Freedom's Globetrotter: An Interview with Lawrence Reed

A leading libertarian shares lessons learned abroad

Readers of the Freeman may know FEE president Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed as an economist, historian, and popular speaker; a former university professor and department chair (Northwood University); a policy entrepreneur who built a state-focused think tank (the Mackinac Center for Public Policy) into a powerhouse; an organizational manager and planner; a leading libertarian advocate; and a prolific author and Facebook poster.

You may know that he likes fishing, skydiving, and animals, too. But you may not know how well-traveled he is (49 states and 81 countries on six continents) or how those travels have shaped his thinking. You may not be aware of some of the risks he took while abroad. Larry’s view of travel is summed up best by this well-worn line, attributed to many different authors over the years: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that's not why ships were built.”

Most of us at FEE have heard people say things like “Larry should write a book about his travels,” or “I love it when Larry talks about his overseas exploits.” So we sat down with our boss and asked him some questions that focus exclusively on that aspect of his life.

The Freeman: So, 49 states. Which one have you not visited?

Reed: North Dakota. It’s the one state that seems to be in blue on the USA Today weather map more than any other, but I still would like to go there one of these days.

The Freeman: Let’s talk a little about the 81 countries you’ve been to. When did this overseas wanderlust begin?

Reed: From my teenage years, I wanted to see the world, but my family couldn’t afford it. My first job out of grad school — teaching economics and related subjects at Northwood University in Michigan from 1977 to 1984 — only increased my appetite to travel someday. I lectured often about comparative systems — capitalism versus socialism, for example — but it was from books, not from on-site, personal inspection.

Other than fishing trips to Canada, I had never been abroad before 1985. It was in that year that my overseas excursions began. A good friend and historian, the late Robert Merritt, taught at a school in Connecticut and took 15 or 20 of his students every March to a foreign country. I hitched a ride and went with the group to the Soviet Union in March 1985.

That was incredible timing, by the way. For weeks, reports indicated that the ailing Soviet leader, Konstantin Chernenko, could die at any moment. He croaked while I was in Moscow, and our group saw foreign dignitaries whizzing by in their limousines en route to the funeral. I met quite a few black marketers, one of whom became a lifelong friend. I sponsored his family as immigrants to the United States in 1991. They live in Texas now and are ardent libertarians. Between 1985 and 1991, I visited the Soviet Union five times, the last visit being in August 1991, just a week or two before the coup against Gorbachev. En route home, I spent a couple of days in Kiev, Ukraine, and participated in a “Rukh” demonstration in favor of Ukrainian independence, which was secured just four months later.

Those last four trips to the USSR didn’t cost me a penny, by the way. I did as my professor-friend had done and organized all of those through an educational tour company, and because I rounded up at least 15 paying customers each time, I was able to go for free as a chaperone.

The Freeman: So the foreign travel bug really bit you in 1985. Did you go anywhere else that year?

Reed: Yes, indeed. A month after that first Soviet trip, I spent about 10 days in three different cities in Bolivia — La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz — to observe the world’s highest inflation rate at that time, about 50,000 percent. I saw restaurant menus worn thin from prices being constantly erased and restated. I paid for that trip by speaking and writing about the experience and selling millions of nearly worthless Bolivian pesos I brought home with me. I paid $45 for nine million pesos when the rate was 200,000 to the dollar. I sold eight bundles of a million each for $500 per bundle, keeping one for myself that I still have to this day. So that was a very profitable trip. I had to do creative things like that in order to finance these excursions as a freelance journalist on a shoestring budget.

Then in October of that same year, 1985, I visited Beijing, Xian, Guilin, and Guangzhou, China — the first of ultimately five trips to China. Thirty years later, I still stay in touch with a friend and his family I met that first time; he has visited me here in the United States several times in the years since. In 1985, I also visited Hong Kong, Costa Rica, Panama, and Denmark, so 1985 was quite a year.

The Freeman: What did you learn during that first year of extensive travel to so many diverse places?

Reed: I always suspected that Mark Twain was right when he said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Being a libertarian, I try to see people for the individuals they are, but even the stereotypes I subconsciously retained were blown away during those early travels. I was struck by the entrepreneurship of so many black marketers in the communist economies of the USSR and China. I was moved deeply by the yearning for freedom I encountered in those places. I became a black marketer myself in a sense, because I later smuggled illegal pro-liberty literature and a few Bibles to the contacts I had made who requested them. You could make a small fortune in those days just selling your blue jeans to modernity-starved Russians. And to the graffiti I often saw scrawled on public restroom walls in Moscow and Beijing, I confess to adding my own candid thoughts about Lenin and Mao. So while I learned a lot, I was hoping some people there learned something from me, too.

The Freeman: Where else in Asia or the Pacific have you been?

