When I have the chance, I often pose this question to people who have become advocates for liberty: “What was it that first turned you on to these ideas?”
It’s an important question that always produces revealing answers and sometimes some fascinating stories. Liberty, keep in mind, is not automatic or guaranteed. Few people who have lived have actually possessed it; most have been serfs, slaves, or “subjects” of one sort or another. It’s not exactly a message that rolls off the tongues of most university professors, government school teachers, or media personalities these days. It takes a lot of work to get the message out. Like the seeds in the New Testament parable about the sower, ideas don’t always fall on fertile ground.
I’ve heard plenty of answers over the years: parents, a book, instinct, an article, a friend. And yes, on occasion, even a teacher or a professor. Maybe I’m unusual (I’ve been accused of much worse!) but for me it was a movie. Here’s my story.
My family never showed much interest in politics or philosophy. I don’t know of anybody on either my mother’s side (English and German) or my father’s side (Scot-Irish) who ran for office, wrote a book, or raised a public fuss of any kind. As far as I know, going back more than a century, my relatives were mostly farmers and small shopkeepers who worked hard, kept quiet, and minded their own business. The only time I can recall my dad making a political statement during my childhood was when the school principal called to tell him he couldn’t take me out of school for a week to visit relatives in Florida. He told the principal, “He’s my son, not yours, and he’s going to Florida. Don’t call here again!” Click.
In the summer of 1965, as I was nearing my 12th birthday, my mother announced one day that she was taking my younger sister and me to a theater in Pittsburgh, 40 miles from our home, to see a new film called The Sound of Music. I knew nothing of it other than that a lot of singing was involved. To my mind, that was a good enough reason to stay home. I went reluctantly—and was enthralled. The music and the scenery were memorable, but it was the plot and message that changed my life. I think it must have been the first time I really had to think about the fact that the freedom I took for granted was not the norm in the world.
The movie quickly became the box office king of 1965. An American movie aimed primarily at an American audience, it loosely told the story of the von Trapps of Austria and how the family escaped Hitler’s grasp. The beauty of the Alpine mountains and the village of Salzburg spurred a pilgrimage of American tourists to Austria that continues to this day. Todd S. Purdum of the New York Times refers to the film as “the last picture show of its kind, a triumph of craftsmanship and the apogee of the studio system that produced the kind of entertainment that dominated mid-20th-century mass culture.”
For me, The Sound of Music was a rude awakening. This wasn’t a school telling me that I couldn’t take a vacation. This was a foreign regime absorbing a peaceful, neighboring country and a father facing orders to abandon his family and serve in its military. Something sparked inside me, and it has stayed lit ever since. I wanted to know more about the history of that period, and I began reading everything I could get my hands on, including William L. Shirer’s classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Stories of people yearning for freedom and going to great lengths to secure it captivated me. Socialism, communism, fascism, and all the collectivist isms became anathema. They reduced to A pushing B around because A thinks he’s got a good idea.
Then came the “Prague Spring” of early 1968. It wasn’t Austria, but it was right next door. The news of the stirrings of liberty in communist Czechoslovakia dominated the newspapers and television. I cheered as the Czechs boldly rattled their Soviet cage. When Moscow crushed Czech liberties with troops and tanks, I was outraged and eager to say so. Within days, a blurb in the local newspaper mentioned that an organization called Young Americans for Freedom would be holding a rally in Mellon Square in downtown Pittsburgh to protest the invasion. I bought my first bus ticket. We burned a Soviet flag and carried placards calling for the liberation of Czechoslovakia.
In those days, YAF provided its new recruits with a wealth of books, magazines, and articles—most notably for me, F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, Henry Grady Weaver’s The Mainspring of Human Progress, Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, and a subscription to The Freeman. The message was simple: If you want to be an effective anticommunist, you had better know something about philosophy and economics.
Reading all that material taught me some critically important things:
• Ideas rule the world. Tyranny rests on bad ideas; freedom depends on good ones, such as personal responsibility and limited government.
• Freedom is never automatic. You have to work at it, endure setbacks and assaults, and resist the temptation to let somebody else fight freedom’s battles for you.
• Government unchecked is freedom’s greatest enemy. Expecting too much from government and too little from ourselves is the surest path to tyranny, even though the government’s promises of welfare and security may sound attractive.
Those ideas, and many of their corollaries, led me to pursue an economics degree at a place that teaches the values of liberty: Grove City College in Pennsylvania. From there I went on to be a teacher myself, first at Northwood University and then as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Liberty has been a common theme of my political thought through all those years.
If my mother had not insisted on making the trek to Pittsburgh to see The Sound of Music, maybe I would have become a promoter of freedom by some other route. But in hindsight, I have my doubts. It seems more likely that I’d be a photographer or a veterinarian today. Those are respectable and fulfilling professions, to be sure, but they’re not what I chose.
So I owe much of my last 40 years to a couple of hours in front of the big screen. Some say The Sound of Music was corny, but for me it was an epiphany. It’s my favorite film, and it always will be.