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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Maverick’s Defense of Freedom

The Liberty Fund catalog is filled with excellent books on American history, economics, and philosophy. As a Public Choice economist I have benefited tremendously from its publication of the collected works of James Buchanan. While I already owned several of his books, the opportunity to purchase all his books and articles at once saved me time hunting them down.

Benjamin Rogge’s A Maverick’s Defense of Freedom is valuable for a different reason. Absent Dwight Lee’s decision to edit the volume and Liberty Fund’s to publish it, I probably would have had no way to read most of this material. That is, assuming I even knew of its existence, which is unlikely because most of the 57 articles, essays, and speeches in this book have never been published before. Given the important role Rogge played in classical liberalism in America during his lifetime (he served on the boards of both FEE and Liberty Fund), the value of this volume to students of liberty is tremendous.

First and foremost, Rogge was a teacher. He began teaching at Wabash College in 1949 and taught there until his untimely death in 1980. Rogge took seriously the notion that academics should try to educate beyond the classroom. He wrote opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal and Indianapolis Star, gave speeches at home and abroad, and even narrated the film The Incredible Bread Machine. The wide variety of speeches—given to different audiences—contained in this volume provide the reader a great sense of Rogge’s abilities as a communicator of economic ideas. I will frequently look to these speeches for inspiration and insight into how to best reach an audience.

Lee has superbly organized these pieces into six broad areas: liberty and personal responsibility, the role of economists in a free society, the connection between education and liberty, microeconomics, macroeconomics, and foreign policy. The final three sections are primarily useful as excellent illustrations of basic economic thinking applied to policy issues such as inflation, unemployment, and energy security. Although the details today may be different, the solutions are still the same. Rogge’s clarity in making the case for sound economics and limited government is without peer and thus ripe for imitation.

The first three sections are indispensable reading for anyone interested in “the freedom philosophy.” In them Rogge deals with core issues related to liberty, and a common theme is the importance of personal responsibility in building and maintaining a free society. For example, in an undated speech titled “Voluntary Organizations in a Free Society,” Rogge makes the case that voluntary organizations are an important bulwark against the growth of the government. As he puts it, “Every function well handled by private, voluntary action is an island of defense against further government encroachment in our lives.”

For me the best part of the book was the section on the role of education in a free society. In addition to including the entirety of Rogge’s classic essay with Pierre Goodrich on “Education in a Free Society,” this section also includes Rogge’s views on the financing and administration of higher education and the role of students, businessmen, and public intellectuals in the educational process. Anyone interested in today’s higher education reform debates would benefit from reading this section, which highlights an important issue rarely discussed today: personal responsibility by consumers of education.

At the center of Rogge’s view of education is a student who is developing and taking more and more responsibility for his or her actions. For example, in a convocation speech at a private school in Indianapolis, Rogge pointed out the importance of student agency: “Each student controls the doors to his own mind, and if he keeps those doors closed, there is little the teacher can do to penetrate into the interior.” He then goes on to argue that the school’s success will be defined by whether it can get students to take responsibility for their own education. I suspect that today’s “helicopter parents” and infantilized teenagers would recoil at the practical implications of Rogge’s message. It is a message, however, that parents and students need to understand if colleges and universities are going to return to being places of learning and open inquiry, not just nice places to spend four (or six) years of your life.

I have only briefly touched on the large number of topics and themes covered in this volume. All that I can say is that Rogge’s articulation and application of economics toward our understanding of a free society is as clear and important as it was when he first wrote each piece. I cannot recommend this book enough.

  • Joshua Hall is an associate professor of economics and Co-Director of the Center for Free Enterprise in the College of Business and Economics at West Virginia University.