In 30 years of traveling to 81 countries, I’ve come across some pretty nasty governments and some darn good people. To be fair, I should acknowledge that I’ve also encountered some rotten people and a half-decent government or two. The ghastliest of all worlds, of course, is when you have rotten people running nasty governments — a combination that is not in short supply.
Indeed, as Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek famously explained in The Road to Serfdom, the worst tend to rise to the top of all regimes — yet another reason to keep government small in the first place (as if we needed another reason).
“The unscrupulous and uninhibited,” wrote Hayek, “are likely to be more successful” in any society in which government dominates life and the economy. That’s precisely the kind of circumstance that elevates power over persuasion, force over cooperation, arrogance over humility, and corruption over honesty.
So I take special note when I encounter instances of good people working around, in spite of, in opposition to, or simply without a helping hand from government. In today’s dominant culture and climate, private initiative is frequently shortchanged or viewed with suspicion. In some quarters, “private” means unreliably compassionate, incorrigibly greedy, or hopelessly unplanned. We’re overdue for a celebration of the good character many people exhibit when there’s no fame or fortune in it, just the satisfaction that comes from knowing you’ve done the right thing.
Sadly, I can’t give you the name of the person I want to tell you about, and shame on me for that. I spent a grand total of perhaps an hour with him, in short increments as he gave me rides in his “cyclo” (or rickshaw) from one place to another in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in August 1989. When I was about to fly home to the United States, I gave him something without ever expecting he would do with it what I asked. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask for his name and contact information because, in all the years since, I’ve wished for an opportunity to thank him.
I lived in Midland, Michigan, at the time. The area press, particularly the Midland Daily News and the Saginaw News, featured stories about my upcoming visit to Southeast Asia. Local doctors donated medical supplies for me to take to a hospital in the Cambodian capital. A woman named Sharon from a local church saw the news stories. She called me and explained that a few years before, her church had helped Cambodian families who escaped from the Khmer Rouge communists and resettled in mid-Michigan. The families had moved on to other locations in the United States but stayed in touch with the friends they had made in Midland.
Sharon told me that she sent copies of the news stories to her Cambodian friends her church had helped a few years before. Through Sharon, each family asked if I would take letters with cash enclosed to their desperately poor relatives in Cambodia. When they sent anything through the mail, it usually didn’t end up where it was supposed to, especially if cash was involved. I offered to do my best, with no guarantees.
The families who were in Phnom Penh would prove relatively easy to locate, but the last family was many miles away in Battambang. That would have involved a train ride, some personal risk, and a lot of time I didn’t have. If I couldn’t locate any of the families, I was advised not to bring the cash back home but to give it to any poor person. Finding poor Cambodians in 1989, after the savagery the nation endured under the butchery of the Khmer Rouge a decade before, was like looking for fish in an aquarium.
When I realized I wasn’t going to make it to Battambang, I approached a man in tattered clothes in the hotel lobby. I had seen him there a few times before. He always smiled and said hello, and spoke enough English to carry on some short conversations. I had a sense — intuition, perhaps — that he was a decent person.
“I have an envelope with a letter and $200 in it, intended for a very needy family in Battambang. Do you think you could get this to them?” I asked. He replied in the affirmative. “Keep $50 of it if you find them,” I instructed. We said goodbye. I assumed I would never hear anything of what became of either him or the money. I am pained to this day by the realization that without much thought, I had sold him short.
Back home in Michigan several months later, I received an excited phone call from Sharon. “The Cambodians in Virginia whose family in Battambang that last envelope was intended for just received a letter from their loved ones back home!” And then she read me a couple paragraphs from that letter. The final sentence read, “Thank you for the two hundred dollars!”
That man whose name I’m unsure of and whose address I never secured had found his way to Battambang. Not only did he not keep the $50 I offered; he somehow had found a way to pay for the train ride himself. Does his act of honesty tug at your heartstrings? If it does, then you appreciate something the world desperately needs, something that is indispensably crucial to a free and moral society. The man I trusted the money to was poor in material wealth but rich in something more important. As I wrote in a recent book,
Ravaged by conflict, corruption and tyranny, the world is starving for people of character. Indeed, as much as anything, it is on this matter that the fate of individual liberty has always depended. A free society flourishes when people seek to be models of honor, honesty, and propriety at whatever the cost in material wealth, social status, or popularity. It descends into barbarism when they abandon what’s right in favor of self-gratification at the expense of others; when lying, cheating, or stealing are winked at instead of shunned.
If you want to be free, if you want to live in a free society, you must assign top priority to raising the caliber of your character and learning from those who already have it in spades. If you do not govern yourself, you will be governed.
Character means that there are no matters too small to handle the right way. It’s been said that your character is defined by what you do when no one is looking. Cutting corners because “it won’t matter much” or “no one will notice” still knocks your character down a notch and can easily become a slippery slope.
In 2016, I hope to visit Cambodia again. It will be my first time there since 1989. I have a slim lead on how I might find the man I gave that letter and $200 to. I know it’s a long shot. He may have moved away or passed on. But if I find him, it will be a thrill I’ll never forget.
I will embrace him as a brother and be sure he understands that in my book, he is one Real Hero.
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