This small book conveys a very big message: character makes all the difference in the world. You are personally in charge of your own character and are in a position to have a considerable influence on the character of others by your example. If you have a conscience, this should matter a great deal to you. If you value liberty, you must understand that character is an indispensable ingredient—a necessary pre-condition—for a free society.
I’ll venture one step further and offer this thought, upon which I have elaborated in other places and publications: no people who lost their character kept their liberties. That may be the most important lesson from the last five thousand years of human history.
In my visits to communist countries before the collapse of the Soviet Union, I witnessed the power of character as it eroded an evil system. In Poland in 1986 I met secretly with a very brave couple, Zbigniew and Sofia Romaszewski. They had only lately been released from prison for running an illegal underground radio station that broadcasted a message of liberty for Poland.
“How did you know if people were listening?” I asked. Sofia answered, “We could only broadcast eight to ten minutes at a time before moving on to another place to stay ahead of the police. One night we asked people to blink their lights if they believed in freedom. We then went to the window and for hours, all of Warsaw was blinking.” The Iron Curtain fell in Poland and across Eastern Europe in 1989, in large part because of such heroes with character. They never gave up working for what they knew was right.
That story is the genesis of the Foundation for Economic Education’s (FEE) ambitious “Blinking Lights Project,” launched in the spring of 2013. It aims to inspire and educate young people in the principles of character, liberty, and entrepreneur-ship—and how those three critical elements of a free society are inextricably linked. Character comes first and makes liberty possible, and one of the highest and most noble callings of a responsible adult in a free society is to be an honest entrepreneur who creates value, employs people, and solves problems.
This book is one component of FEE’s Blinking Lights Project. Another is the wide distribution of the 2006 film “Amazing Grace.” In coming months and years, the project will also involve seminars and other publications focused on the themes of character, liberty, and entrepreneurship. You can learn more about it by visiting http://FEE.org/blp. We hope you will join us in this endeavor by attending a seminar or sponsoring a student, by distributing our materials including copies of this book, and by contributing financially if you can.
Former British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone once said, “We look forward to the day when the power of love replaces the love of power. Only then will the world know the blessings of peace.” Those words constitute both a warning and a promise. Gladstone was essentially calling us all to lives of character. Do we have the courage and the wisdom to put character at the top of our priorities? I dread the consequences if the answer proves to be “No.”
—Lawrence W. Reed, President
Foundation for Economic Education
Liberty and Character:
The Indispensable Connection
(This is an expanded edition of what was originally delivered as a Commencement address in 2006 at the Thomas Jefferson Independent Day School in Joplin, Missouri, and in 2007 at the Brookfield Academy in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Mr. Reed has since delivered versions of this address before audiences all over the world.)
In 1987 something quite remarkable happened in the little town of Conyers, Georgia. When school officials there discovered that one of their basketball players who had played 45 seconds in the first of the school’s five post-season games had actually been scholastically ineligible, they returned the state championship trophy their beloved Rockdale Bulldogs had just won a few weeks before. If they had simply kept quiet, probably no one else would have ever known about it and they could have retained the trophy.
To their eternal credit, the team and the town, dejected though they were, rallied behind the school’s decision. Coach Cleveland Stroud said, “We didn’t know he was ineligible at the time . . . but you’ve got to do what’s honest and right and what the rules say. I told my team that people forget the scores of the games; they don’t ever forget what you’re made of.”
In the minds of most, it didn’t matter that the championship title was forfeited. The coach and the team were still champions—in more ways than one. Could you have mustered the courage under similar circumstances to do as they did?
Commencement addresses at both high schools and colleges are full of paeans and platitudes that reduce to one cliché: “You are the future.” Well, that’s an important point but it’s also something we already know because it’s pretty self-evident, wouldn’t you say? So I’ll not tell you in a dozen different ways that the future is yours. You should already know that. I have a different message.
I want to talk to you about one thing that is more important than all the good grades you’ve earned, more important than all the high school and college degrees you’ll accumulate, and indeed, more important than all the knowledge you’ll ever absorb in your lifetimes. It’s something over which every responsible, thinking adult has total, personal control and yet millions of people every year sacrifice it for very little. It will not only define and shape your future; it will put both a concrete floor under it and an iron ceiling over it. It’s what the world will remember you for more than probably anything else. It’s not your looks, it’s not your talents, it’s not your ethnicity and ultimately, it may not even be anything you ever say. What is this incredibly powerful thing I’m talking about? In a word, it’s character.
You need to know that character is indispensable to a successful career, a happy life, and a clear conscience. Without it, you ain’t goin’ anywhere. I recommend that you bulk up on it; if you do, you’ll be amazed at how most if not all of the other elements of a successful career will eventually fall into place. On frequent occasions it will more than compensate for mistakes and shortcomings in other areas.
From an employer’s perspective, Warren Buffett makes the point plainly: “In looking for someone to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. But the most important is integrity [a synonym for character], because if they don’t have that, the other two qualities, intelligence and energy, are going to kill you.”
Character is what the coach and the players in Conyers, Georgia, possessed. And what an example they set! Many of us will be telling that story for a long, long time. People with character set a standard and exert a pressure on others to strive to meet it.
A Poor But Honest Man
Here’s another example from personal experience: In my travels to some eighty-one countries around the world, I have witnessed many sterling examples of personal character (as well as the startling lack of it), but this is one of the best.
In 1989 I visited Cambodia with my late friend Dr. Haing S. Ngor (who won an Academy Award for his role in the movie “The Killing Fields”). In advance of the trip, there was considerable local press attention because I was rustling up donated medical supplies to take with me to give to a hospital in the capital, Phnom Penh. A woman from a local church who saw the news stories called and explained that a few years before, her church had helped Cambodian families who had escaped from the Khmer Rouge communists and resettled in the town where I was living at the time—Midland, Michigan. The families had moved on to other locations in the United States but stayed in touch with the woman who called me and other friends they had made in Midland.
The woman—Sharon Hartlein is her name—said she had told her Cambodian friends about my pending visit. Each family asked if I would take letters with cash enclosed to their relatives in Cambodia. I said yes.
Two of the families were in Phnom Penh and easy to find, but one was many miles away in Battambang. Going there would have involved a train ride, some personal risk, and a lot of time it turned out I didn’t have. I was advised in any event not to return with any money. If I couldn’t locate any of the families I was told to just give the cash to any needy Cambodian I could find (and they were everywhere!).
