All Commentary
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Character, Liberty, and Economics

The missing ingredient in the struggle against statism.

Over four decades, I’ve written scores of articles, essays, and columns on economics; taught the subject at the university level; and given hundreds of speeches on it. In recent years the nexus between the economics of a free society and individual character has worked its way into my writing, speaking, and thinking with increasing emphasis. I now believe that nexus is the central issue we must address if our liberties and free economy are to be restored and preserved.

Activists in the free-market movement in the past 25 years have stressed the need for sound public-policy research and basic economic education. Think tanks and new media have sprung up to provide both. Though important, they are proving to be insufficient to overcome statist trends that are eroding our liberties. Why?

To some extent policy research is essentially locking the barn door after the horse has left. It targets politicians and the media commentators at stages in their lives when they are largely set in their ways and interested more in personal advancement than truth and liberty.

Economic education is certainly needed because young minds are not typically getting it in government schools. But even if economic education were dramatically improved, a free society wouldn’t necessarily follow. Just like public-policy research, it can be undone by harmful themes in popular culture (movies, religion, music, literature, and even sports) and in the standards of conduct people practice as adults.

Even among the most ardent supporters of free-market causes are people who “leak” when it comes to their own bottom lines. A recent example was the corn farmer who berated me for opposing ethanol subsidies. Does he not understand basic economics? I’ve known him for years, and I believe he does. But that understanding melted away with the corrupting lure of a handout. His extensive economics knowledge was not enough to keep him from the public trough. We are losing the sense of shame that once accompanied the act of theft, private or public.

The missing ingredient here is character. In America’s first century, we possessed it in abundance and even though there were no think tanks, very little economic education, and even less policy research, it kept our liberties substantially intact. People generally opposed the expansion of government power not because they read policy studies or earned degrees in economics, but because they placed a high priority on character. Using government to get something at somebody else’s expense, or mortgaging the future for near-term gain, seemed dishonest and cynical to them, if not downright sinful and immoral.

Politicians and Statesmen

Within government, character is what differentiates a politician from a statesman. Statesmen don’t seek public office for personal gain or attention. They often are people who take time out from productive careers to temporarily serve the public. They don’t have to work for government because that’s all they know how to do. They stand for a principled vision, not for what they think citizens will fall for. When a statesman gets elected, he doesn’t forget the public-spirited citizens who sent him to office, becoming a mouthpiece for the permanent bureaucracy or some special interest that greased his campaign.

Because they seek the truth, statesmen are more likely to do what’s right than what may be politically popular at the moment. You know where they stand because they say what they mean and they mean what they say. They do not engage in class warfare, race-baiting, or other divisive or partisan tactics that pull people apart. They do not buy votes with tax dollars. They don’t make promises they can’t keep or intend to break. They take responsibility for their actions. A statesman doesn’t try to pull himself up by dragging somebody else down, and he doesn’t try to convince people they’re victims just so he can posture as their savior.

When it comes to managing public finances, statesmen prioritize. They don’t behave as though government deserves an endlessly larger share of other people’s money. They exhibit the courage to cut less important expenses to make way for more pressing ones. They don’t try to build empires. Instead, they keep government within its proper bounds and trust in what free and enterprising people can accomplish. Politicians think that they’re smart enough to plan other people’s lives; statesmen are wise enough to understand what utter folly such arrogant attitudes really are. Statesmen, in other words, possess a level of character that an ordinary politician does not.

By almost any measure, the standards we as citizens keep and expect of those we elect have slipped badly in recent years. Though everybody complains about politicians who pander, perhaps they do it because we are increasingly a panderable people. Too many are willing to look the other way when politicians misbehave, as long as they are of the right party or deliver the goods we personally want.

Our celebrity-drenched culture focuses incessantly on the vapid and the irresponsible. Our role models would make our grandparents cringe. To many, insisting on sterling character seems too straight-laced and old-fashioned. We cut corners and sacrifice character all the time for power, money, attention, or other ephemeral gratifications.

Character Is Essential

Yet character is ultimately more important than all the college degrees, public offices, or even all the knowledge that one might accumulate in a lifetime. It puts both a concrete floor under one’s future and an iron ceiling over it. Who in their right mind would want to live in a world without it?

Chief among the elements that define strong character are these: honesty, humility, responsibility, self-discipline, self-reliance, optimism, a long-term focus, and a lust for learning. A free society is impossible without them. For example: dishonest people will lie and cheat and become even bigger liars and cheaters in elected office; people who lack humility become arrogant, condescending, know-it-all central-planner-types; irresponsible citizens blame others for the consequences of their own poor judgment; people who will not discipline themselves invite the intrusive control of others; those who eschew self-reliance are easily manipulated by those on whom they are dependent; pessimists dismiss what individuals can accomplish when given the freedom to try; myopic citizens will mortgage their future for the sake of a short-term “solution”; and closed-minded, politically correct or head-in-the-sand types will never learn from the lessons of history and human action.

Bad character leads to bad economics, which is bad for liberty. Ultimately, whether we live free and in harmony with the laws of economics or stumble in the dark thrall of serfdom is a character issue.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is