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Friday, May 1, 1998

Rediscovering American Values

Traditional American Values Form the Basis of Freedom

“If you want to make a point, tell a story.” In Rediscovering American Values, Dick DeVos, president of Amway Corporation, puts this old advice to excellent use. The theme of his book is that freedom and the many benefits that flow from it cannot exist unless the people of a society adhere to certain values (and, by implication, reject their corresponding disvalues). Each chapter is about one of the values that the author regards as important to nurture—the “values that provide the very foundation of freedom.” In each instance, he illustrates his point with stories of real human beings.

That is what makes this book work.

Consider, for example, one of the stories the author employs to show the value of brotherhood. Francis Aebi and Tamaki Ninomiya were neighbors in northern California in 1941. Both grew roses and sold them in the flower market in San Francisco. After Pearl Harbor, the Ninomiya family was split up and sent off to the internment camps where Americans of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned during the war. Prior to his arrest, Ninomiya gave Aebi, a man of Swiss ancestry, his bankbook and a prized family possession—a Japanese doll. Aebi promised to do his best to look after his neighbor’s property.

In 1942, government officials ordered flower growers to grow vegetables instead. This required the considerable task of clearing away the beloved rosebushes and planting vegetables. Aebi cleared not only his own land, but also the Ninomiyas’. Throughout the war, Aebi sold his own produce and that which he grew on the Ninomiya farm, carefully depositing the income from the latter sales into the Ninomiya bank account. He also preserved and tended a few of the rosebushes.

Imagine the emotions that swept over Tamaki Ninomiya when he was finally allowed to return to his home in 1946. While the property of many internees had been looted, his stood in perfect condition. The family doll was returned. His bank account had even grown.

Francis Aebi had done, DeVos emphasizes, “the right thing.” He had no obligation to do anything for Ninomiya and might have gained personally from the great misfortune that had befallen his neighbor. But he acted with kindness and compassion—brotherhood—to lessen the suffering of the Ninomiya family. He made the world just a little bit better, simply because he knew he should.

Many of the stories in Rediscovering American Values demonstrate the remarkable ability of people to solve problems without even thinking the word “government,” much less trotting off to ask that it tax or regulate something. Cleaning up the environment, overcoming prejudice, helping people to get off and stay off drugs or alcohol, educating the hard to educate: De Vos politely refutes the common assumption that the individual is powerless to accomplish anything. If you know anyone afflicted with the “voluntary action is old-fashioned” disease, this book is the cure.

Honesty, reliability, fairness, compassion, courage, humility, reason, self-discipline, optimism, commitment, initiative, work, perseverance, accountability, cooperation, stewardship, encouragement, forgiveness, service, charity, leadership, opportunity, education, and brotherhood—these are the values that Dick DeVos believes are necessary for the preservation of freedom. Although he does not say so, the decline of freedom in the United States can be directly traced to a decline in those values. Those who do not see the value of work are apt to seek welfare; those who are lacking in courage will seek government guarantees; those who feel no sense of brotherhood will lobby for government favors for themselves at the expense of everyone else.

The great work in front of all of us is to find ways to reverse America’s slow and steady decline. With this clear and easily accessible book, Dick DeVos has shouldered some of the load.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.