All Commentary
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Sage of Tampa

Harry Teasley is a True Champion of Liberty

“The natural progress of things,” according to Thomas Jefferson, “is for government to gain ground and for liberty to yield.” But this lament does not suggest that the primary author of the Declaration of Independence was resigned to inaction. He also said, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

Jefferson was right on both counts, which is why we should be grateful for good people who push back when government pushes where it shouldn’t. Liberty would surely be a lost cause without them.

One such person is Harry Teasley of Tampa, Florida. I’ve come to know Harry as man who generously commits everything—reputation, intellect, energy, time, and resources—to the idea that government must retreat so that liberty may advance. Not even age (he’s 71) seems to slow him down.

Thirty minutes with Harry and anyone familiar with the famed Myers-Briggs personality profile test would likely guess that Harry is an “INTJ”—one of an estimated 2 percent of the American population. As fits the description, Harry is a keen observer of the world who places a premium on evidence, logic, and facts. His thinking is deliberate, systematic, strategic, and long-range. He abhors incompetence and does not suffer gladly the many fools, charlatans, and gullible fuzzy heads who feast off the production of others or opine on anything that strikes their fancy. An engineer by training and a natural leader, he is self-confident, intuitive, and decisive.

Like his thinking, his desk is organized and clutter-free. He knows what he believes in and is not timid about standing up for it. Many people who have been on the other side of arguments with Harry have scars to prove it.

A January 10, 1995 article by Tim W. Ferguson in the Wall Street Journal acquainted a national audience with how Harry had just “stared down” the Tampa mayor and his allies in the local business community. At issue was a proposal to build a publicly subsidized hotel near a $140 million convention center. It had already secured huge subsidies before Harry arrived in Tampa in 1991. The hotel would likely cost the taxpayers more than the convention center itself and would compete directly against private taxpaying hotels. To Harry the matter was not about economic development. It was instead a moral and philosophical matter that “had to be fought on the high ground of what is the appropriate role of government.”

“I always come back to first principles and debate from first principles,” Harry told Ferguson. “It protects against cracks in the armament.” He organized and inspired opposition to the hotel, commissioned a voter survey that revealed strong public antipathy to the subsidy, blew apart the arguments of the mayor’s consultant’s report on the project, bought full-page ads in the local paper, and turned out a big crowd at a crucial city council meeting in October 1994. Under the pressure the council rejected the hotel subsidy by a 4-3 vote.

Harry Teasley was no stranger to controversy. Before that dust-up in Tampa, he had spent more than three decades as an executive with Coca-Cola in Atlanta, in a series of positions and locations that brought him into conflict with overzealous government regulators and fact-deficient environmental activists. When Maine outlawed the aseptic packaging more popularly known as drink boxes, he proved the boxes conserved resources instead of squandering them. Maine repealed its ill-advised ban. While he was president of Coca-Cola Foods, maker of Minute Maid orange juice, the company stood practically alone in opposing the extension of tariffs on orange solids from Brazil. He also successfully fought a committee (appointed by seven Northeast governors) that wanted to veto the preferences and expertise of producers, packaging engineers, and consumers by regulating the specs of every package sold in those seven states.

Harry warned against the policies that produced today’s mortgage market crisis long before the bubble broke. In 2000, when a bank on whose board he served sought to secure subsidies for a housing project the bank stood to profit from, Harry resigned. In his letter to the bank’s CEO, he wrote: ” I believe in that set of ideas and concepts that goes under the rubric of classical liberalism [emphasis Harry’s] to include . . . the following: freedom in all its guises, personal liberty and its mirror image of individual responsibility, private property, economic freedom, free markets and free trade, rule of law, voluntary contracts and association, and limited government.

“While I realize that our country has strayed far from the concepts articulated by the Founders and that we are awash in a sea of statism and socialism, nevertheless whenever I encounter government intrusions that are contrary to my beliefs, I try to act in arenas open to me. The granting of subsidies or the redistribution of wealth to special interests, in order to support activities that would not exist if individuals or institutions had to spend their own money, is such an area.”

Since last summer the federal government has granted trillions in bailouts to a growing list of supplicants lining up at the public trough. I can’t help but ask, “Where are the Harry Teasleys? Who has the courage and the moral scruples to keep their hands in their own pockets?”

Harry’s principles didn’t come from an economics professor. As a student at Georgia Tech in the 1950s, he took an economics course for which the text was an early edition of Paul Samuelson’s awful but widely used apologia for central planning. But during rigorous courses in English and engineering, his logical mind found solace in critical thinking, deductive reasoning, and the importance of research rooted in dispassionate, agenda-less evidence. When a professor claimed in a math class that smart government planners using computers could effectively manage a nation’s agricultural needs, Harry challenged him. “How could any handful of officials possibly know how to account for endless variables from the weather to consumer tastes?” he demanded to know. He wasn’t satisfied with the presumptuous prof’s superficial reply.

Thirty years later, in the late 1980s, Harry Teasley formally met the body of thought we know as free-market, classical-liberal economics. The Foundation for Economic Education played an important role in his introduction. He worked from a reading list compiled by FEE’s founder Leonard Read and a long-time FEE supporter, Harry Langenberg of St. Louis. In quick succession, Harry devoured The Freeman and the works of Frederic Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, F. A. Hayek and others. An organized mind had connected with the logic of real economics in a seamless and natural marriage. From that point on, the principled crusades against the regulators and the subsidy-seekers were inevitabilities waiting to happen.

Today, Harry Teasley is retired only as a professional business executive. He is otherwise engaged constantly in thinking, writing pithy letters to the editor, and supporting liberty through his time, advice and philanthropy. It was people like him that I’m convinced Jefferson had in mind when he urged, “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

  • 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