On the day before my return home, when I realized I just wasn’t going to make it to Battambang, I approached a man in tattered clothes whom I had seen several times in the hotel lobby. He always smiled and said hello, and spoke enough English so that we could briefly converse. He, like most Cambodians at that time, was practically penniless. You can be sure that the status of his 401K plan never came up in our conversations.
“I have an envelope with a letter and $200 in it, addressed to a family in Battambang. Do you think you could get it to them?” I asked. “If you do, I want you to keep $50 of it for your trouble and expense and give the rest to the family.” He consented, and we said goodbye. I assumed I would never hear anything of what had become of either him or the money.
Several months later, I received an excited call from Sharon. She said she had just received a letter from the Cambodians in Virginia whose family in Battambang that envelope was intended for. When she read it on the phone, I couldn’t help but shed a few tears. The letter read, “Thank you for the two hundred dollars!”
That poor man found his way to Battambang, and he not only didn’t keep the $50 I plainly offered, he somehow found a way to pay for the $10 train ride himself. Now, that is character! I think I would probably trust my life in his hands, even though I never got to know him and didn’t ask him for his address.
To help us understand what character is, let me tell you what the absence of it looks like. Sadly, evidence of a lack of character is in abundance these days.
In 1995 students on the quiz team at Steinmetz High School in Chicago made national news when it was discovered that they had cheated to win a statewide academic contest. With the collaboration of their teacher, they worked from a stolen copy of a test to look up and memorize the correct answers in advance. Perhaps worse than the initial deed was the attitude of the same students five years later, expressed in The New York Times by one of them this way: “Apologize for what? I would do it again.”
What a contrast to the values on display in the Conyers story—and even more so the Cambodian one! No one would say that the teacher or those students in Chicago exhibited character in the positive sense that I am using the term here. Assume for a moment that the Chicago students had never been caught. Knowing everything else that I’ve told you in these true stories, which group of students would you most want to be like—the ones in Conyers who walked away from a trophy or the ones in Chicago who cheated to win a contest? If you said Conyers, then you have a conscience. You have character, and hopefully a lot of it. And you know something of the inestimable value of being able to look back on your life some day and know that you tried hard in every circumstance to do the right thing.
I love the words of the Apostle Paul, in prison, shortly before he was martyred. It is recorded in Scripture as II Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” He had character, even in the midst of extreme adversity. If he had sacrificed it for short-term, selfish gain, all his good words and deeds would hardly carry the weight they do today, nearly twenty centuries later.
Where Does Character Come From?
A deficit of character shows up every time somebody who knows the right thing to do neither defends it nor does it because doing so might mean a little discomfort or inconvenience. When I was president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, from 1987 to 2008, I worked in the field of public policy. The job brought me into frequent contact with legislators, congressmen, and candidates for public office. Far too many times I heard words like these: “I know you’re right, but I can’t say so or vote that way because I won’t get reelected.”
You can blame a politician when he behaves that way but don’t forget the voters who put him in that spot. I see character deficits every time I see people pressuring the government to give them something at the expense of others, something which they know in their very gut should come instead from their own efforts and merit. I see it every time voters reward a corrupt officeholder with praise and reelection. Effectively bought and paid for with other people’s money, they compromise their integrity and independence for a handout, a subsidy, a special privilege.
Perhaps we should ask, “Where does character come from?” or, putting the question slightly differently, “Why is it that when we speak of character, we all seem to know what it is that we’re talking about?” Theologians and philosophers can speak to this much better than I can. But I will say this: There is something in the way that we humans are wired. Down deep within us we have a sense of what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. And when we ignore our wiring, something within us—that voice we call our conscience-cries out to us. In complex situations, the voice can be difficult to discern, and we can even learn how to dull that voice into submission, but we cannot really deny that it is there. It is simply the human experience. We can argue about its origins, but it is there.
When a person spurns his conscience and fails to do what he knows is right, he subtracts from his character. When he evades his responsibilities, succumbs to temptation, foists his problems and burdens on others, or fails to exert self-discipline, he subtracts from his character. When he attempts to reform the world without reforming himself first, he subtracts from his character.
A person’s character is nothing more and nothing less than the sum of his choices. You can’t choose your height or race or many other physical traits, but you fine tune your character every time you decide right from wrong and what you personally are going to do about it. Your character is further defined by how you choose to interact with others and the standards of speech and conduct you practice. Character is often listed as a key leadership quality. I actually think character and leadership are one and the same. If you’ve got character, others will look upon you as a leader—not in the sense that they are eager to be subservient to you but in the sense that you are someone they admire and freely desire to emulate.
Ravaged by conflict, corruption and tyranny, the world is starving for people of character. Indeed, as much as anything, it is on this matter that the fate of individual liberty has always depended. A free society flourishes when people seek to be models of honor, honesty, and propriety at whatever the cost in material wealth, social status, or popularity. It descends into barbarism when they abandon what’s right in favor of self-gratification at the expense of others; when lying, cheating, or stealing are winked at instead of shunned. If you want to be free, if you want to live in a free society, you must assign top priority to raising the caliber of your character and learning from those who already have it in spades. If you do not govern yourself, you will be governed.
Character means that there are no matters too small to handle the right way. It’s been said that your character is defined by what you do when no one is looking. Cutting corners because “it won’t matter much” or “no one will notice” still knocks your character down a notch and can easily become a slippery slope. “Unless you are faithful in small matters,” we learn in Luke 16:10, “you will not be faithful in large ones.” That’s a message that shows up in the teachings of many faiths. Even those of no faith should see the wisdom of it.
Chief among the elements that define strong character are these: honesty, humility, patience, responsibility, self-discipline, self-reliance, optimism, courage, a long-term focus, and a lust for learning. Who in his right mind would want to live in a world without these things?
Dishonest people will lie and cheat and become even bigger liars and cheaters in elected office. People who lack humility become arrogant, condescending, know-it-all central-planner types. Irresponsible citizens blame others for the consequences of their own poor judgment. People who will not discipline themselves invite the intrusive control of others. Those who eschew self-reliance are easily manipulated by those on whom they are dependent. Pessimists dismiss what individuals can accomplish when given the freedom to try. Timid people will allow their rights to be trampled. Myopic citizens will mortgage their future for the sake of a short-term “solution.” Closed-minded, head-in-the-sand types don’t learn from the lessons of history and human action.
Ever since Samuel Smiles wrote his remarkably influential Self Help in 1859, hundreds of books in the same vein have appeared in print. Twentieth-century authors like Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) and John Maxwell (The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader: Becoming the Person Others Will Want to Follow) and Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) sold millions of copies of their works, all aimed at inspiring people to improve their attitudes or work habits or personal character. So obviously there’s been a lot of interest for a long time in at least reading about self-improvement, even if we don’t actually do it.
