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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey

An Excellent Advancement of the Case for Freedom

Growing up in a fairly poor family in rural Manitoba, David Henderson would have seemed an unlikely candidate for the authorship of one of the most resounding libertarian books to come along in years. But an innate sense that there was something valuable in having the freedom to live one’s life according to one’s own choices kept the young man from being trapped in the bog of envy and egalitarianism that prevails in Canada. At a propitious moment Henderson laid his hands on a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. From that point on he was hooked. The Joy of Freedom is Henderson’s story of his discovery of the importance of liberty and the dour consequences for human beings when it is taken away.

Although the book has autobiographical aspects—its subtitle is An Economist’s Odyssey—it isn’t so much an autobiography as an impassioned brief for a society shorn of coercive governmental meddling. Unlike most autobiographies, in which the author indulges in the narcissistic belief that the details of his life are fascinating to others, when Henderson writes about himself, it is always incidental and useful to his purpose of trying to convince the reader that freedom works.

In that endeavor he succeeds wonderfully. His odyssey in the discovery of freedom is one that anyone could take, not necessarily winding up with a Ph.D. in economics from UCLA, service on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and, currently, a fellowship at the Hoover Institution, but in coming to understand the fantastic potential of free people to make progress and solve problems. Most of the book is devoted to disputes between advocates of liberty and statists — the “distribution” of income, minimum wage, property rights, health care, taxation, and so on—and in issue after issue, Henderson cogently, unequivocally advances the logic and morality of the libertarian side.

His technique is to weave into his discussion strands of individual stories (sometimes his own experiences, sometimes other people’s), good economic analysis, statistics, and statements by defenders of government intervention. In doing so, he creates chapter after chapter of sharp libertarian argumentation. People unfamiliar with the case for the superiority of freedom over statist intervention will find themselves saying, over and over, “Well, I hadn’t ever thought of that.” And those of us who are veterans of the war against incessant government encroachments on our liberty and property will discover much that is new, ready for incorporation into our arsenals.

Here’s a good example of Henderson at work. Labor unions try to cultivate the impression that they are the champions of “the little guy” and have only the interests of the workers at heart. It would be hard for any objective reader to continue to hold that idea after Henderson is done with it. He uses the words of a union official to do much of the demolition work.

The episode is the infamous attempt by the garment workers’ union to prevent women from knitting ski caps, scarves, and similar items in their own homes. That activity constituted lower-cost competition, and the union wanted it stopped. Naturally, it turned to the U.S. Department of Labor to enforce blatantly authoritarian regulations forbidding homework. While Henderson was working for President Reagan, hearings were held on those regulations. A union official named Alex Rose testified that homework should be banned so that workers would then turn to factory jobs with all the union “benefits” (and, of course, dues payments as well). Henderson asked Rose, “Do you know of a woman named Cecile Duffany?” “No,” he said curtly. “Mrs. Duffany has acute arthritis in her hips and she can’t work in a factory. If this ban stays, Mrs. Duffany will be out of work. What would you have her do?” “If she can work in her home, she can work in a factory!” the official snapped angrily.

Henderson is also dynamite on education. He argues that “One of the biggest snow jobs that advocates of government schools have successfully pulled is to convince the public to think of ‘schools’ and ‘learning’ or ‘schools’ and ‘education’ synonymously. They are not synonymous. Schools don’t have a monopoly on learning. They don’t even have a large market share.”

Henderson observes that much of what people need to learn, they learn at home, on the job, or in other nonschool environments, then follows up by writing, “Observers have marveled at how well our economy does — that is, how well individual workers in that economy do — in spite of our lousy education system.” Advocates of government schooling often say that the fact that the economy is strong is proof that the schools must be pretty good, but Henderson won’t buy it. “What it really shows is that the U.S. school system is only one of many inputs into people’s learning.” He maintains that government schools are in fact doing a miserable job and that “one of the main resources that the government school system wastes, one that is rarely talked about, is children’s time.” Right!

David Henderson wrote The Joy of Freedom to help advance the cause of freedom. He has done an excellent job, and I urge readers to aid in that project by putting the book into the hands of as many educable people as possible. Graduations are just around the corner. The book would be a great gift for high school and college students.

  • 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.

  • David Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an economics professor at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He is editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund) and blogs at