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Character, liberty and economics

Over four decades I have written scores of articles, essays, and columns on economics and freedom; taught the subject at many levels; and given hundreds of speeches on it. In recent years the nexus between the economics of a free society and individual character has worked its way into my writing, speaking, and thinking with increasing emphasis. I now believe that nexus is the central issue we must address if our liberties and free economy are to be restored and preserved. Activists in the free-market movement in the past 25 years have stressed the need for sound public-policy research and basic economic education. Think tanks and new media have sprung up to provide both. Though important, they are proving to be insufficient to overcome Statist trends that are eroding our liberties. To some extent policy research is locking the barn door after the horse has left. It targets politicians and pundits at stages in their lives when they are largely set in their ways and interested more in personal advancement than truth and liberty.

Economic education is certainly needed because young minds are not typically getting it in government schools. But even if economic education were dramatically improved, a free society wouldn’t necessarily follow. Just like public-policy research, it can be undone by harmful themes in popular culture (movies, religion, music, literature, and even sports) and in the standards of conduct people practice as adults. Even among the most ardent supporters of free market causes are people who “leak” when it comes to their own bottom lines. A recent example was the corn farmer who berated me for opposing ethanol subsidies. Does he not understand basic economics? I have known him for years, and I believe he does. But that understanding melted away with the corrupting lure of a handout. His extensive economics knowledge was not enough to keep him from the public trough. We are losing the sense of shame that once accompanied the act of theft, private or public.

The missing ingredient here is character. In America’s first century, we possessed it in abundance and even though there were no think tanks, very little economic education, and even less policy research, it kept our liberties substantially intact. People generally opposed the expansion of government power not because they read policy studies or earned degrees in economics, but because they placed a high priority on character. Using government to get something at somebody else’s expense, or mortgaging the future for near-term gain, seemed dishonest and cynical to them, if not downright sinful and immoral. Within government, character is what differentiates a politician from a statesman. Statesmen don’t seek public office for personal gain or attention. They often are people who take time out from productive careers to temporarily serve the public. They don’t have to work for government because that’s all they know how to do. They stand for principles, not for what citizens might fall for.

When a statesman gets elected, he doesn’t forget the public-spirited citizens who sent him to office, becoming a mouthpiece for the permanent bureaucracy or some special interest that greased his campaign. Because they seek the truth, statesmen are more likely to do what’s right than what may be politically popular at the moment. You know where they stand because they say what they mean and they mean what they say. They do not engage in class warfare, racebaiting, or other divisive or partisan tactics that pull people apart. They do not buy votes with tax dollars. They don’t make promises they can’t keep or intend to break. They take responsibility for their actions. A statesman doesn’t try to pull himself up by dragging somebody else down, and he doesn’t try to convince people they’re victims just so he can posture as their savior. When it comes to managing public finances, statesmen prioritize. They don’t behave as though government deserves an endlessly larger share of other people’s money. They exhibit the courage to cut less important expenses to make way for more pressing ones. They don’t try to build empires. Instead, they keep government within its proper bounds and trust in what free and enterprising people can accomplish.

Politicians think that they’re smart enough to plan other people’s lives; statesmen are wise enough to understand what utter folly such arrogant attitudes really are. Statesmen, in other words, possess a level of character that an ordinary politician does not. By almost any measure, the standards we as citizens keep and expect of those we elect have slipped badly in recent years. Though everybody complains about politicians who pander, perhaps they do it because we are increasingly a panderable people. Too many are willing to look the other way when politicians misbehave, as long as they are of the right party or deliver the goods we personally want. Our celebrity-drenched culture focuses incessantly on the vapid and the irresponsible. Our role models would make our grandparents cringe. To many, insisting on sterling character seems too straight-laced and old-fashioned. We cut corners and sacrifice character all the time for power, money, attention, or other ephemeral gratifications. Yet character is ultimately more important than all the college degrees, public offices, or even all the knowledge that one might accumulate in a lifetime. It puts both a concrete floor under one’s future and an iron ceiling over it. Who in their right mind would want to live in a world without it?

Chief among the elements that define strong character are these: honesty, humility, responsibility, self-discipline, self-reliance, optimism, a long-term focus, and a lust for learning. A free society is impossible without them. For example: dishonest people will lie and cheat and become even bigger liars and cheaters in elected office; people who lack humility become arrogant, condescending, know-it-all central-planner-types; irresponsible citizens blame others for the consequences of their own poor judgment; people who will not discipline themselves invite the intrusive control of others; those who eschew self-reliance are easily manipulated by those on whom they are dependent; pessimists dismiss what individuals can accomplish when given the freedom to try; myopic citizens will mortgage their future for the sake of a short-term “solution”; and closed-minded, politically correct or head-in-the-sand types will never learn from the lessons of history and human action. Bad character leads to bad economics, which is bad for liberty. Ultimately, whether we live free and in harmony with the laws of economics or stumble in the dark thrall of serfdom is a character issue.

Dit artikel van Lawrence Reed verscheen ook in The Freeman.

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6 Reacties:

At 07:55 Larry Hayes said...

It's great to see the new FEE president getting in line with previous FEE articles so quickly. Great job. Let's hope Reed will continue Ebeling's course so FEE can maintain its growth in influence.

At 10:02 Brandon F. said...

Did Ebeling left FEE? Does any one know where he is heading next? Another thinktank or back to some university?

At 10:02 Geoffrey said...

Ebeling took a fantastic position at Trinity College.

At 10:44 Brandon F. said...

Thanks, that's great to hear!

I enjoyed his lectures and, perhaps there was selection bias, but the couple times I was at FEE seminars, his former students all said they loved his classes at Hillsdale. Trinity College is getting a fantastic faculty member.

At 10:43 Vincent De Roeck said...

Volgens de Venezolaanse staatstelevisie won Michael Phelps zijn gouden medailles in 1972 in Munchen en was Hitler toen nog aan de macht...

At 11:54 Marc Huybrechts (op IFF) said...

Vincent, dit filmpje doet mij denken aan een tijd toen ik nog jong was en toen het Chinese Politbureau een miljard Chinezen onwetend hield omtrent de landing op de maan van een Amerikaan. Zij hebben toen die desinformatie voor bijna twee dekaden kunnen 'vol gehouden'.

Het doet me ook denken aan de nieuwe "as van het kwaad". Er zijn nog wel velen in den Belgique, ook sommigen op IFF, die graag grapjes maken over de Bushiaanse versie van de "as van het Kwaad" (Iran-Irak-NoordKorea). Maar die as is al lang verdwenen. Saddam en Zonen liggen nu onder de grond, en Kim in N-Korea zit nu min of meer (zonder twijfel, tijdelijk) in een box van de zes-partijen (onder leiding van China, met ook Japan, USA, Rusland, Zuid-Korea). En, Iran natuurlijk gaat heel 'heet' worden in de afzienbare toekomst (zie verder).

Nee, de nieuwe as van het kwaad dat is de axis Rusland-Iran-Venezuela. En dat is een axis of alliantie die berust op de hoge prijzen voor grondstoffen op wereldmarkten, die een direct gevolg zijn van de fenomenale economische groei in recente jaren in China en India, de twee grootste landen van de wereld maar die weinig grondstoffen hebben. Putin is druk bezig met zowel Iran als Venezuela militair te versterken (en Iran zelfs met kernstof te bevoorraden). Hij denkt dat dat veel lasten en kosten aan anderen gaat bezorgen. Maar, Iran en Venezuela zijn naturlijk twee zeer 'onvoorspelbare' regimes, en het zou wel eens allemaal als een boemerang op Putin zelf kunnen terug komen.


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