(Lawrence W. Reed is president emeritus of the Mackinac
Center for Public Policy and president of the Foundation for Economic Education
in Irvington, N.Y., and Atlanta, Ga.)
Years ago as a college
professor of economics, I posed a question to each crop of freshman students on
the first day of class. “Can anyone tell me,” I asked, “what determines whether
society is organized along socialist, centrally planned lines or as a free
enterprise, private-property order?” The answer to that query, I suggested,
would be the same as the answer to this corollary question: “What causes
societies occasionally to change from one economic system to the other?”
Rarely would I elicit the response I was looking for, in
spite of all the hints I gave. The students’ answers included: “the President,”
“the Congress,” “the news media,” “the unions,” and “the schools.” Invariably,
someone would suggest there was no determinant at all, that we were talking
about mere random events.
At some point, the guesswork would come to an end and I
would reveal the answer I was seeking. “People or the institutions they
establish play important roles, but neither one is fundamental enough, because
neither one explains why people behave the way they do. The correct answer is
that which the French author Victor Hugo once said was more powerful than all
the armies of the world: IDEAS!
People like politicians, activists, clerics and teachers
can often be agents of change, but ideas are the instigators. In shaping public
policy, which includes the larger questions of free-enterprise or socialism,
democracy or dictatorship, ideas are of decisive importance.
I recall a revealing study years ago of network television
in America: Only 3 percent of business-people depicted on television, the Media
Institute found, were involved in “socially useful or economically productive”
Around the same time, a special PBS program declared, “By
the age of 18, the average TV viewer has seen businessmen and businesswomen
attempt more than 10,000 murders.” In the decades since these two reports,
mainstream television hasn’t become much friendlier to men and women of
enterprise. And be assured that when a few business-people misbehave, their
faults will be presented as commonplace in the business world.
These unfair but popular portrayals play into the hands of
demagogues and political shysters, of which there is an endless supply. Failure
to commit time and resources to help shape the climate of opinion around you is
shortsighted and probably suicidal.
Some may be quick to say, “But I am involved in such
things. I give money to candidates.” That’s important, but it’s also like
locking the barn door after the horse has already left. Politicians usually
reflect opinion and seldom generate it; what they can accomplish in office is
defined and circumscribed by prevailing majority opinion.
If you really want to make a difference, then you should
invest in ideas. Change public opinion and the politicians will fall into line