The Importance of Gratitude
An often-overlooked but remarkably important character trait is gratitude. I recently picked up a cheap secondhand copy of a 2008 paperback by Dr. Robert A. Emmons entitled Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Emmons is a professor at the University of California and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology. At first, I thought I’d skim a few pages, glean a few quotable quotes and then stick it on the shelf with all the other self-improvement books gathering dust in my basement. But this one grabbed my attention on the first page. I couldn’t put it down until I read the other 208.
This isn’t just a feel-good collection of generalities and catchy phrases. It’s rooted in what the latest science can teach us. In language a lay reader can easily understand, Emmons reveals groundbreaking research into the previously under-examined emotion we call “gratitude.” As defined by Emmons, gratitude is the acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life and the recognition that the source of this goodness lies at least partially outside one’s self.
Years of study by Emmons and his associates show that “grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism, and that the practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness.”
A grateful attitude enriches life. Emmons believes it elevates, energizes, inspires, and transforms. The science of it proves that gratitude is an indispensable key to happiness (the more of it you can muster, the happier you’ll be), and happiness adds up to nine years to life expectancy. Think about it: haven’t you noticed that people of lousy character are rarely grateful for anything?
Gratitude isn’t just a knee-jerk, unthinking “thank you.” It’s much more than a warm and fuzzy sentiment. It’s not automatic. Some people, in fact, feel and express it all too rarely. And as grateful a person as you may think you are, chances are you can develop an even more grateful attitude, a task that carries ample rewards that more than compensate for its moral and intellectual challenges.
Emmons cites plenty of evidence for his thesis but most readers will find his seventh and final chapter, a mere twenty-four pages, the most useful part of the book. There the author lays out ten steps (exercises, in fact) for cultivating this critically important emotion. If I had space to tell you here what those steps were, you might not read the book. So if you want a serious self-improvement book, pick this one up. I guarantee that you’ll be grateful for the recommendation.
I firmly believe that good example is the best teaching device. That’s a view I share with my friend Mark Hyatt, whose influential Character and Education Project is working with schools to help make this very point. We tend to learn and remember stories, especially stories of real people. So to impress the importance of character upon you, I want to tell you about a few more exemplars of it.
Here’s one from the 2005 movie “Cinderella Man.” The film is a masterpiece from start to finish, but I especially loved an early scene in which boxer James Braddock (played by Russell Crowe) learns that his young son has stolen a sausage. The family is hungry and destitute at the bottom of the Great Depression. The boy was fearful that, like one of his friends whose parents couldn’t provide enough to eat, he would be sent to live with relatives who could afford the expense. Braddock does not hesitate on the matter for a second. He immediately escorts the boy to the store to return the sausage and apologize to the butcher. He then lectures his son:
“There’s a lot of people worse off than we are. And just because things ain’t easy, that don’t give you the excuse to take what’s not yours, does it? That’s stealing, right? We don’t steal. No matter what happens, we don’t steal. Not ever. You got me?”
His son replies, “Yes,” but Braddock presses the point, two more times: “Are you giving me your word?”
Braddock’s character ascends to new heights later in the film when he does what no welfare recipient is ever asked to do and what perhaps not one in a million has ever done: he pays the taxpayers back. Now that is character! And he certainly knew how to encourage those qualities in his son—both by his words and by his example.
Hollywood turns out so little these days that inspires character but in 2005 it did produce another movie that I rank among the very best of all time. It’s “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the true story of the son of an immigrant, Francis Ouimet, who won the 1913 U.S. Open Golf Championship at the age of twenty. Buy it, or rent it, and watch it as a study in character. Both the main figure, Francis, and the story’s secondary hero, Harry Vardon, ooze character from every pore. The traits they so magnificently exhibit include professionalism, perseverance, integrity, sportsmanship, loyalty, and honor. You watch that movie and you’ll come away with boundless admiration for Francis and Harry and it’s not so much for their great golf abilities as it is because of their sterling characters.
In history, the men and women we most admire and best remember are those whose character stands out because they lived it twenty-four hours every day and did not compromise it. They are not like that fictional character played by the great comedian Groucho Marx, who said, “Those are my principles! If you don’t like them, well, I have others.”
Changing the Conscience of a Nation
Consider William Wilberforce, the man from Yorkshire who more than any other single individual was responsible for ending slavery throughout the British Empire. His story was recently told in a wonderful biography by Eric Metaxas called “Amazing Grace” and in a beautiful 2006 film by the same title (I highly recommend them both).
Born in 1759, Wilberforce never had the physical presence one would hope to possess in a fight. Boswell called him a “shrimp.” Thin and short, Wilberforce compensated with a powerful vision, an appealing eloquence, and an indomitable will.
Elected to Parliament in 1780 at the age of twenty-one, Wilberforce spoke out against the war with America in no uncertain terms, labeling it “cruel, bloody, and impractical.” But he drifted from issue to issue without a central focus until a conversion to Christianity sparked what would be a lifelong calling. Revolted by the hideous barbarity of the slave trade then prevalent in the world, he determined in October 1787 to work for its abolition.
Abolitionism was a tall order in the late 1700s. Viewed widely at the time as integral to British naval and commercial success, slavery was big business. It enjoyed broad political support, as well as widespread (though essentially racist) intellectual justification. For seventy-five years before Wilberforce set about to end the trade in slaves, and ultimately slavery itself, Britain enjoyed the sole right by treaty to supply Spanish colonies with captured Africans. The trade was lucrative for British slavers but savagely merciless for its millions of victims.
Wilberforce labored relentlessly for his cause, forming and assisting organizations to spread the word about the inhumanity of one man owning another. “Our motto must continue to be perseverance,” he once told followers. And what a model of perseverance he was! He endured and overcame just about every obstacle imaginable, including ill health, derision from his colleagues, and defeats almost too numerous to count. In any respect, he maintained the highest standard of character, a fact which itself served as a powerful magnet for his cause.
He rose in the House of Commons to give his first abolition speech in 1789, not knowing that it would take another eighteen years before the slave trade would be ended by law. Every year he would introduce an abolition measure, and every year it would go nowhere. At least once, some of his own allies deserted him because the opposition gave them free tickets to attend the theatre during a crucial vote. The war with France that began in the 1790s often put the slavery issue on the back burner. A bloody slave rebellion in the Caribbean seemed to give ammunition to the other side. Wilberforce was often ridiculed and condemned as a traitorous rabble-rouser. He had reason to fear for his life.
