Freedom in Latin America has been endlessly threatened throughout history. In many ways, people who have come to power, have felt the omnipotence above the individual to decide and govern on behalf of "the people": that intangible being but omnipresent in all the speeches of a populist.
In this opportunity we will have the honor to dialogue with Lawrence W. Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education. Whoever wants to describe him in a few words can say that Lawrence is a tireless advocate of freedom.
Why do you stand up for the ideas of liberty?
Liberty is an indispensable condition for all the wonderful things that make life worth living.My reasons are numerous, and I will mention them here in no particular order: liberty is so important that I believe one cannot be fully human without it. Each of us is a unique individual who must be able to make his own choices in order to be who he is, within the limits of course of allowing the same freedom for others. If you don’t have liberty, then it means you’re not actually living out your own life; you’re being compelled to live somebody else’s life.
Liberty is an indispensable condition for all the wonderful things that make life worth living, such as love, achievement, happiness, family, music, art, literature, etc. And it is constantly under attack from bad people, bad ideas, and even well-intentioned people with bad ideas. So those of us who believe in it passionately must speak out in its defense and sometimes devote our entire lives to it, or it can be lost to entire generations.
I can’t imagine life without liberty, so I am happy to stand up for it. I also can say that I genuinely enjoy working for liberty; I love the work because I love the message and all that it means for humanity.
What have been the main challenges you have faced along this path?
I am not a naturally gregarious person. Growing up, I was quite shy. Even to this day, though I interact with the public constantly and give speeches to audiences of hundreds and sometimes even thousands, I still fight a natural preference for quiet and solitude. So I have always had to overcome that shyness to some extent in order to be an effective communicator.
Other, more obvious challenges are in the nature of persuasiveness, overcoming the arguments and emotions of those who oppose liberty. From experience, I’ve learned a great deal about how to respond to opposing arguments, but there have been many times when I’ve thought to myself, “Why didn’t I think of this or that?”
When the state gives you something, you should realize it comes at someone else's expense.Another set of challenges has come from building programs and organizations to advance liberty, first as a university professor and then for the past 30 years or so as president of three think tanks in three different states. Because of my administrative role in all those organizations, including the last nine years at FEE, I’ve had to do a lot more than just write and give speeches about liberty. I’ve also had to organize, plan strategically, hire and fire people, delegate responsibilities, raise funds, and build relationships.
There are almost daily challenges, big and small, with managing organizations. But I am a firm believer that those challenges are best met by keeping one’s character strong and by finding other good people to give responsibility to.
Throughout these years, have you noticed that totalitarianism offers some kind of welfare to the individual?
Yes, all forms of statism, whether they be of the welfare state variety or the harsher totalitarian types, offer things to people that they sometimes find hard to resist. Usually it’s some form of security, at least in the short term – security against a foreign enemy or against somebody here at home, security against having to take care of oneself, security against all sorts of problems real or imagined.
What we advocates of liberty have to point out and explain is that the more you rely on the state, the less secure you really are. The concentration of power in the hands of government makes us all vulnerable to the abuse of that power, as well as all the many perverse things Big Government does, such as pile up debt, spend other people’s money to buy votes, and bankrupt the nation. So when the state gives you something, you should realize it comes at someone else’s expense with a lot of waste and fraud along the way and that you are putting your future and that of your children in precisely the wrong hands.
Let's consider the case of Latin America, where freedom is still threatened in large and diverse forms. What influenced people to accept socialism in this part of the Continent?
Various forms of “liberation theology” have taken a toll on liberty over the years in much of Latin America. As a Christian and a libertarian, I firmly believe that socialism and Christianity are incompatible, but, unfortunately, lots of priests, preachers, theologians, and teachers in Latin America have mistakenly taught otherwise.
I hope the situation in Venezuela causes a reaction against socialism everywhere.Another factor is resentment of frequent U.S. interventions in Latin America; in most cases I sympathize with that feeling, but it has unfortunately fueled a backlash against what many Latin Americans see as Yankee capitalism. But the most sensible position is to be anti-interventionism and pro-capitalism, especially if you value both independence and a prosperous economy. You can see clearly how the Venezuelan socialist regime, for example, uses its claims of “Yankee imperialism” to keep itself in power and to justify its ruinous socialism.
Finally, the fact that education is so thoroughly monopolized by government in much of Latin America is yet another reason for sympathies for socialism. Government will never teach liberty; it’s in its own interest to miseducate its people into thinking that they must be dependent upon politicians instead of themselves.
