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Friday, April 22, 2016

The Hero of Hickory Farms

RIP, Richard K. Ransom

Last Sunday, at a height of 35,000 feet, I was reading the generally anticapitalist but profit-seeking New York Times while speeding from Salt Lake City to Atlanta at 400 miles per hour in a giant, metallic, winged tube whose precursor was invented by two profit-seeking bicycle mechanics in Dayton, Ohio (on their own nickel, by the way).

I peruse the Times mainly for the obituaries. Even that paper will sometimes offer a kind word about a capitalist once he’s been taxed good and hard or is gone altogether. That’s where I learned of the death from Alzheimer’s disease of Richard K. Ransom, founder of Hickory Farms, on April 11, 2016. He was 96.

The obit explained that not long after returning from fighting for his country in the Pacific theater of World War II, a young Ransom

was tired of driving a vegetable truck around rural Ohio for his parents’ wholesale produce business. So he started selling hand-cut cheeses at flower shows and boat shows. Soon he added summer sausage, then expanded to county fairs around the Midwest.… By the time he sold it in 1980, Hickory Farms was a $164-million-dollar-a-year specialty food business, with outlets in every state but Mississippi.

One of the pioneering features of his stores was the free sample. Lots of them. Free cheese. Free sausage. Free crackers. Imagine that: giving free food to people whether they actually became customers or not. But of course, an awful lot of them did, because they liked what he offered.

Ransom appears to have lived a good and full life: active in community affairs and philanthropy; married to the same woman for 63 years; a son and 3 daughters; 9 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren; a leader on the boards of local banks, a private school, and the Toledo Zoo; and a fundraiser for children’s charities ever since he witnessed the suffering of children on the island of Okinawa, Japan.

An April 13 story in Toledo’s daily newspaper, the Blade, quoted a longtime associate’s summation of him: “He had really good basic values — honesty, integrity. He could relate to people and could make great friends that would last.”

I never had the pleasure of meeting Ransom, but as I read his obit, I thought to myself:

Here’s a man who built a fine enterprise from scratch. It brought employment and goods and services to a great many people. It was successful enough during his tenure that it surely put him in what some would disdain as “the 1 percent” of income earners, though his personal wealth was an insignificant fraction of what he created and a small price to pay for the risks he took. He and his company paid millions in taxes over the years, much of which was squandered by politicians and bureaucracies. Then he founded a wonderful charity that locates families who will adopt children in foster care. He was a generous, long-time donor to Assistance Dogs of America as well.

And yet there’s a ubiquitous barbarian mindset afoot that wants us to view people like Ransom with suspicion and disgust so we can feel good about demagogues who will “protect” us from them. This barbarianism typically makes no distinction between creators who make their fortunes the honest way on their own and the far smaller number who use their political connections to do it. We’re to punish them all and empower the noncreators in government to buy votes with the fruits of their life’s work. Something in history, economics, and basic morality tells me that this evil way of thinking cannot end well, and never, ever has.

I’m reminded of the words of Tacitus some 2,000 years ago: “When men of talents are punished, authority is strengthened.”

By what twisted principle of justice do we sneer at successful people like Ransom? Did the wealth he created — including the relatively small portion he enjoyed himself — make someone else poorer? Would the rest of us have gotten as much out of him if, instead of a life in business, he had pursued the life of a reclusive hermit or a cloistered monk or even that of a tenured, socialist academic?

It seems obvious to me that Ransom baked a bigger pie; he didn’t simply claim a larger slice for himself. He gave the world far more than he took. He didn’t think he was entitled to much, other than the freedom to peacefully put his talents and ideas to work for others as well as himself. I have known a great many such people. In fact, I shun the ones who (unlike Ransom) sully the reputation of capitalism with their very uncapitalist seeking of favors from government. They don’t donate to groups like FEE, I might add, and I’m proud they don’t.

Inebriated with never-ending anger and victimhood, so-called progressives and democratic socialists can’t bring themselves to single out a Richard K. Ransom and praise his accomplishments, let alone the profit motive that played an important role in them. Bernie Sanders, for instance, has built a national campaign around denigrating success. He says, “We are living in a world where greed has become for the wealthiest people their own religion, and they make no apologies for it.”

Not some of the wealthiest, but all of the wealthiest, by virtue of their wealth itself, are irretrievably “greedy” according to Sanders’s flippant declaration. Their greed is nothing less than a “religion,” he pontificates. And, of course, all of them must be taxed more, so people like Bernie can buy votes with their money. He’s telling you, whether he’ll admit it or not, that wealth must be punished because it’s not his or yours. It’s theirs.

In any other walk of life but the dirty business of politics, demonizing an entire class of people with such sweeping verdicts would be dismissed as the meanest, most superficial bigotry. We would see through the demagogue’s flimsy logic. We would immediately think of the many exceptions we personally know. If someone stupidly, offensively proclaimed that all people of a particular viewpoint are bad and must be punished, decent people would rise to the defense of those of that perspective whom they know to be good and undeserving of retribution. We would condemn the demagogue for his carelessness, for his cruelty, and for his ignorance.

But in wide swaths of today’s America, this antisocial behavior turns out huge, cheering throngs to beg for more.

In a genuinely free, capitalist economy, rich people don’t cause poor people. Five hundred or a thousand years ago, the gap between rich and poor was immense and intractable. Mobility from one income level to another was minimal. Most people were economically frozen in place because the rich enjoyed the one thing that ensured and enforced that deep freeze — political power. Not until that power was diminished by ideas that blossomed in the Enlightenment were the enterprising Richard K. Ransoms of the world able to work their magic.

When I hear the class-warfare nonsense of the wealth-destroying Bernies of the world, I feel as though I need a good, hot shower. The millions of hard-working, risk-taking entrepreneurs that Bernie and his friends lump with the few bad eggs don’t deserve such treatment.

RIP, Richard K. Ransom. No one ordered you to, but you did so much to lift people up. You created the wealth that the barbarians in our midst only talk about, steal, and squander. By every measure, you were so much better than they are.

  • 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