Once, in 1805 after yet another defeat in Parliament, Wilberforce was advised by a clerk of the Commons to give up the fight. He replied with the air of undying optimism that had come to characterize his stance on the issue: “I do expect to carry it.”
Indeed, what seemed once to be an impossible dream became reality in 1807. Abolition of the slave trade won Parliament’s overwhelming approval. Biographer David J. Vaughan reports that “as the attorney general, Sir Samuel Romilly, stood and praised the perseverance of Wilberforce, the House rose to its feet and broke out in cheers. Wilberforce was so overcome with emotion that he sat head in hand, tears streaming down his face.” Boswell’s shrimp had become a whale.
The trade in slaves was officially over, but ending slavery itself remained the ultimate prize. To bring it about, Wilberforce worked for another twenty-six years, even after he left behind nearly a quarter-century of service in Parliament in 1825. The great day finally came on July 26, 1833, when Britain enacted a peaceful emancipation (with compensation to slaveholders) and became the world’s first major nation to unshackle an entire race within its jurisdiction. Hailed as the hero who made it possible, Wilberforce died three days later. He and his allies had changed the conscience of a nation.
The lessons of Wilberforce’s life reduce to this: a worthy goal should always inspire. Don’t let any setback slow you up. Maintain an optimism worthy of the goal itself, and do all within your character and power to rally others to the cause.
Anne Frank may well be the most famous 15-year-old author of the twentieth century. She penned but one volume, a diary, while hiding from the Nazis during the German occupation of the Netherlands. “How wonderful it is,” she wrote, “that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
Imagine it. Living each day for two years crammed in the hidden rooms of an office building, knowing that at any moment you might be found and hauled off to near-certain death at a concentration camp. Barely a teenager, she managed to write those and many other words of remarkable inspiration before she and her family were discovered in August 1944. They were sent to the Bergen-Belsen camp where Anne died in March 1945, just three months before her sixteenth birthday.
How is it possible for a youngster to see so much light in a dark world, to find within her so much hope and optimism amidst horror? What insight! What power! What character! That’s been the magic of Anne Frank for the past seven decades.
Anne Frank’s message will be remembered for many more decades to come, hopefully forever. It reminds us that no matter the circumstances, we can make a difference. Our attitude (which itself is largely a function of our character) determines our altitude. If you want to make a better world, start by making a better self; it’s the one thing you have considerable control over in almost any situation.
Character Saves Lives
From that same era comes the story of Nicholas Winton. At this writing (Spring 2013), he is still alive and well at 104. He’s a personal friend who lives just outside of London.
Winton was a young London stockbroker as war clouds gathered across Europe in 1938–39. A friend convinced him to forgo a Christmas vacation in Switzerland and come to Czechoslovakia instead. Near Prague in December 1938 he was shocked to see Jewish refugees freezing in makeshift camps. Most had been driven from their homes by Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland, the part of Czechoslovakia handed over to Hitler at Munich the previous September.
Winton could have resumed his Swiss vacation, stepping back into the comfortable life he left behind. What could a lone foreigner do to assist so many trapped families? Despite the talk of “peace in our time,” Winton knew that Europe was sliding toward war and time was running out for these desperate people. The next steps he took ultimately saved 669 children from death in Nazi camps.
The parents were anxious to get their children to safety, even though it would mean sending them off alone. Getting the children to a country that would accept them seemed an impossible challenge. Nicholas Winton didn’t waste a minute. He wrote to governments around the world, pleading for an open door, only to be rejected by every one but two: Sweden and his own Great Britain. He assembled a small group of volunteers to assist with the effort. Even his mother pitched in.
With five thousand children on his list, Winton searched for foster homes across Britain. British newspapers published his advertisements to highlight the urgent need for foster parents. When enough homes could be found for a group of children, he submitted the necessary paperwork to the Home Office and assisted his team of volunteers in organizing the rail and ship transportation needed to get the children to Britain. He took the lead in raising the funds to pay for the operation.
The first twenty of “Winton’s children” left Prague on March 14, 1939. Hitler’s troops devoured all of Czechoslovakia the very next day, but Winton’s team kept working, sometimes forging documents to slip the children past the Germans. By the time World War II broke out on September 1 the rescue effort had taken 669 children out of the country in eight separate groups by rail. The last batch of 250 would have been the largest of all, but war prompted the Nazis to stop all departures. Sadly, none of those children lived to see the Allied victory less than six years later. Pitifully few of the parents did either.
Why did Nicholas Winton take on a challenge ignored by almost everyone else? I asked him that very question at his home in Maidenhead, England, in 2006. “Because it was the thing to do and I thought I could help,” he told us. Today, the “Winton children” plus their children and grandchildren number about six thousand people.
Winton’s example illustrates that character not only enriches lives, it saves lives too.
George Washington was one of our best presidents because he knew at every moment that maintaining the highest standards in every aspect of life, public and private, was critical to placing the new nation on the right path. A man of lesser character might not have carried us through such a critical period, or would have put us on a different and more perilous path. He drew the stunned admiration of the world when he passed up the opportunity to seize power for himself and placed his trust instead in a free and virtuous people.
Washington understood the link between character and liberty. Listen to him speaking to the nation in his Farewell Address of 1796:
It is substantially true that virtue and morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?
Washington was hardly alone on this matter. Another giant of liberty in that day, James Madison, wrote in 1788 that “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”
Untying the Gordian Knot
Thomas Jefferson’s words of wisdom on this issue of character are well worth your serious attention:
Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give up the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you. Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.
Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises; being assured that they will gain strength by exercise, as a limb of the body does, and that exercise will make them habitual. From the practice of the purest virtue, you may be assured you will derive the most sublime comforts in every moment of life, and in the moment of death. If ever you find yourself environed with difficulties and perplexing circumstances, out of which you are at a loss how to extricate yourself, do what is right, and be assured that that will extricate you the best out of the worst situations.
Though you cannot see, when you take one step, what will be the next, yet follow truth, justice, and plain dealing, and never fear their leading you out of the labyrinth, in the easiest manner possible. The knot which you thought a Gordian one, will untie itself before you. Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty, by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming, by an untruth, by an injustice. This increases the difficulties tenfold; and those who pursue these methods, get themselves so involved at length, that they can turn no way but their infamy becomes more exposed.
What those Founders were getting at is the notion that liberty is built upon the ability of a society to govern itself, without government intervention. This ability to self-govern is itself built upon—you guessed it—individual character.
