All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1991

Perspective: The Hard Line

Leonard Read was a hard-liner. He believed that a person should practice what he preaches. Perhaps he had this in mind when he established FEE to promote a moral foundation for economic education, advocating a solid ethical basis for the free society.

In 1961 he wrote in The Freeman: “The crown of virtue should rest uneasily on any man until he has given evil a setback . . . . Ever so many persons think of themselves as virtuous simply because they have done nothing they conceive to be wrong. . . . Political virtue, however, is a false claim until our affinity to right principles has been tested and found unbreakable . . . . The measure of character is recorded in how each of us responds to the question, ‘Do I yield or triumph over what I believe to be wrong?’”

Leonard Read’s approach requires that men develop respect for human life and private property. They must use common sense in the understanding of economic principles. And they must erect a limited government, designed to protect them, their civil rights, and their property, to act with force against wrongdoers and to settle disputes. These basic guidelines lead to a society of peace and prosperity.

The hard-liner must be an extraordinary person to maintain a constant philosophical position. He must be willing to give up material gains for moral rectitude• He must be prepared to choose right over wrong at the risk of great personal sacrifice. The choice to hold fast on moral terms demands complete adherence to the fundamentals of the free society—peace, tolerance, and respect. Capitalism promises hope for the future to those willing to stand on the hard line for liberty, those who try to do good and refuse to do evil.

The concept of the moral hard line flows from the basic idea of liberty. The positive side of liberty is the potential reward for prudent action. The negative side is the potential punishment for imprudent behavior. One side leads toward mankind’s advancement to higher levels of civilized conduct. The other side keeps us from sliding back into barbarism. The essence of the idea of liberty is that a person must decide to take one side or the other. He must choose good or evil.

Leonard Read started FEE for hard-liners. He believed that every human being must take a moral stand. He knew that the only method for achieving peace on earth, and the only intellectual basis for a tolerant and prosperous society, is to draw a definite ethical line between good ideas and bad ideas that men cannot cross. He became a hard-liner himself and a living example for the free society. He practiced what he preached, and that is what FEE is all about.

—Carl Helstrom

Real Money

Gertrude Stein once told a story about her young nephew who, while out walking, saw some horses and came running in to tell his father that he had seen “a million horses.” “A million?” the father asked.

“Well, three anyway,” the boy replied.

There is, of course, a difference between three and a million. Three we can understand. We can picture three horses in a field, with maybe a few trees and a fence around them. But a million is too many. We can’t grasp such numbers.

Politicians face this problem every day. They spend millions, and billions, and even trillions of dollars. But what does it all mean? You can’t picture that kind of money. Mind games don’t help much either. It takes, for example, about 10,000 dollar bills stretched end to end to cover a mile. Can anyone really visualize a billion dollars ($1{30 bills stretched out for 1,000 miles)?

Maybe that is one reason why politicians, except perhaps at the very local level, seem so out of touch with their constituents. When they sit in a budget committee somewhere, they don’t seem to be functioning in the real world. They appropriate and allocate and budget for this or that, but the numbers are so big that the money has an ethereal aspect to it. It just doesn’t seem real anymore.

But the money is real. Every dollar spent by the government has to be paid by someone somewhere in one way or another. So let’s try to put it into perspective.

Federal, state, and local government spending will amount to about $2 trillion this year. In terms of dollar bills stretched end to end, that’s 200 million miles. But in the real world, where Americans try to make ends meet, it comes to $8,000 for every man, woman, and child, or $32,000 for a family of four.

Now $8,000 or $32,000 we can understand. We know what it takes to earn that kind of money, and what it means to our budgets. We have a pretty good idea of how to allocate such sums to meet our family needs. We know that when our money runs short we will have to turn down the thermostat, put off a vacation, try to keep the old car running, and hope that no one loses a filling. To us, as individuals, $8,000 per family member is real money.

Of course, most politicians have spent real money at one time or another. They have some idea of what it takes to write out a mortgage check, pay for heat, or go through a checkout line. The troubles begin when they sit around those budget tables, where the numbers become astronomical and the real problems of Americans seem so distant.

—Brian Summers

Play Money

Because they typically lobby for restraints on resources and property that do not belong to them, environmentalists bear few of the costs of their actions. When they secure legislation that prohibits off and gas drilling, for example, or development of a mall on a specific tract of land, the costs are borne to a disproportionate degree by the owners of the land or by the users of the goods and services that would have been produced.

It is not unlike playing Monopoly. With board game money, you can be reckless, make wild purchases, and otherwise be extravagant in ways you would never consider in real life. When playing with real dollars, however, people have to balance other considerations like the need to secure food and shelter.

—Jo Kwong Echard

Protecting the Environment: Old

Rhetoric, New Imperatives

  • Carl Helstrom is the current Chairman of State Policy Network. He is Executive Director of The JM Foundation and the Milbank Foundation for Rehabilitation in Princeton, New Jersey. A graduate of Grove City College (Grove City, PA), he worked with free enterprise education and research organizations for more than ten years before becoming a consultant to several private foundations and joining JM and Milbank in 1997.

    Carl is also a Trustee of the A. P. Kirby Jr. Foundation in Mendham, NJ and a Director of The Roe Foundation of Greenville, SC. He and his wife, Jane, have three sons.