Reed: Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mongolia, Fiji, Australia, Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, and New Zealand.

The current president of Mongolia, Elbegdorj Tsakhia, is a friend. He was an anti-communist activist in his student days in the 1980s, then served twice as prime minister. He privatized all 25 million Mongolian yaks during his first term. When I visited him in the capital of Ulan Bator, he invited my colleagues and me to a state dinner, where we met ambassadors from all over the world. I’m generally not impressed by politicians, but he’s one I’ve appreciated from the day I first met him some 15 years ago.

I went to Cambodia in August 1989 with my late friend, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who won an Academy Award for his role in The Killing Fields. Seeing firsthand the recovery of a country ravaged by the communist Khmer Rouge barely a decade before was an experience I can never forget. I’ve written about it in the Freeman.

On one of two visits to South Korea, I went up to the demilitarized zone (on the border with communist North Korea) and toured one of the tunnels the North dug secretly as an invasion route. I thought it was fantastically ironic, and a tribute to entrepreneurial capitalism in a way, that the South Koreans took something built by communists for a nefarious purpose and turned it into a money-making tourist attraction.

I’m an animal lover, so you can imagine how phenomenal it was to have breakfast with an orangutan. I did that in Singapore, which has perhaps the world’s biggest and most elaborate orangutan exhibit. As I ate my human food, an orangutan sitting next to me with his arm around me devoured his ape food. When he stopped to stare at me eyeball to eyeball, I burst out laughing and then he pulled my hair.

People often ask me, “If you had to live somewhere other than the United States, where would it be?” I always say New Zealand. I’ve driven all over both the north and south islands several times, skydived twice from 15,000 feet near Queenstown, and canoed through the glow-worm caves at Waitomo. I can attest that fly fishing in New Zealand is some of the best in the world. There’s more beauty and variety packed into two small islands there than perhaps any place else in the world. The people are as friendly as my best neighbors back home. If you go, stay in bed-and-breakfasts to experience the incredible Kiwi hospitality. In the 1980s, New Zealand transitioned from a stagnant welfare state to a thriving free economy in short order.

The Freeman: What about the Caribbean? Have you spent time down there?

Reed: Yes. I interviewed the finance minister of Haiti in Port-au-Prince in 1987 and published it in Reason magazine. He was a good man, and in the year after the Duvalier dictatorship ended, he was busy privatizing and deregulating before the government changed again, for the worse. While in Haiti, I also arranged to see an authentic voodoo ceremony (not one staged for tourists). And I drove from the capital north to the coastal town of Cap-Haitien where I toured the Sans-Souci Palace and the incredible Citadel. The latter was built by Henri-Christophe, Haiti’s first leader after independence from the French, to protect himself from a possible attempt by Napoleon to retake the island, which never happened. After 20 years of the Citadel’s construction, which consumed the top of a mountain and took 20,000 lives in the process, Christophe took his own life.

Other Caribbean trips have been mostly vacations except for a speech here and there. I went swimming with the stingrays in the Caymans, which was unforgettable; visited the Admiral Nelson museum and Alexander Hamilton’s birthplace on St. Kitts and Nevis; hiked through a nutmeg plantation in Grenada; and also visited Curacao, Aruba, and a few other islands down there.

I spent time in Central American countries, too — at a jungle camp in Belize, at the pyramids of Tikal in Guatemala, and at the Panama Canal. With the Army National Guard, I once flew 12 hours strapped in a C-130 transport plane from Boise, Idaho, to Honduras and then on to Panama.

The Freeman: Weren’t you in Nicaragua a lot, too?

Reed: Yes, five times. During the civil war between the Marxist Sandinistas and the Contras, I interviewed both above-ground opposition leaders — like Violeta Chamorro — and clandestine opposition people fighting with the Contras. In Managua, I caught up with one of the founding Sandinistas, Tomás Borge, in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel long enough to ask a few questions. I like to tell audiences who know my friend and FEE colleague Jeffrey Tucker that I’m the only person in the world who was ever detained with Jeff in a foreign country. In 1986, he and I were caught taking pictures outside Borge’s interior ministry, the secret-police headquarters. I was able to remove and destroy the film in my camera before they could find out whom we had been meeting with.

One upshot of those visits to Nicaragua was an invitation to have lunch at the White House with President Reagan in 1987. It was a small group of about a dozen of us, so we were able to converse with the president candidly. And in 1990, Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute and I attended Chamorro’s inaugural ceremonies in Managua, where we talked with her afterward — just two hours into her presidency.

The Freeman: You’ve often talked publicly about your time with the Polish underground in 1986, when the communists were still in power. Was that one of the more memorable trips you’ve made?

