(Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. This essay will appear in the October 2003 issue of Ideas on Liberty, the monthly journal of the Foundation for Economic Education — www.fee.org.)

A person’s character is nothing more and nothing less than the sum of his choices. You can’t choose your height or race or many other physical traits, but you fine tune your character every time you decide right from wrong and what to do about it. Your character is further defined by how you choose to interact with others and the standards of speech and conduct you practice.

Ravaged by conflict and corruption, the world is starving these days for people of high character. Indeed, as much as anything, it is on this issue that the fate of individual liberty has always depended. A free society flourishes when people seek to be models of honor, honesty and propriety. It descends into barbarism when they abandon what’s right in favor of self-gratification at the expense of others, when lying, cheating or stealing are winked at instead of shunned. Those who favor the steady advance of liberty must assign top priority to raising the caliber of their own character and learning from those who already have it in spades.

So it is good news for liberty when anyone, anywhere, commits his life to the loftiest standards of personal and professional behavior. It’s bad news when we lose such models, and it is with profound sadness that I share some bad news with readers of this journal. The world’s sum of good character suffered an incalculable subtraction with the untimely death on June 30, 2003 of a friend and colleague, Joseph P. Overton. Killed in a tragic plane crash at the age of 43, barely three months after making his vows to the woman of his dreams at a picture-perfect wedding, he will be remembered by many lovers of liberty around the world as a man who oozed the highest character from every pore.

Since his college days, Joe believed that liberty and character were mutually dependent and he felt an irresistible calling to work for the advancement of both. He reached the zenith of his contributions as senior vice president at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, whose staff he joined in January 1992. You cannot walk an inch in our 23,000-square foot headquarters without seeing his imprint — in the output of our organization to the very building itself, whose construction he supervised in 1997.

Talk to any one of our nearly 30 employees and you’ll hear the same: Through his example, his mere presence in a room would raise everyone’s standards of speech and conduct. As a consummate administrator, he taught us the importance of continuous organizational improvement through Total Quality Management. He was able to do that effectively not just because he knew the nuts and bolts of the subject, but because he practiced TQM in his personal life as well. I heard him say many times, “You cannot impart what you don’t possess.”

Joe Overton was the straightest straight-shooter I’ve ever known. Not a speck of deception, guile, conceit or hidden agenda in him. He said what he meant and meant what he said, always. You never, ever had to wonder if he was telling you the truth. He kept his word as if it was an indispensable and inseparable physical appendage like an arm or a leg. Like so many others, I came to place total, unqualified trust in him. So did others who came to know him. Never underestimate the importance of truth and trust to a free society; if we cannot deal with each other on those terms, we will resort to the ugliness of brute force and political power.

Though packed into a few amazingly productive years, Joe’s contributions to the international freedom movement were legion. He was known as a leader in the effort to liberate parents and children from the grip of the government school monopoly and he designed a unique tax credit plan to move things in that direction. He devised winning strategies to liberate workers from compulsory unionism. And he created what is becoming known as the “Overton Window of Political Possibilities” — a teaching tool that gets people to understand the importance of putting ideas ahead of political action.

Over and over again, people were attracted to his work because of the sterling character of his persona. Friends marveled at his consistency and self-discipline. They were impressed that he not only preached the virtues of civil society, he practiced them in his own life through endless volunteer efforts, quiet philanthropy, and ceaseless counsel to those who needed good advice. All of this comes through loud and clear in the hundreds of tributes to him that poured in from all over the world in the two weeks after the accident that claimed his life. As a testimony to his far-flung influence, within days of the tragedy a Joseph P. Overton Leadership Center was announced in Nairobi, Kenya, for the purpose of training African youth in the principles of liberty and how best to advance them. You can see just how special Joe was by viewing the many tributes to him here.

So much more could be said of this great man, but from one of the eulogies delivered at his funeral, I close with this:

The world needs more men who do not have a price at which they can be bought; who do not borrow from integrity to pay for expediency; who have their priorities straight and in proper order; whose handshake is an ironclad contract; who are not afraid of taking risks to advance what is right; and who are honest in small matters as they are in large ones.

The world needs more men whose ambitions are big enough to include others; who know how to win with grace and lose with dignity; who do not believe that shrewdness and cunning and ruthlessness are the three keys to success; who still have friends they made twenty years ago; who put principle and consistency above politics or personal advancement; and who are not afraid to go against the grain of popular opinion.

The world needs more men who do not forsake what is right just to get consensus because it makes them look good; who know how important it is to lead by example, not by barking orders; who would not have you do something they would not do themselves; who work to turn even the most adverse circumstances into opportunities to learn and improve; and who love even those who have done some injustice or unfairness to them. The world, in other words, needs more true leaders. More to the point, the world needs more Joe Overtons.