Here’s a name you may not have heard of: Fanny Crosby. Fanny Crosby holds the record for having written more hymns than any other human being—at least eight thousand-including the popular “Blessed Assurance.” She died in 1915 at the age of ninety-five. She was the first woman in our history to address the United States Congress. She personally met or knew every president of the United States from John Quincy Adams to Woodrow Wilson, maybe more than any other single person in our country’s history, alive or dead. And guess what? She never in her ninety-five years had any recollection of ever having seen a thing. She was blind from the age of six months, the result of a botched treatment for an eye infection. She spoke frequently and in many places of how important it was for a person’s character to shine so it could overcome any and all handicaps and obstacles. Many who knew her regarded her as a saint of enormous inspiration.
By citing many people from the past, I certainly don’t mean to suggest there aren’t heroes of character in our own time. Indeed, they are all around us, though I sometimes fear their numbers are dwindling. Today’s heroes of character include teachers who teach truth and defy political correctness; businessmen and businesswomen who build their enterprises without seeking special favors from political friends; parents who spend time with their children and raise them properly in a world with endless negative influences; and really, anyone who tries to live his or her life in ways that don’t compromise integrity.
Over four decades I’ve written scores of articles, essays, and columns on economics; taught the subject at the university level; and given hundreds of speeches on it. In recent years the nexus between the economics of a free society and individual character has worked its way into my writing, speaking, and thinking with increasing emphasis. I now believe that nexus is the central issue we must address if our liberties and free economy are to be restored and preserved.
Scholars and writers who believe in a free society have stressed the need for sound public-policy research and basic economic education. In the past thirty years or so, think tanks and new media have sprung up like mushrooms to provide both. Though important, they are proving to be insufficient to overcome trends that are eroding our liberties. Why?
The Missing Ingredient
To some extent, policy research (though I fully support it) is essentially locking the barn door after the horse has left. It targets politicians and media commentators at stages in their lives when they are largely set in their ways and interested more in personal advancement than truth and liberty.
Economic education is certainly needed because young minds are not typically getting it in schools. But even if economic education were dramatically improved, a free society wouldn’t necessarily follow. Just like public-policy research, it can be undone by harmful themes in popular culture (movies, religion, music, literature, and even sports) and in the standards of conduct people practice as adults.
Even among the most ardent supporters of a free society are people who “leak” when it comes to their own bottom lines. A recent example was the corn farmer who berated me for opposing ethanol subsidies. Does he not understand basic economics? I’ve known him for years, and I believe he does. But that understanding melted away with the corrupting lure of a handout. His extensive economics knowledge was not enough to keep him from the public trough. We are losing the sense of shame that once accompanied the act of theft, private or public.
The missing ingredient here is character. In America’s first century, we possessed it in abundance and even though there were no think tanks, very little economic education, and even less policy research, it kept our liberties substantially intact. People generally opposed the expansion of government power not because they read policy studies or earned degrees in economics, but because they placed a high priority on character. Using government to get something at somebody else’s expense, or mortgaging the future for near-term gain, seemed dishonest and cynical to them, if not downright sinful and immoral.
One of the strongest arguments for liberty, in my mind, is the fact that it is the one and only social/political/economic arrangement that demands high character. No other man-designed or centrally planned concoction does. For a people to be free, they must seek to live by the highest standards of character.
Within government, character is what differentiates a politician from a statesman. Statesmen don’t seek public office for personal gain or attention. They often are people who take time out from productive careers to temporarily serve the public. They don’t have to work for government because that’s all they know how to do. They stand for a principled vision, not for what they think citizens will fall for. When a statesman gets elected, he doesn’t forget the public-spirited citizens who sent him to office, becoming a mouthpiece for the permanent bureaucracy or some special interest that greased his campaign.
Because they seek the truth, statesmen are more likely to do what’s right than what may be politically popular at the moment. You know where they stand because they say what they mean and they mean what they say. They do not engage in class warfare, race-baiting, or other divisive or partisan tactics that pull people apart. They do not buy votes with tax dollars. They don’t make promises they can’t keep or intend to break. They take responsibility for their actions. A statesman doesn’t try to pull himself up by dragging somebody else down, and he doesn’t try to convince people they’re victims just so he can posture as their savior.
Unthinkably Bad Policies
When it comes to managing public finances, statesmen prioritize. They don’t behave as though government deserves an endlessly larger share of other people’s money. They exhibit the courage to cut less important expenses to make way for more pressing ones. They don’t try to build empires. Instead, they keep government within its proper bounds and trust in what free and enterprising people can accomplish. Politicians think that they’re smart enough to plan other people’s lives; statesmen are wise enough to understand what utter folly such arrogant attitudes really are. Statesmen, in other words, possess a level of character that an ordinary politician does not.
We’ve heard a lot of talk lately about certain companies being “too big to fail.” But in dealing with this supposed problem, we’ve handed huge chunks of our lives and economy over to a government that is arguably too big to succeed. We’ve put the country on the road to financial insolvency. People of character don’t do that. To a genuine statesman, such policies would be unthinkable.
By almost any measure, the standards we as citizens keep and expect of those we elect have slipped badly in recent years. Though everybody complains about politicians who pander, perhaps they do it because we are increasingly a pander-able people. Too many are willing to look the other way when politicians misbehave, as long as they are of the right party or deliver the goods we personally want.
Our celebrity-drenched culture focuses incessantly on the vapid and the irresponsible. Our role models would make our grandparents cringe. To many, insisting on sterling character seems too straight-laced and old-fashioned. We cut corners and sacrifice character all the time for power, money, attention, or other ephemeral gratifications.
Bad character leads to bad policy and bad economics, which is bad for liberty. Ultimately, whether we live free and in harmony with the laws of nature or stumble in the dark thrall of dependency and tyranny is less a political or economic issue than it is a character issue. Without character, a free society is not just unlikely, it’s impossible.
In June 2003, my best friend and business colleague Joe Overton was killed in a plane crash at the age of forty-three. He taught me more about the importance of character than anyone else I have ever known. He could teach it because he lived it. While composing a eulogy for his funeral, I came across a few lines about what the world needs. I’ve never learned who the author was so I can’t offer appropriate credit, and in any event, I added a lot to it. It not only describes what the world desperately needs, it described my friend Joe perfectly. I share it with you as I close:
The world needs more men and women who do not have a price at which they can be bought; who do not borrow from integrity to pay fur expediency; who have their priorities straight and in proper order; whose handshake is an iron-clad contract; who are not afraid of taking; risks to advance what is right; and who are as honest in small matters at they are in large ones.
