[Editor’s note: Lawrence W. “Larry” Reed is President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow, and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty at the Foundation for Economic Education. Before his retirement in 2019, he served as President of FEE for 11 years, and as President of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan for 21 years before that. He also taught and chaired the department of economics at Northwood University in Michigan for seven years. He is author of more than 2,000 articles and seven books, most recently Was Jesus a Socialist? and Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction. He has lectured in all 50 states and in most of the 87 countries he has visited. He blogs at www.lawrencewreed.com.
Larry was touring with the Free Market Road Show in 2022. He and Simon Sarevski, a research assistant at the Austrian Economics Center, exchanged e-mails to talk about what it takes to be a hero, the importance of character, and more.]
Simon Sarevski: You often write and speak about heroes and their importance, so a question arises: What does it take to be a hero? Moreover, is a hero a time-sensitive concept or are they immortal?
Lawrence Reed: Certainly, a person who in a moment of unexpected crisis assumes great risk to assist other people is, in that moment, heroic. A firefighter who enters a collapsing inferno to save a child, for example, is acting heroically. I applaud such action unreservedly, but the heroes I tend to write about are people who live heroic lives, not just one or more heroic moments. They were not heroes from an early age, nor did they intentionally decide they wanted to be heroes. But at some point in their lives, they decided to make personal character a priority and thereafter, their heroism flowed from that. So building one’s character (honesty, humility, responsibility, patience, gratitude, courage, etc.) occurs first by choice, and the result is that heroism emerges when the circumstances require it. Others may have a different twist on what it means to be a hero, but this is what it means to me, or at least what I most enjoy writing and speaking about.
Heroes are inspirational role models. The best of them are not only men and women of character, they are also principled. They know what they believe in. People who stand for nothing will fall for anything, but a principled hero thinks and acts from foundational principles that stand the test of time. My favorite heroes are those who speak truth to power, take risks not only on behalf of their own freedom but also for the freedom of others, and who do not compromise their integrity for ephemeral things like material wealth, personal advantage, notoriety, or political power.
Of course, someone who acts heroically can change and cease to act that way. A courageous person can become a timid one. An honest person can become a dishonest one. But the real heroes in my book are those who remain committed to all the right principles and values and never cease to serve as heroic role models for us all.
Where does character come from and how is it connected to freedom (and heroes)?
Character is a personal choice, or more precisely, many choices on a daily basis. It can be influenced by good parents, motivational books, inspiring films, respectable friends, a positive environment and persuasive teachers but ultimately it’s something an individual chooses to possess and to practice. Your personal character is the one thing over which you have the greatest personal control. Even in challenging circumstances, you decide how you will react, how you will treat others, and what you will learn from your experiences. So it’s rarely a good excuse to explain one’s poor behavior by claiming “it’s somebody else’s fault.”
For myself as a Christian, I believe the teachings of Jesus Christ are full of excellent advice for building the best character. But I also believe one does not have to accept Christianity to understand the eternal value of such traits as honesty, patience, gratitude, responsibility, courage, humility and respect for the lives, property and choices of our fellow citizens.
There is evil in the world and we must fight it. We cannot be effective in doing so if we do not make our personal character a top priority. We must choose to do so, or we ourselves will fall victim to that evil or even become its tool to do harm to others. Readers can find many articles on this subject in the blog section of my website, www.lawrencewreed.com.
Could you share with us some of your personal heroes and why you hold them on such high a pedestal?
Witold Pilecki is perhaps the bravest person I have ever written about. As a Polish fighter against the invading Nazis and Soviets, he volunteered to get arrested in the hope of being sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. He got his wish, and for three years he built a resistance from inside, smuggling out documents and radio transmissions before escaping. Then he spied on the occupying Soviets until he was caught and executed by the communists in 1948. He took all these enormous risks not for his own benefit so much as for the liberty of his family, friends and fellow countrymen.
Cicero, the last of the great defenders of the old Roman Republic, is another personal hero of mine. The first thing a visitor sees upon entering my home is, in fact, a bust of Cicero on a pedestal. Using his exceptional oratorical skills, Cicero tried to restore and preserve the republican values of limited government, the rule of law, checks and balances and personal liberty. Though in the end, tyranny prevailed and he was assassinated, his example of moral courage still burns brightly today, some 2,000 years later.
I also see home-schooling mothers and fathers as heroes today. These are people who are sacrificing in many ways to provide the best and safest education for the children, even though they may get no refunds from the government for the public system they are not using. These are people who take their parental responsibilities seriously and are not content to turn their children over to the state. They don’t do it for fame or fortune, but because it’s the right thing to do for their kids, the best option for securing a decent education.
You have mentioned elsewhere that the Prague Spring remains one of your “defining moments of my life…” that begun your “lifelong commitment to freedom.” And because character has to be developed and maintained, with no Cold War or iron curtain present and no Prague Spring in sight, and if I dare say need for one, where does the road to freedom start for the younger generation?
For young people, the road to freedom starts on a very personal level. My advice is to reform yourself before you attempt to reform the world. Be the best person you can be in all that you do, because that will position you to be a person of considerable influence. Work on self-improvement—building your character, your communication skills, your emotional intelligence, your knowledge of the principles of liberty. Then when situations arise in which you can make a difference for the better, you’ll know what to do and will have the tools to do it. Read biographies of great men and women who loved liberty and possessed the traits to help advance it. Never assume that the world owes you a living or even respect, unless you have first earned these things.
