater than I would have anticipated and in that sense it’s been a disappointment to me. But I think what motivates it is a justifiable anger with the way government has been operating in recent decades. I just think Donald Trump is a very poor vessel into which to pour that anger, but I’m sympathetic with—I mean people have darn good reason to feel disdain from so many involved parties who have left them down so many times. But I’m afraid if they glum on to Donald Trump that they’re setting themselves up for just as much of a disappointment at some point as they’ve ever had before.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think there’s anything about government or big government in general that you can kind of expect disappointment or it will breed the kind of disappointment with Washington that maybe Bernie Sanders and Trump are both a part of because government promises a lot and can’t deliver much, and when we centralize things in Washington, it creates difficult situations where everyone feels that they’re not being represented. Maybe it’s just part of the growth of government, but it just makes people disappointed.
Lawrence Reed: Oh, absolutely. I’ve written on this in a number of places. If anyone thinks that they can have both good government and big government at the same time, I think they’re sadly mistaken. The bigger government gets, the more it claims a share of what other people have produced, the more it’s in the business of pleasing constituencies by throwing other people’s money at them, buying votes with public money and so forth. The more you concentrate power in Washington or any place else, the more you get nastiness, the more you get people falling over themselves to get in-charged of this massive redistributive apparatus and they’ll do anything in many cases to get ahold of that massive amount of power and wealth either to enjoy it personally or to keep it at bay. And what happens is increasingly, the bigger government gets, the more truly good people of solid character look at it and say, “Why would I want to drag myself through the mud? Forget that business, I’m going to do something else.” So you end up getting the worst people in big government, so you get the worst of both worlds, you got a big powerful government with the worst people running it. That’s why I think it’s a critical point that people understand that the bigger it gets, the more corrupt and nastier it’s going to be and the more of a magnet it’s going to be for the worst among us.
Trevor Burrus: Well, I’ve heard this different story though where—I mean the story that I know is that before the government came along to save us from many things such as food and drug regulation in the progressive era or how their government needed to help us out in the new deal that the real chaos helping out unions, workers, minimum wage laws, the real chaos that existed was not a product of government. It just seems that as we’ve progressed as a society, we have seen it has moved with bigger government. They were richer or living longer lives now. They probably have higher happiness quotients than people in 1850 and we have a much larger government. So it can’t be that bad. It seemed like the story is actually that progress is synonymous with the growth in government.
Lawrence Reed: Well, it’s constantly amazing to me how relatively free people and relatively free markets continue to overcome some of the worst mistakes and follies promoted by government. But in your question, you rattle off quite a string of what I like to call bumper stickers of the status left. And each and every one of them—
Trevor Burrus: What a coincidence I did that.
Lawrence Reed: Yeah, really.
Trevor Burrus: I had no plans whatsoever though, but bumper sticker, I like that. Bumper stickers of the status left, so we are some of those.
Lawrence Reed: Well, one of them I mentioned was that the new deal saved us. And, you know, if people buy into this stuff, yeah, they’re going to be led ultimately to the wrong conclusions and to embrace the wrong ideas, but just take that one about the great depression and the new deal. So may Americans have been taught the bumper sticker that capitalism failed as free markets failed us in the late 1920’s and government had to commit and rescue us. But you look at that more closely as one of the chapters does in my recent book, Excuse Me, Professor, you’ll find that at the core of that crisis was mismanagement of the economy and lousy policies from government. You had the Federal Reserve creature of the federal government causing an unsustainable bubble in the 1920’s with historically easy money, dirt cheap interest rates just like we had before 2008.
You had a boom in the stock market because of it and then later when the fed reserved itself and jacked up into straits dramatically, it pricked the bubble and the depression began. And then congress made it even worse and two different administrations, republican and democrat successively, exacerbated it with a string of crazy policies. You had Herbert Hoover signing the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in 1930 that virtually closed the borders to international trade. If you were in a business that depended upon trade overseas, you’ve got flattened by Smoot-Hawley. And then in 1932 in the face of the depression, the income tax was doubled. The top rate more than doubled. And then this is even before Franklin Roosevelt, but when he comes in with the new deal, he ends up prolonging the depression by at least 7 years.