Nonetheless, I am hopeful for the future of Latin America. I think Latin Americans, and the world in general, is getting quite a good education in the destructive stupidity of socialism just by watching Venezuela right now. I hope that causes a reaction against socialism everywhere.
Let's talk about The Fatal Conceit. In his masterpiece, Hayek warns us about the serious consequences, in all forms of socialism, of this failed idea of implementing an artificial order – a sense of planning that goes beyond the needs of the individual. Under this premise, can we then say that socialism is and always has been a logical-intellectual error?
Yes, indeed, we can certainly say that. Hayek’s critique of socialism as fatally addicted to a “pretense to knowledge” is universal and applies to the past, present, and future. It’s an observation rooted in the very essence of knowledge and in the very nature of individuals. Nothing is going to change that. The sooner people get over it, the better, so we can all get on with living our own lives in peace.
It’s impossible not to talk about Venezuela: a true paradise in Latin America. The country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world. A country that used to be free and prosperous and that provided for decades, in every possible way, unique development conditions for its citizens. But Venezuela is no longer the same. How do you think this paradise was spoiled?
Socialism always destroys both material wealth and the human spirit in the long run.Venezuela is sad evidence of the terrible power of evil ideas. Nothing good in the long run can come from ideas that are inherently evil, no matter how they are dressed up to sound appealing to people.
Think of how Chavez and Maduro sold socialism to Venezuelans: they were always giving angry, resentful speeches, calling for envy and theft and hate. The way they were going to fulfill their promises involved the concentration of power in the hands of the state, which is a fatal concoction.
Many Venezuelans were caught up in it because they either lacked personal character or they allowed their character to crumble. They were bought and paid for by the state’s false promises and redistributed wealth. It may have seemed to work in the short run, but socialism always destroys both material wealth and the human spirit in the long run. Well, the “long run” is already here, and those short-term benefits of a few years ago are gone. Evil begets evil, sooner or later.
And I think that finally, an important point to mention is the case of Ecuador. I’m Ecuadorian and I grew up in a nation that lost ground and sovereignty. In 2006 came Rafael Correa, with a socialist recipe that convulsed an entire nation. Today, 11 years later, Ecuadorians met a point of no return. We missed perhaps the last chance we had to defeat a dictatorship. Freedom won in the presidential elections of 2017, but not in the Consejo Nacional Electoral, also controlled by the government of Correa. Today we know that we will have more years of socialism in Ecuador. How can Ecuadorians claim freedom, when apparently all vestige of it has disappeared in a country where the State controls almost everything?
The fight for liberty has always been with us.Never give up. In terms of what you know to be right and what is worth fighting for, it shouldn’t matter what the prospects of success may be. If it’s right, you fight for it. That’s what people of good character do. You may have to fight in different and smarter ways, or you may even have to fight from outside the country. But nonetheless, you fight. I don’t necessarily mean fighting in a physical sense, though that sometimes is necessary; instead, I am referring to the intellectual battle of ideas.
Many great moments in history have happened unexpectedly and quickly, and then upon reflection it’s apparent that they happened because even when the prospects for success were bleak, good people never gave up. How terrible it would be to reach the end of one’s days, look back on life, and have to admit that you gave up on the things most dear to you that you always knew were right and good.
Finally, my dear Lawrence, I dare to ask on behalf of all the youth who struggle from their own trench for the cause of liberty: what do you advise us in this struggle, which will undoubtedly last the rest of our days?
Remember that the fight for liberty has always been with us. The world has always been afflicted with bad people and bad ideas. In that sense, our struggle is not a new one. It’s many centuries old, and countless millions have fought on our side. So we should not give up because we think we’re just the unlucky ones. No, liberty is an endless battle, and the worst thing we can do is to let bad ideas win because we didn’t have the courage or character to resist. No matter what happens, you want to be able to say at the end of your days that you did your best, you gave your all.
Meantime, always be alert to ways to improve yourself and your ability to communicate and persuade. Never become impatient or mean. Set yourself the task of winning as many souls for liberty as you can, one at a time. Never, ever give up. Smile, be a happy warrior, and don’t let the other side ever get you down.
Republished from Ideas de Libertad.
Andrés, a student from Guayaquil, Ecuador and a 2016 FEE seminar alum, conducted this interview with Mr. Reed in May 2017. The Instituto Ecuatoriano de Economía Política (Ecuadorian Institute of Political Economy, IEEP), with which he is associated, is directed by Dora de Ampuero, a long-time friend of FEE. See IEEP's Facebook page and website. IEEP seeks to improve Ecuadorian understanding of freedom and free markets.