Reed: Absolutely! I stayed at a different home every night for a week to stay a step ahead of the government but was ultimately arrested in Warsaw. My film and tapes were confiscated. I was strip-searched and interrogated and then expelled. My requests for visas to return were repeatedly rejected until the communists were kicked out in 1989, and that fall I was welcomed back and even given a tour of Parliament. Then-senator Steve Symms of Idaho sent frequent letters to the Polish government demanding the release of my materials, and finally, one month after the June 1989 elections, which ended communist rule, my tapes and photos were returned.

One of my most prized possessions is a copy of Milton and Rose Friedman’s book Free to Choose, which I raised the money for illegally translating, publishing, and distributing throughout Poland. [Editor’s note: Learn more about Reed’s experiences with the Polish underground and the remarkable Polish people.] FEE's Blinking Lights Project is named for a remarkable story I learned in Warsaw in 1986 and have enjoyed telling hundreds of times ever since.

Poland’s libertarian movement, incidentally, is growing rapidly. Young libertarians numbering more than a thousand are on my Facebook page regularly, so I get frequent updates about exciting developments there, intellectually and politically. A friend named Janusz Korwin-Mikke is running as a libertarian for the office of president of Poland in the spring elections this year.

The Freeman: We haven’t mentioned Africa, home to more than 50 countries. Which of those have you visited?

Reed: Only Egypt, Malawi, Mozambique, Kenya, Rwanda, and Morocco. But some of the most unforgettable sites and moments of all my travels occurred in Africa. In Rwanda, I wore myself out climbing one of the Virunga volcanoes to spend an hour with a group of 36 gorillas. Not guerrillas (I’ve spent time with them too), but gorillas, the big furry ones.

I helped get a free-market think tank off the ground in Nairobi, Kenya. While there on three different occasions, I went on safaris in some of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world: Amboseli, Tsavo East, Lake Nakuru, and Nairobi National Park. From lions to leopards to warthogs and wildebeests, I’ve seen some big and beautiful creatures up close. And I’ve eaten some of them, too, including zebra.

Starting out by car from Lisbon, Portugal, I once drove through southern Spain to Seville, Granada, Málaga, and Gibraltar, then took a ferry to Tangiers. I drove hundreds of miles around Morocco, to Rabat and Casablanca, Marrakech, and Fez. In both Rabat and Casablanca, I got pulled over for traffic violations, but both times, the cops couldn’t have been friendlier. When they realized I was an American, they not only didn’t ticket me; they offered me directions and a cigarette.

 

In 1991, my late friend and then-senior vice president at the Mackinac Center Joe Overton and I flew at treetop level in broad daylight 150 miles into Mozambique from neighboring Malawi. We were there for a couple of weeks with the anti-communist rebels during the Mozambique civil war. The plane was piloted by a Christian missionary who knew where to go: a makeshift runway the guerrillas quickly camouflaged with small trees and brush. If the regime had known of our plans, it would have put MIGs in the air to shoot us down. A year later, we were back in Mozambique, courtesy of the regime itself, to see things from their perspective. We even had dinner with the president, Joaquim Chissano, at the presidential palace. I asked him, “How are we to believe you’re no longer Marxist when the streets here in Maputo are named for thugs like Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Lenin?” He replied with a smile, “We are going to change the names of the streets.” I don’t know that he ever did.

Just last fall, almost a quarter century after those trips to southeast Africa, Mozambique public television flew me up to New York for several hours of interview. It was for a soon-to-be-released documentary on the Mozambique civil war. That trip was the gift that keeps on giving!

The Freeman: We’ve probably just scratched the surface of all the stories you have from so much travel, but please answer this question: How have those experiences impacted your well-known passion for liberty?

Reed: My love of liberty is stronger than ever, partly because I’ve talked to people who don’t have it but yearn for it, and partly because I’ve seen both the devastation caused by its absence and the blessings brought forth by its presence. Having friends I stay in touch with in dozens of countries is a never-ending benefit; I’ve learned so much from them and still do, practically every week. In many cases, their work for freedom is a perpetual inspiration to me. They give me hope for a better and freer future.

My overseas experiences inform and shape my thinking all the time. They remind me of those unforgettable words of Ben Franklin: “God grant that not only the love of liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say: This is my country.”

The Freeman: One final question. Are there any places you haven’t been to that you really want to see?

Reed: There’s hardly a place on the planet I don’t want to see! I think this year I will finally go where I’ve said for a decade I would get to one of these days. That’s Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago within the Arctic Circle. There are more polar bears there than people. I hope to go fishing in Patagonia next year with an Argentinian friend. But also on my bucket list are the Baltic states, Zimbabwe, and the Himalayan countries of Nepal and Bhutan. If, however, I quit traveling right now and never ventured beyond America again, I would be blessed and proud of the friendships I’ve made on every continent but Antarctica, where the penguins look like politicians but rarely have to contend with one.

Further Reading

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