The world needs more men and women whose ambitions are big enough to include others; who know how to win with grace and lose with dignity; who do not believe that shrewdness and cunning and ruthlessness are the three keys to success; who still have friends they made twenty years ago; who put principle and consistency above politics or personal advancement; and who are not afraid to go against the grain of popular opinion.
The world needs more men and women who do not forsake what is right just to get consensus because it makes them look good; who know how important it is to lead by example, not by barking orders; who would not have you do something they would not do themselves; who work to turn even the; most adverse circumstances into opportunities to learn and improve; who respect the lives, property, and rights of their fellow men and women; and who love even those who dove done some injustice or unfairness to them.
The world, in other words, needs more men and women of character.
Make this day the start of a lifelong commitment to building character. Be the kind of virtuous example that others will respect, admire, emulate, and remember. Ask yourself every day, “Am I good enough for liberty?” and if you come up short, work on it. You’ll not only go to your reward some day with a smile and a clear conscience, you will enhance many other lives along the way. How can any of us settle for any less?
Liberty as a Life Philosophy
In the previous essay, I challenged my readers to ask themselves, “Are we good enough for liberty?” In the following piece, I will ask a second question that is the other side of the same precious coin: do we believe in liberty enough to be good? In other words, will you treat the ideas of liberty as mere fodder for political posturing and internet debates? Or do you love liberty enough to embrace it as a life philosophy? The future of freedom hinges on the answer to that question, so please read on!
FEE’s eminent founder, Leonard E. Read, often opined that it was the duty of every lover of liberty to introduce it to others “as a life philosophy.” It’s a phrase we at FEE still use today, and every day. We’re able to preach it with conviction because we practice it with passion.
What does it mean to regard liberty as “a life philosophy”? First, allow me to offer a few words about what it doesn’t mean.
If liberty is your life philosophy, you’re not its fair-weather friend. You stick with it in good times and bad because its fundamental virtues are independent of what others think of it. Its truth rests on its inherent merit, not on shifting perceptions. Its immediate prospects for success may fluctuate, but your commitment to it shouldn’t.
You don’t apply a life philosophy to certain aspects of your life and not others, as did the soybean farmer who once told me with a straight face, “Larry, I’m for free markets and no subsidies for everything but soybeans.”
Furthermore, if your speech, tactics, or behavior conflict with liberty’s high standards—if you’re turning people off to it instead of winning them over—then you’re defeating one of the main purposes of possessing it as a life philosophy in the first place. It ought to be something so lofty and universal that you’re proud to live it and delighted when others choose to do so too.
A life philosophy is neither superficial nor fleeting. You don’t embrace it because it’s convenient or fashionable or even profitable. It’s deeper, more holistic and lasting than that. It ought to be rooted in ideas and conduct that are right, relevant, and uplifting. It should cause you to be remembered someday as a man or woman whose consistency and example gave the world a model worth emulating.
If you were to choose today the epitaph that will appear on your headstone after you’re gone, which one from these two lists would you pick? Or perhaps the better question is, which one most accurately describes you?
“He said it but rarely meant it.”
“No one ever knew what she stood for.”
“Left the world as if he was never in it.”
“Couldn’t see further than herself.”
“Subtracted more than he added.”
“Honest and upright, except when others were watching.”
“He made bedrock principles soar.”
“What you saw was what she was, no pretense or prevarication.”
“Devoted to all the right things, in word and deed.”
“Loved life and liberty, and others loved him for it.”
“She set standards to which every decent person aspires.”
“The Golden Rule was his life in three words.”
No good and self-respecting person would want to pick from List A, though the world is full of people who would have to if they were completely honest about it. What a dreadful shame to die never having lived a life that amounted to anything more!
You can certainly commit your life to many things—to God, to truth, to family, to the future, etc. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I just want to make the case here, building on the previous essay and the title of this book, Are We Good Enough for Liberty?, that liberty is right up there close to whatever the best thing is. That’s because, by definition, it makes it possible for you to fully commit to any or all of the other good things, and enjoy the benefits thereof without arbitrary hindrance.
A life philosophy is made up of two components: The first is how you see yourself. The second is how you see (or interact with) others in society. Though these two components are distinct on the surface, they should actually be seamless and integrated, one with the other. If they weren’t, then your so-called life philosophy would be contradictory and schizophrenic—as if you had two lives and two philosophies. It would be like a thief arguing that theft is a good thing if he’s stealing from you but bad if you’re stealing from him. Intellectual integrity demands a logical consistency, not selective and self-serving application. Let’s look more closely at those components from a liberty standpoint.
How You See Yourself
If I were a socialist or a communist, I’d probably see myself as someone else’s victim, or maybe as an insignificant piece of something more important—a mob, a group, a class, or whatever. I would likely subordinate myself to the collective will, as determined by some powerful, influential person with a megaphone. I would seek political power over others, as I convince myself of my own good intentions. I’d spend most of my time trying to reform the world and relatively little time attempting to improve myself.
But I’m a lover of liberty—a libertarian, if you will—so I see myself as one-of-a-kind. I’m not exactly like anybody else who has ever lived, and neither are you. To be fully human—to be fully me—I need things like choice and responsibility. I needed a mommy at age 5, but certainly not at 25 or 65.
Maybe on any given day I’m a victim of somebody, but I’m in charge of how I react to that. If I let it paralyze me, I’m simply solidifying and reinforcing my victimhood.
To be called “a common man” is no compliment because it’s not commonness that makes me who I am, but my uncommonness. I relish the best, the heroic, the man or woman who carves himself out of the rock of commonality.
No matter how many times other people may tell me how or what I should think, I will think for myself. If that means coming to conclusions no one else agrees with, so be it. I’m especially eager to stand apart from the crowd when the crowd is wrong.
I’m not so full of myself that I think I know enough or am sufficiently fit to manipulate others like pieces on a chessboard. I want to learn and grow, from now until I breathe my last.
I happen to be a Christian, incidentally, so I believe God made me for a purpose. With His help, I will carry it out to the best of my ability. It may not be your purpose, but you didn’t make, me and you can’t live my life for me—not peacefully, anyway. I will leave you alone if you leave me alone, and we’ll celebrate our differences in peace and commerce.
All this is empowering—extraordinarily so! I can employ my uniqueness to make a difference in the world! I might even be able to change it profoundly, perhaps as much as those who led the fight to end the age-old institution of slavery! I’m not just another drone in the ant hill, after all!