So, there’s a lot more tool all that, but we are constantly—those of us who advocate free markets barrage by these status bumper stickers that that say, you know, they’re casually all the free market caused the depression government they answer when in fact a detailed scholarly analysis proves just the opposite.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think that—this is an interesting part where I think FEE fits in because we feel like we in the broad free market tradition thinkers says in the 20th century America, we feel like our story hasn’t been told. I feel like in a very big way—that’s why we started things like FEE and then later Cato or IHS because the professors just weren’t teaching it and the media wasn’t talking about it. Is there—I mean that’s the way it’s often discussed. I mean do you think that’s true and how does FEE sort of fit into that narrative?
Lawrence Reed: I almost never run into anybody who’s hostile to the free market because they thoroughly read our side. They know the literature. They’ve read Hayek, Mises, Friedman, and so forth and have simply come to the conclusion that it’s false. What I run into almost all the time are people who think they know what free markets are, who know the bumper stickers that criticize it, but know nothing of the literature or the rebuttal to status myths of that we are trying to feed it constantly propagated. They put it in front of people. So, I think what we’re fighting is not scholarly recent and deep-seated fundamental understanding of the economy that just happens to be different from ours. I think what we’re fighting is widespread ignorance and false assumptions that need to be corrected.
Aaron Powell: I like your project of as a way of addressing that because it is—I mean you’re trying to give this idea—get people to accept these ideas. One of the problems with free market economics as it’s often presented is it’s—and arguments for liberty as well is that it’s often very abstract economics fortunately becomes awfully mathematical. Those are difficult things to inspire people with like you want to get the people to read the literature but most people unless you are really hard core are not going to pick up human action and read it. You have to be quite inspired to do that and so this way of going about it through storytelling, so one of the things that you do at FEE is write this series called Real Heroes about men and women who have lived these values and contributed to this tradition. Are there people who are particularly inspiring or have particularly good invaluable stories for promoting these ideas?
Lawrence Reed: Oh, absolutely. I’ve been writing this series now every Friday on our website FEE.org for about a year. So I’ve come up with almost 50 of them already and there’s so many more. If you take Ludwig Erhard, for instance, the name that I remembering hearing as a child growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s but whose name is largely forgotten today, here’s a guy who after World War II became an important figure in Germany ultimately chancellor. He was an architect of fixing the post-war German economy. Just imagine what he inherited. The place was a mess, defeated, devastated, occupied, refugees pouring in. I mean Germany was a complete socialist mess after the war after 12 years of national socialism under Hitler. But within a decade, it would become the richest country in Europe again, largely because of Ludwig Erhard, it was a Sunday when he announced to the German people he was going to abolish all price controls and rationing in light upon free markets for the distribution of goods. He was going to employ a sound currency replace the hyper-inflated one. He followed market principles and in no time at all the free markets save Germany. There are lots of people like that in history that students are not hearing from and typically in the government schools.
Trevor Burrus: In writing your series on these heroes, these interesting characters, did you have one that was the most surprising that you’ve sort of discovered, I mean maybe we just heard about it but is there someone that you said, “Well, I’ve never heard of this guy and this is quite amazing”?
Lawrence Reed: Yeah, absolutely, quite a number of such cases. But most recently one that really grabbed me, I’m happy to say I met this man’s son just a few weeks ago in Poland. It concerns a gentleman I’d never heard of until last fall. His name was Witold Pilecki. He’s got a rank as one of the bravest people in the history of the world. He not only fought to secure Poland’s independence after World War I when he emerged for the first time in over 100 years as a country again. He later, when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 and 2 weeks later the Soviets invaded from the other direction, he joined the resistance against both the Nazis and the Soviets, became the leading commander in that resistance. And after a year of fighting with word that there was this place called Auschwitz in Southern Poland where dazedly things may be happening, he volunteered to get himself arrested in the hopes he might be sent to Auschwitz so he could report from the inside. He had no guarantee that he would, in fact, be sent there. He could have been shot on the spot but he got his wish.
