Making a Difference for Liberty in the World

The following are remarks to the Annual Liberty Forum of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Chicago, Illinois, on April 28, 2004, by Lawrence W. Reed, President, Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. It’s always a thrill to attend Atlas events. They prove that our movement is truly an international one of principled men and women who believe passionately in the ideal of human liberty.

As I prepared this talk, I thought, in a very personal way, about to whom I would be speaking. It made me think about how depressingly different this meeting would be if, instead of believers in liberty, I was addressing an audience of statists — people who worship the State and think of it as a fount of wisdom. Imagine what that would be like:

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It would be a gathering of presumptuous pseudo-intellectuals, of stuffy, arrogant know-it-alls itching to plan the lives of others while undoubtedly failing to plan their own.

We would be an angry bunch, flailing like Don Quixote at imaginary enemies, seeing ourselves as victims of someone else’s schemes of exploitation, frustrated that the ignorant masses don’t seem as enthused about our plans for them as we are.

We’d be in our own little world, able to spout streams of meaningless slogans and discredited Marxist babytalk but completely in the dark when it comes to the great wisdom of our age — wisdom from such giants as Hayek, Mises, Friedman, and Adam Smith. We’d be a silly, boring, nasty, backward and ill-informed gaggle of inflated egos.

But as it is, we are none of that. We are smiling, fun-loving, happy warriors. And why is that? It’s because it is not some artifice, some contrivance of man, or some here-today-gone-tomorrow central plan that brings us together. It is because we are leaders for a lofty cause. We are advocates of the natural, spontaneous order of liberty. We have faith in, not disdain for, our fellow men and women. To quote my favorite British Prime Minister, William Ewert Gladstone, "We look forward to the day when the power of love replaces the love of power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace."

Moreover, we don’t presume to live other people’s lives for them. We don’t seek to take what isn’t ours. We harbor no pretense to knowledge, as Hayek put it; instead, we possess the wisdom of knowing that there is much that we do NOT know, but one thing we do know is that no matter the obstacles, we are on the correct and ultimately the winning side.

We are inspired by many great and enduring thoughts and words but perhaps these from the Declaration of Arbroath best sum up what we are all about. They were written in Scotland in 1320, a full 456 years before the American Declaration of Independence: "It is not for wealth or honor or glory that we fight, but for freedom alone, which no good man gives up without a fight!"

I am pleased to tell you a little about a new dimension in that fight, the Atlas International Freedom Corps (IFC). As explained recently in a memo from Atlas’ Colleen Dyble:

"The vision of the IFC is to develop a new generation of highly skilled and intellectually-savvy individuals who are committed to changing the world by spreading the ideas of the free society worldwide through cross-cultural exchanges of talent. It will develop the next generation of human capital for liberty by discovering, attracting, and nurturing individuals for potential careers within think tanks and other organizations.

"The IFC will bring new, motivated individuals into contact with the free market movement, principally through seminars, thereby introducing them to opportunities for making a difference in the world of ideas.

"A subset of these individuals, which could include former Atlas fellows, will go on to become "Atlas scouts" who will travel to developing countries on Atlas’ behalf to assess other new contacts, and educate them about how Atlas can help their efforts.

"Visiting fellowships and think tank mentorships will be offered to the most promising entrepreneurs, so they can receive in-depth training in creating and developing institutions that promote free market principles."

I have completed two overseas excursions for Atlas in my capacity as Senior Advisor to the IFC — one to Bogota, Colombia, in July 2003, and the other to South Korea, China, and Vietnam, in February 2004. Let me tell you a little about the latter mission.

The offices of the Center for Free Enterprise (CFE) in Seoul, South Korea, were my first stop on this three-country mission. Founded by Korean entrepreneur and business consultant Dr. Byoung-Ho Gong in April 1997, CFE’s staff of 10 disseminates a wealth of policy papers and commentary to Korean media and opinion leaders. Among CFE’s voluminous output are no fewer than 55 books. Both Dr. Gong and CFE president Dr. Chung-Ho Kim have translated into Korean numerous classics of free market literature and Austrian economics, including the writings of Frederic Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand and F.A. Hayek.

Indeed, Hayek’s name surfaced many times during my trip to Korea, China and Vietnam. Among intellectuals working for liberty in these countries, it appears that no one has exerted more influence than the Austrian economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1974. As a young scholar years ago, Dr. Kim authored a paper in defense of speculation, prompting a supportive letter from Hayek himself.

Attending a CFE luncheon in Seoul on February 13, I saw first-hand the fruit of CFE’s good work among Korean students. The event featured the recognition of a dozen top prize-winners in a CFE-sponsored essay contest on liberty. The winning papers were replete with references to Hayek, Mises, Friedman, and other giants of free market economics.

Asked to speak, I was so impressed with what I saw that I scrapped my prepared remarks and talked instead about why, with so much at stake and so many new organizations like CFE devoted to advancing liberty, we should be optimistic about the future. Pessimism, after all, is a self-fulfilling prophecy; think and act in a defeatist fashion and you’ll almost surely lose. I learned afterwards from Chung-Ho Kim that an optimistic message was just what he and his associates needed as they work to combat a rising tide of socialist sentiment among South Koreans. CFE’s work is more important, and more necessary, than ever.