I can be a superb parent, a fantastic teacher, a remarkable influencer, a great friend. I can invent, produce, and innovate. I can be a risk-taking entrepreneur, adding value to society. I can do things others won’t or can’t and in so doing, I might stimulate and embolden them, too. The sky is the limit, and I respectfully decline to live down to somebody else’s low expectations for me.
Take charge of your life and even if it’s hard to be optimistic for society as a whole, you can still be optimistic for yourself and those you love and affect.
This is how I think each lover of liberty should see himself. It’s certainly how I see me. And guess what? I would like nothing better than for you to believe the same about yourself. Freedom is what I want for me, and it’s precisely what I want for you (unless by your actions you forfeit the right).
I embrace the Golden Rule. I do my level best to treat others the way I would want them to treat me, which leads me to the second component of liberty as a life philosophy.
How You See Others
If I didn’t believe in liberty, I might trust nobody but myself. I might see you as an obstacle to be ruled or overcome rather than as a partner I can associate with for mutual benefit. Taken to an extreme that really isn’t all that infrequent, historically, my hostility to your liberty could devolve into tyranny—whereby you’ll do as I tell you because I think your purpose in life is to serve mine.
But I’m a lover of liberty—a libertarian, if you will—so it would be an affront to my principles to do to you what I would never countenance you doing to me.
I have enough respect for you that when we differ, my first resort will be to employ persuasion. Compulsion is always my last resort, if I use it at all. In any event, I will never initiate force. I will use it only in retaliation once you’ve proven yourself a threat by either using it against me or credibly threatening to do so.
I believe it is a measure of my character that I deal with you from the loftiest of standards—with honesty, intellectual humility, patience, responsibility, mutual respect, courage, and self-discipline. Until you prove otherwise by your behavior, you are as entitled to those things from me as I am from you. I believe so strongly in those virtues of character, in fact, that I’m not going to let anybody’s lack of them be an excuse to let mine slip.
As a lover of liberty, I respect your right to think otherwise and do otherwise. I respect your right to be different, to be more successful than me, to be better than me at anything and everything, for that matter, and to gain the rewards that others offer you in return. I will not resent you, envy you, drag you down, or try to forcefully make you what you’re not. And I will not hire politicians to do these things to you under the mistaken assumption that doing so absolves me of some or all of the guilt.
I will never succumb to that most intoxicating of evil motives—power over others. I’m better than that, and you should be too.
To Leonard Read, the means had to be just as good as the ends. If you want to influence others on behalf of liberty, he argued, you’ve first got to be committed to self-improvement and then adopt a tolerant, inviting, and hospitable stance toward others, whenever possible. He wrote,
Calling Joe Doakes a fool or stupid harms him little if at all. The damage is to me in that I gain his enmity. He will no longer hear me, whatever wisdom I have to offer. This is to sink one’s own ship. But this is not the half of it!. . .
In a word, the contemptuous subordination of another person—the entertainment of such a thought, even when silent—spells self-destruction.
The better world begins with that man who attends to his inner freedom. Would you have your counsel more widely sought? Emulate that man. To find the way, ask yourself this question: With whom would I rather dine tonight, that man or an angry, know-it-all person?
Embracing liberty as a life philosophy requires that you get your own affairs in order, be a burden to no one, seek nothing from others through the political process except that they leave you alone, and be a model in everything you do so that others will be inspired by your example.
Take charge of your life, accept all your responsibilities at home and elsewhere without hesitation. Get your mental attitude in shape: Have a healthy sense of humor, a good feel for both your strengths and weaknesses, a bubbly optimism and exuberance about making a difference in the world.
Be a good citizen who respects the lives and property of others. You can’t expect to be free if you support making others less so. Make your life a nonstop learning journey-read and become as informed about freedom in all its aspects as you can possibly be.
How we make our case is almost as important as the case itself. Rarely is it appropriate to come across in a hostile, confrontational, or condescending manner. It’s never fitting to be arrogant, shrill, or self-righteous. We should convey our ideas in the most judicious, inviting, helpful, and persuasive fashion possible. We should be magnets for every open-minded person willing to learn. We can have all the facts and passion in the world but if we lack people skills, we’ll just be talking to ourselves.
As indispensable as liberty is to the progress of humanity, its future is never assured. Indeed, on most fronts, it has been in retreat for years—its light flickering against the winds of ignorance, irresponsibility, short-term gratification, and power-lust. That’s why it’s all the more important that those of us who believe in liberty become more effective spokespersons.
Toward that end, I offer here the well-worn “top ten” list. These rules of thumb do not appear in any particular order. So I leave it to you, Dear Reader, to decide which ones are more important. I am convinced that liberty as a life philosophy offers so much that makes life fulfilling that we owe it to ourselves to be effective exemplars and spokespersons for it.
1. Get motivated. Liberty is more than a happy circumstance. It’s a moral imperative, worthy of every ounce of passion that good people can muster. It’s not just about getting keyed up in an election year or responding to some issue of the day. It’s always the difference between choice and coercion, between living your life or others living it for you (and at your expense). If liberty is lost, it may never be restored in your time or in that of your children and grandchildren. For solving problems, avoiding conflict, and bringing people together, there’s no worse course than politics and force, and no better path than liberty for peaceful exchange and cooperation to flourish.
2. Learn. More precisely, never stop learning! To be an effective persuader, there’s no good substitute for commanding the facts and the foundations. Know our ideas backwards and forwards. You can never read or listen to too much economics, history, or philosophy to be the best persuader in your neighborhood. Let the other side talk in bumper stickers. Come armed with substance as opposed to slogans.
3. Be optimistic. It’s tiring and disheartening to hear the defeatists talk like this: “It’s over. The Republic is lost. There’s no turning back. Our goose is cooked. I’m leaving the country.” What’s the point of such talk? It certainly can’t be to inspire. Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pessimists only disarm themselves and dispirit others; there’s nothing to be won by it. If you truly believe all is lost, the best thing to do is defer to the possibility that you may be wrong and let the optimists lead the way. (That means leaving pessimism at the door.)
4. Use humor. Even serious business needs moments of levity. Seasoning your case with humor can make it more appealing, more human. If you can’t smile when you’re making the case for liberty—if you can’t evoke a smile or a chuckle from the person you’re talking to—then you’re on the way to losing the battle. Humor breaks the ice.
5. Raise questions. You don’t have to lecture every potential convert. Learn to deploy the Socratic method, especially when you’re conversing with a rigid statist ideologue. Most of the time, such people hold the views they do not because they’re well acquainted with libertarian thought and have rejected it, but because they just don’t know our side. A skilled line of questioning can often prompt a person to think about their premises in ways they never have before.