He was sentenced to Auschwitz where for 2-1/2 years he organized a resistance. And his reports, the documents he smuggled out, the transmissions that he was able to do from a makeshift radio for a time, became the first comprehensive eye witness accounts of the holocaust in the Auschwitz concentration camp, but his story didn’t end there. I thought of nothing else that happened, but he spent those 2-1/2 years in Auschwitz, he’d be a hero. But he did something that only 143 other people have ever or ever did and that was to escape from Auschwitz. He made his way back 200 miles to Warsaw where he became the leading commander in the Polish uprising, the Warsaw Uprising. He was captured again by the Germans. They didn’t put two and two together and realize he was the same guy that formed the resistance within Auschwitz. He spent the last months of the war in a German prisoner-of-war camp and finally when the camp was liberated in May of 1945, he had about 4 months of freedom. The Polish army had him in Italy for a time and then when it was apparent that the Soviets weren’t going to leave Poland, they needed somebody to infiltrate back into Poland, go underground and report on Soviet atrocities and so they sent Witold Pilecki. And for 2-1/2 years undercover in Poland, he’s now reporting on Soviet activity and atrocities until he was finally arrested and tortured, put on a public show trial and executed in 1948 at the age of 47.
Well, the reason that that’s important is—or his story is important is I think the courage is one of those indispensable character traits of liberty. I don’t see how a timid people will long keep their liberty because they’re just—the world is just full of people who would be happy to take your liberty from you if you give them the chance and Pilecki put everything on the line for the liberty of his people and that was—I did not know about him before. I’m happy to say that in March of this year, just earlier this very month, I spent an hour with his son who’s now 85 and still keeping alive the legacy of his father.
Trevor Burrus: So when we look at figures like—how do you say his name again?
Lawrence Reed: Pilecki.
Trevor Burrus: Pilecki. And say that, “Okay, we’re going to talk about him on the FEE website as you’ve written about him.” Is it unfair to have libertarians take “ownership” of people who probably were not libertarian in themselves? I mean they’re just—if someone doesn’t want to be oppressed like most people, but they’re not libertarian heroes per se, they just don’t like to be oppressed, is that fair to take ownership of them?
Lawrence Reed: Well, I don’t think we should ever claim something of another person that isn’t true and in my story about Pilecki, I didn’t talk at all about what his views may have been on issues like the role of government or a free trade, I mean who knows. That just wasn’t what he was known for. But he certainly exemplified one of the key character traits that is essential to preserving liberty. So I’m careful not to read too much into these stories, but when somebody stands out in one way or another irrespective of where it may have been on other things, often those are stories that need to be told.
Trevor Burrus: Now, when you look around and you see where FEE has gone and what FEE is doing now and then you also look at the world and see Donald Trump and other things going on, do you feel optimistic about what we’ve—first, what we’ve accomplished, how do you feel—how much do you feel that we and particularly FEE too but in the broad free market scene have accomplished and then going forward. Do you feel optimistic about being able to accomplish more?
Lawrence Reed: Well, I’m very proud of the movement for liberty. Of course, I wish that we had more victories under our belts than we have and arguably in many respects, the trends are not moving in the right direction at the moment. But I’m a long-term optimist and I try not to let, you know, the events of the moment ever get me down. You have to be an optimist, so I’ve often said to audiences that if you’re not an optimist, if you’re a pessimist, you’ve got to ask yourself, “What’s the point of pessimism? You don’t know the future.” At least we ought to have reason to believe it can be better if we work to that end. But if you’re pessimistic, you’re not going to work very hard for what you know to be right and you’re probably not going to be very effective convincing others to join the cause. So I think optimism is an important motivator for all of us. Nobody knows the future, but I do know this. If those of us who believe in liberty decide the cause is lost, what’s the use, let’s just go back home and do something else, then I would be very pessimist to give out liberty. Then liberty probably would not win the future, but there are so many people today who work around doing these wonderful things for liberty 10 or 20 or 30 years ago planting seeds that will sprout in due time. I’m very optimistic for the future. I just don’t let pessimism ever get me down.
Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.