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Friday, September 4, 2015

Missionary for Free Markets

Real Heroes: Hans F. Sennholz

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” 
—William Arthur Ward

After a long and productive life, a man of great faith passes on and is welcomed into heaven. He is greeted with an invitation. “What would you most like to do?” he is asked.

“I always enjoyed giving speeches about what it was like to live through the Johnstown Flood,” he responds. “I’d love to tell everyone up here all about it.”

“That’s fine,” the man is advised. “But remember that Noah will be in the audience.”

With that story, Rev. James Seeley of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Grove City, Pennsylvania, began his remarks at services on June 26, 2007, for one of the most colorful and revered economists in the free-market firmament, Hans F. Sennholz.

Well-known to readers of this magazine as one of its more prolific authors for 50 years and a former president of the Foundation for Economic Education for five years, Dr. Sennholz had departed this world three days before.

Dr. Sennholz, Rev. Seeley explained, was one of the first members of his new congregation that he came to know when he began pastoring at Holy Trinity nearly two decades earlier. During one of his first sermons, the young minister dared venture into economic matters, though for only a few moments. Afterward, a distinguished-looking gentleman with a thick German accent admonished him: “Young man, the next time you talk about economics, I hope you will know what you’re talking about!”

Sennholz never missed an opportunity to prick a conscience or deflate the self-assured.

Thus began the economic education of Rev. Seeley, who remembered fondly the many times in later months and years that his new mentor showered him with books and articles and listened intently every Sunday from the pews.

Any one of the tens of thousands who studied under Sennholz would immediately recognize this story as vintage Hans. He never missed an opportunity to prick a conscience or deflate the self-assured when a good pricking or deflating was called for. The moral and economic case for a free society was just too important for him ever to keep silent. After all, he not only knew what freedom was; he knew firsthand what it meant to be denied it.

Born in 1922 in the Rhineland, Sennholz witnessed firsthand the rise of Adolf Hitler. As a teenager, he was drafted into the Nazi air force, then later shot down over North Africa and transported to a prisoner-of-war camp in Texas. After the war, he returned to Germany and earned an economics degree in 1948 from the University of Marburg, followed by a doctorate in political science from the University of Cologne in 1949.

It was at Marburg that fate changed his life forever. There he encountered the works of the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises and was transfixed by their illuminating logic. He became a passionate scholar and teacher of the moral and economic principles of the free society for the next half-century. In 1955, he earned a PhD in economics from New York University, where he studied under Mises.

At Grove City College, where he taught from 1956 until his retirement in 1992, Sennholz was a memorable classroom lecturer with a distinct theatrical delivery that prompted both admiration and imitation. He knew how to mesmerize an audience, and no matter how large or challenging it was, he did more than just rise to the occasion. He transcended it with his oratorical skills. Those of us who heard him speak in many venues over the years felt he was almost always at his best, but he liked to say the size of the crowd made a difference: “If there are 10, I give a talk. If there are 25, I give a lecture. Over 100, I give a speech. To 200 or more, I give an oration.”

Once, he held forth for 45 minutes with a ringing defense of free labor markets and a brilliant assault on compulsory unionism. With five minutes left in the class, a student raised his hand to ask a question. “Dr. Sennholz, what you say sounds appealing, but the fact is, not many people think that way. So there’s got to be something wrong with what you’re saying.”

Silence. Then the response — gentle but firm, and forever quotable. “Truth,” he said, “is not a numbers game. You can be alone and you can be right.” Then a pause and the grand finale: “I may be alone, but I am right.”

And, of course, he was. He was also right about a lot of other things that, at the time, weren’t widely accepted as true. He was right about the big picture, the paramount question of our age: Should economies be led by central planners or by the sovereign choices and decisions of free individuals? There was never a shred of doubt where Hans stood on that, and one of his greatest contributions was to instill in his audiences a similar certitude on that question.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to a teacher is what his students later do because of what he taught them. In this regard, Dr. Sennholz left a vast and enduring legacy. In all walks of life, thousands of Sennholz students are spreading the good word about liberty and free markets. Many are doing it from prominent platforms as economists, educators, philanthropists, pastors, and political leaders, and all of us have endless and wonderful memories of how inspired we were by the golden tongue of our illustrious mentor.

George Pearson says taking Dr. Sennholz’s economics principles course in the early 1960s “was a defining moment in my life.” Pearson spent 40 years in various capacities encouraging young scholars in free-market thought and was a key figure in the formation of the Kansas Policy Institute (and is presently its board chair).

Economist and popular professor Peter J. Boettke of George Mason University notes that Sennholz’s lectures “changed my life and fuel my approach to economic education” a quarter century later. “Sennholz,” says Boettke, “was a man of deep moral conviction and never shied away from defending the moral and philosophic principles of the private property order.”

Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the prestigious Institute for Justice, counts himself among the many Sennholz students “who carry with them deep wisdom gained from a teacher who could explain complex economic subjects in common-sense and powerful ways.”

Sennholz’s fame spread far and wide, and students came from many countries to study at his feet. Alejandro (Alex) Chafuen came from Argentina. “Economics explains many things,” said Chafuen, the long-time president of the influential Atlas Network, “but it can’t explain why people will devote their life to produce fruits that they will not see. If freedom has a chance, it is not only because it works, but because educators such as Dr. Sennholz chose to sacrifice many things to follow a principled path.”

John A. Sparks had the good fortune to be both a student and later a Grove City College faculty colleague of Sennholz. He described his teacher this way: “He spoke with the incisive reasoning of a first-rate economist, the long-term perspective of an historian, and the moral fervor and conviction of an Old Testament prophet, and all this with clarity of syntax punctuated with that distinctive German accent.”

Hans Sennholz’s impact on my own life is beyond my capacity to measure. It is arguably greater than that of anyone outside of my own parents, which makes him a hero in a very personal way. He set me on the course to advance liberty as a teacher and writer more than 40 years ago.

Someday, if I make it to heaven, I’d like to give the folks there the same lectures on economics and liberty that my teacher inspired me to give so many times down here.

But, of course, Hans Sennholz will be in the audience, which means I’d better get it right.

(Author’s note: This essay is a slightly revised version of an article that appeared in the October 2007 issue of FEE’s magazine, the Freeman.)

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  • 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