Some years ago, I composed a “checklist” to help each person answer the question, “What can I do for freedom today?” You can find it at here.
One of the books you have written is titled “Was Jesus a Socialist”? Having only a slight idea of who Lawrence Reed is one will know that the question is only rhetorical and the answer in the negative. Then, what remains left to be answered is why. So why wasn’t Jesus a socialist?
Jesus never in any way endorsed the compulsory redistribution of wealth (the robbing of Peter to pay Paul), the central planning of an economy, or government ownership of the means of production. He never argued for the use of political force to arrange an economy. If he returned today and asked an audience “What did you do to help the poor?”, he would be unimpressed and probably angry if anyone replied, “Oh, we just voted for the politicians who said they would take care of that.”
Jesus was interested in what was in your heart, not your bank account. He urged each of us to live lives of honesty and character, to love and respect each other (not envy others or steal from them). Socialism is riddled with compulsory schemes that empower politicians; that is the utter antithesis of the message of Jesus. His parables uphold private property, the sanctity of contract, voluntary relationships and compassion that comes from your heart and not from another person’s wallet at gunpoint. The very last thing he wanted us to do was put our faith in earthly power or politicians to guide our lives. To suggest he was a socialist is not only blasphemous, it reveals either an utter disregard for what the term means, or an appalling ignorance of his teachings, or an evil effort to fool others in service of a political agenda.
There’s also a danger from within the liberty movement that originates among those who insist you can’t advocate for liberty unless you embrace atheism. Nothing could be further from the truth, more arrogant or more destructive. Jesus was neither an atheist nor a socialist. The enemy is not Christianity, the enemy is socialism and other ideas that do harm to the individual, to his rights and property.
Why is the message of liberty not resonating with the general public? Are we, the freedom-loving folk, at fault here by not conveying the message property or are we simply asking for too much?
In most of history, liberty has faced enormous challenges. Its enemies (ignorance, envy, malice, and power) always offer appealing rhetoric without telling their victims what the likely outcome of their designs will inevitably be. Some people are short-term thinkers and fall prey to schemes that appear attractive in the near-term even as they sow the seeds for disaster in the long run. I wish I could go back to the late Roman Republic and tell the Romans where their welfare/warfare state would lead them, but no doubt many would still say “But I’ll be gone when the bills come due, so why should I care?”
Another factor is the erosion of personal character. I know of no society that lost its character and kept its liberty, which is yet another reason to keep our standards of character high. The kind of people who give in to tyranny, or who swallow false promises or short-term gain, are the kind of people who no longer care about such things as truth, honesty, and mutual respect. People of lousy character become clay in the hands of tyrants.
Nonetheless, we should never be discouraged. We should never allow pessimism to seep into our thinking. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are pessimistic, you won’t work as hard for what you know to be right, and you will cease to attract others to your cause. History often shifts dramatically and unexpectedly when the proper and unpredictable factors of ideas, personalities and circumstances form pivotal moments. Those are the moments when our investments in character and education can pay off, big time. So never, ever give up. Never cease to work on what you know to be right. That’s what good people of solid character do, and they do not regret it.
What are some books you would recommend as a gift for your layperson friend that is interested in the ideas of liberty?
Start with some classics in the literature of liberty: Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law” and Henry Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson” are two very good ones. My own book, “Are We Good Enough for Liberty?” explains the indispensable connection between liberty and character. If you’re interested in a Christian perspective, I recommend Alvin J. Schmidt’s powerful “How Christianity Changed the World.” Olivia Cabane’s “The Charisma Myth” provides much excellent advice on building your powers of persuasiveness. Good biographies are important too, and two of the best are Mike Duncan’s “Hero of Two Worlds: the Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution” and “Amazing Grace” by Eric Metaxas. Anyone who would like a more comprehensive list can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send them one for free.
Earlier this year you were honored by the Polish with The Grand Cross of Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, the highest honor bestowed by Poland upon a foreigner. Could you elaborate?
My first of many visits to Poland occurred in 1986 when it was still laboring under a communist regime. I spent time then with the underground resistance and was arrested and thrown out because of that work. I assisted the resistance in many ways thereafter, including arranging for the illegal translation and mass publication of Milton and Rose Friedman’s book, “Free to Choose” in Polish. Over the years since, I have written many articles on Poles and Polish history because my experiences there have impressed me so massively. Poles are among the bravest and kindest lovers of liberty anywhere in the world. This award, the highest given by Poland to a foreigner, is an unexpected and wonderful way for Poles to say “thank you” and I appreciate it more than words could ever convey. I don’t collect awards and prizes and rarely get them here in my own country, but this honor from Poland is one that I never sought, will always cherish, and will never forget.
For readers who want to know more about the award can find more details here.
Finally, I would like to end our interview with this: How to find freedom in an unfree world?
Take charge of your life. Focus on making yourself the best you can be. Learn to practice the virtues that people find appealing. Be a superb example to others of the things that really matter. Focus on character-building so that someday you can honestly express the sentiments of the Apostle Paul on the night before his martyrdom: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
In my own life, I will turn 70 next year. I am facing increasing challenges with eyesight and physical stamina. I don’t know how much longer I will be able to do what I most enjoy, namely, writing and speaking on liberty’s behalf. But I find boundless contentment in the knowledge that I tried, in spite of flaws and shortcomings, to do and be the best my abilities allowed. By my choices over seven decades, I have lived freedom in a frequently unfree world and will always hope in some way I’ve provided some inspirational example to others. What more can a person do or expect?
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