Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is an expert in the history of liberty. He has lectured in England, Germany, Japan, Argentina and Brazil as well as at Harvard, Stanford and other universities across the United States. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Audacity/American Heritage and other publications, and is author of six books.
Historian Jim Powell writes on three intellectual giants of the 20th century.
It’s not clear how any of FDR’s 1933 policies could have accounted for a 17 percent increase in GDP, even if they promoted expansion, because they wouldn’t have had time to ripple through the economy. It seems more likely that FDR had the good fortune to come into office near the bottom of the Depression, and enough adjustments in wages, prices, and other factors had occurred that the economy was ready to recover.
The French thinker Benjamin Constant was, according to respected Oxford University scholar Isaiah Berlin, “the most eloquent of all defenders of freedom and privacy.” Constant's most important contribution: he recognized that “the main problem . . . [is] how much authority should be placed in any set of hands. For unlimited authority in anybody's grasp was bound, he believed, sooner or later, to destroy somebody.”
The freedom fighter Marquis de Lafayette changed history. He helped defeat the British at Yorktown, winning American independence. In France, he helped topple two kings and an emperor. Jean-Antoine Houdon, the great eighteenth-century sculptor who created busts of many great heroes, dubbed Lafayette “the apostle and defender of liberty in the two worlds.”
By the mid-eighteenth century, a number of authors had expressed the liberating vision that came to be known as laissez faire. Anne Robert Jacques Turgot put it into action.
A pioneering master of speculative fiction, Robert Heinlein has captured the imagination of millions for liberty. Five of his novels chronicle rebellion against tyranny, other novels are about different struggles for liberty, and his writings abound with declarations on liberty. For instance, in Requiem (1939): It's neither your business, nor the business of . . . paternalistic government, to tell a man not to risk his life doing what he really wants to do.
Frederic Bastiat ranks among the most spirited defenders of economic freedom and international peace. Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek called Bastiat a publicist of genius. The great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises saluted Bastiat's immortal contributions. Best-selling economics journalist Henry Hazlitt marveled at Bastiat's uncanny clairvoyance. Said intellectual historian Murray N. Rothbard: Bastiat was indeed a lucid and superb writer, whose brilliant and witty essays and fables to this day are remarkable and devastating demolitions of protectionism and of all forms of government subsidy and control.
Benjamin Franklin pioneered the spirit of self-help in America. With less than three years of formal schooling, he taught himself almost everything he knew. He took the initiative of learning French, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish. He taught himself how to play the guitar, violin, and harp. He made himself an influential author and editor. He started a successful printing business, newspaper, and magazine. He developed a network of printing partnerships throughout the American colonies.
American individualism had virtually died out by the time Mark Twain was buried in 1910. Progressive intellectuals promoted collectivism. Progressive jurists like Oliver Wendell Holmes hammered constitutional restraints as an inconvenient obstacle to expanding government power, supposedly the cure for every social problem.
Frederick Douglass made himself the most compelling witness to the evils of slavery and prejudice. He suffered as his master broke up his family. He endured whippings and beatings. In the antebellum South, it was illegal to teach slaves how to read and write, but Douglass learned anyway, and he secretly educated other slaves. After he escaped to freedom, he tirelessly addressed antislavery meetings throughout the North and the British Isles for more than two decades.
He insisted on the primacy of moral standards over government laws. These standards became known as natural law. Above all, Cicero declared, government is morally obliged to protect human life and private property. When government runs amok, people have a right to rebel—Cicero honored daring individuals who helped overthrow tyrants.
William Ewart Gladstone dominated British politics in the heyday of classical liberalism. He entered Parliament at age 23, first held a cabinet post at 34, and delivered his last speech as a Member when he was 84. He served as Prime Minister four times. Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek ranked Gladstone among the greatest classical liberals. Lord Acton believed Gladstone's supremacy was undisputed. Paul Johnson declared there is no parallel to his record of achievement in English history. One might add there are few parallels anywhere.
How can a single individual fight tyranny? What can be done for liberty against overwhelming odds? There are few stories as stirring as that of Raoul Wallenberg. He defied the evil forces of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, two of history's worst mass murderers. He confronted racists, torturers, assassins, and even Hitler's chief executioner, Adolf Eichmann, while saving almost 100,000 lives
Thomas Babington Macaulay ranks among the most eloquent of all authors on liberty. In terms of the sheer quantity and range of eloquence, perhaps only Thomas Jefferson soared to such breathtaking heights.
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