One last note from Korea: At the DMZ, visitors can pay a small fee to be taken down into a tunnel built by the communists in Pyongyang to facilitate an invasion of the South. The tunnel was discovered in the 1970s and now serves as both a moneymaking attraction and a stark reminder of the evil regime to the north. "What sweet irony!" I thought as I descended into the tunnel to see it with my own eyes.

After Seoul, it was on to Beijing for my fourth visit to China since 1985. Though still a staunch one-party state, a quarter-century of economic reform emphasizing free markets and private entrepreneurship is transforming this nation of 1.2 billion people. Living standards have soared and a new Chinese middle class has emerged. In mid-March, the National People’s Congress approved amendments that enshrine the country’s first constitutional protections of private property since the communist takeover in 1949.

Liu Junning, a prominent Chinese political scientist and libertarian, believes the economic freedoms must go further and be complemented by greater political and social liberties, federalism, and the rule of law. To push China in those directions, he formed the Cathay Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA) in December 2002. In January, he was one of more than 100 top Chinese intellectuals who signed a petition demanding that basic freedoms of speech and press be codified in law.

CIPA’s planned programs for 2004 include a book forum focusing on the ideas of such notables as David Hume and Bruno Leoni. Though Marxism is still formally taught in China’s government schools, Liu Junning says that "almost no one believes a word of it."

If the reaction I got to a speech at People’s University is any indication, Junning’s observation is on the mark. Thanks to arrangements made by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, I lectured on free market principles and privatization issues for 90 minutes to an audience of about 100 graduate students and economics faculty members. One of the attendees raised the usual Marxist objections, only to be bombarded by many others in the audience with cogent, persuasive refutations. Junning himself weighed in, arguing that "benevolent despotism" is an oxymoron and that "central planning is, as Hayek demonstrated, a deceit and a pretense to knowledge." There is nothing about the Chinese people, he explained, that makes them unsuitable for self-government and free enterprise.

China’s march toward freer markets is getting a boost from other home-grown think tanks aside from CIPA. One of them is the Unirule Institute of Economics in Beijing. Its founder and former president, Mao Yushi, was one of millions of intellectuals forced to work on farms during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s but now sees "no turning back" for China’s market reforms. His institute, begun in 1993, produces in-depth analyses of the problems and solutions of transitioning from central planning to a free economy.

Vietnam, the third and final stop on my Atlas assignment, is ripe for its first free market think tank and the formation of at least one may be imminent. With the help of Atlas, the Mackinac Center and others in the U.S., some interested parties there may be able to launch it in Hanoi within a year.

Like China, Vietnam learned much from a brutally devastating experiment in socialist central planning. For more than a decade now, the government in Hanoi has been implementing market reforms, selling off state enterprises, encouraging private business and foreign investment, and even permitting the creation of a capitalist-style stock market. Half of the nation’s GDP is now generated by private businesses large and small, and fully 90 percent of Vietnam’s workers are employed in the private sector.

The deputy editor of Vietnam Securities Review, Cong Minh Nguyen, showed me the stock exchange in Ho Chi Minh City, where shares of two-dozen companies are actively traded. The exchange is slated for a substantial expansion in coming months. Many inside and outside of the government want to keep these positive reforms on track

All of us who cherish liberty and free enterprise should derive both satisfaction and hope by the good work of our ideological brethren in Korea, China and Vietnam. Their work is a tribute to the power of ideas. Their success can be leveraged into victories elsewhere. And their commitment to the cause should inspire all of us to give them encouragement and to work harder at home for the values we share with them.

One of the great benefits of my visit to these three countries was to get all the people I met in each one to begin communicating with each other. That’s now happening, and it bodes well for future cooperation and perhaps the formation of an Asian network of liberty-minded individuals.

I ask of each of you these two things: Be optimistic, and be a movement-builder. Optimism is critical because it is not only warranted by the strength and growth of our movement, but it is necessary to encourage others. We all work harder and smarter if we are hopeful for the future. Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and must be avoided like a plague. And for the movement to grow, we must all think of ourselves as part of something larger. We need to take time to assist our brothers and sisters who are laboring in the same vineyards, on behalf of the same causes. When others within our movement score successes, we all are winners. When we strengthen others, we all grow stronger.

I recently read for the third time in a year a very good book, entitled "The Purpose Driven Life" by Rick Warren. Its focus is on the spiritual, putting yourself right with God. At the center of its message is the notion that "life isn’t all about you." It ought to be about, first and foremost, building character for eternity and living according to God’s plan. Well, in a less lofty but still very important dimension, each of us should also understand that achieving human liberty requires us to think of bigger things and other people. We have to think and act beyond ourselves and our own organizations. So please, be a movement-builder!

Thank you for your kind attention, and for your good work on behalf of the cause of liberty.