6. Show you care. It’s been said that people don’t care what you know if they don’t know that you care. Focus on real people when you argue for liberty. Laws and policies inimical to liberty produce so much more than bad numbers; they crush the dreams of real people who want to improve their lives and the lives of those they love. Cite examples of people and what happened to them when government got in the way of their progress. That said, don’t dwell on the negative. Be just as generous in citing examples of what specific people have accomplished when they’ve been given the freedom to try.
7. Seize the moral high ground. Liberty is the one socioeconomic arrangement that demands high standards of moral character. It cannot survive if people are widely dishonest, impatient, arrogant, irresponsible, short-term focused, and disrespectful of the lives, rights, and property of others. This truth speaks volumes about the moral superiority of liberty over all other “systems.” Humanity is composed of unique individuals; it is not an amorphous, collective lump to be pushed around by elitists who fancy themselves our masters and planners. Any arrangement that purées our distinct lives in a collectivist blender is a moral offense. Use this argument to strike at the very heart of any opponent’s case.
8. Develop an appealing persona. A lover of liberty who knows all the facts and theories can still be repulsive and ineffective if he’s condescending, vengeful, coarse or crude, self-righteous, or often in “attack” mode. This is why Dale Carnegie’s classic, How To Win Friends And Influence People, should be on every libertarian’s “must-read” list. So should be Olivia Cabane’s excellent volume, The Charisma Myth. Do you want to change the world or just beat your breast? Talk to others or talk to yourself?
And slow down on the negativity! Some of us only talk about bad news. These are the folks who see nothing good happening anywhere. This attitude comes across as if they’re telling you, “Stop having fun. The only good news is that there isn’t any. If you think there is good news, we’ll tell you why it isn’t.” This attitude wears badly and rarely wins converts. Heroes and heroic stories are all around us; don’t ignore them by dwelling on the scoundrels and the disappointments.
9. Don’t demand total and immediate acceptance. Have you ever run into a libertarian who lets you know that unless you fully confess all your intellectual sins and repent on the spot, you’re a pariah? The history of progress in ideas provides few examples of wrong-on-everything transforming into right-on-everything in a momentary leap. We must be patient, inviting, and understanding. Know when the cracks are appearing in an opponent’s wall and give him room to tear it down himself. Remember that all of us hold views today that we didn’t accept in our past. None of us came out of the womb with a copy of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in our hands.
10. Make allies, not enemies. A handful of cloistered, ineffective—but noisy—libertarians fancy themselves arbiters of the faith. They behave as though the greater enemy is not those who embrace no libertarian precepts at all, but rather those who embrace many, but not all, libertarian precepts. So when they find a fellow libertarian who once held different views, or departs from orthodoxy on an issue or two, they start to vilify him. It makes them feel good, but works against the larger cause. If we say we want to make the world a better, more liberty-loving place, we can’t make it painful for anyone to move in the right direction.
So, are we in fact good enough for liberty? That question is best answered not in a collective fashion, but in a profoundly personal way—one man or woman at a time.
Resources and Background
A recent report by corporate governance specialist Labaton Sucharow showed that 24 percent of financial services executives polled by the law firm believed that unethical or illegal conduct might be required for professional success. Moreover, 16 percent said that they would commit a crime if they thought they could get away with it.
Last year, nearly 8.8 million Americans felt the sting of workplace retaliation—a 33 percent increase in negative payback from the year before. That surge, identified by the Ethics Resource Center in its biennial survey of ethics in the workplace, is an ominous trend that strongly suggests that ethics violations at U.S. companies are about to go up.
- Among workers who reported misconduct, more than one in five experienced retaliation in return.
- A growing number of employees say they feel pressure to compromise standards.
- Fewer workers believe senior leadership is committed to ethical conduct. A growing number (40 percent) say their direct supervisors don’t display ethical behavior.
- Ethics cultures are on decline. At 47 percent, the share of businesses with weak cultures is near an all-time high.
More employees than ever before turned whistleblower against unethical behavior last year, but they also suffered the highest amount of backlash in history from their bosses. Nearly half of all workers witnessed some sort of misconduct, according to a report from research group Ethics Resource Center. Of those, 65 percent reported the wrongdoing—a record number. Also at an
More employees than ever before turned whistleblower against unethical behavior last year, but they also suffered the highest amount of backlash in history from their bosses. Nearly half of all workers witnessed some sort of misconduct, according to a report from research group Ethics Resource Center. Of those, 65 percent reported the wrongdoing—a record number. Also at an all-time high: the 22 percent of whistleblowers who said their companies struck back at them for spilling the beans. Companies tend to act differently in uncertain economic times, taking more risks as the business environment improves, according to the ERC.
Back in 1940, only 20 percent of college students admitted to cheating during their academic careers. Today, that number has increased to a range of 75-98 percent.
Some 60.8 percent of polled college students admitted to cheating. An admittedly informal 2007 poll conducted by the popular website CollegeHumor.com revealed that 60.8 percent of 30,000 respondents—most of them within its core demographic—confessed to cheating on their assignments and tests. This lines up closely with a questionnaire sent out to Rutgers students as well, to which 68 percent of students confessed that they had broken the university’s explicit anti-cheating rules. And the number only seems to swell as the years progress, with freshmen the most likely to fudge their way through class.
The same poll revealed that 16.5 percent of them didn’t regret it. Probably the most disconcerting find that the very same CollegeHumor poll unearthed is the fact that 16.5 percent of those who admitted to cheating felt no guilt whatsoever for their breach of ethics. It did not go into any details regarding why, of course, but one wonders if today’s culture of entitlement and success without regard to the well-being of others plays a major role in such callous attitudes. With so many scholarships, awards, internships, and other incentives at stake, it’s entirely possible that those reporting no regrets considered their actions justified when rewarded for their “success.”
Between 1988 and 2011, the amount of the U.S. population that receives assistance from the federal government grew by 62 percent. That means that more than 41 percent of the U.S. population is enrolled in at least one federal assistance program. To make matters worse, per capita expenditures on recipients are rising as well. In 2010, over 70 percent of all federal spending went to dependence-creating programs.
Pew Research Center, 2010
By Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir, Journal of Positive Psychology, 2012
Abstract: In a large corpus of American books, we tracked how frequently words related to moral excellence and virtue appeared over the twentieth century. Considering the well-established cultural trend in the United States toward greater individualism and its implications for the moral domain, we predicted that morality and virtue terms would appear with diminishing frequency in American books. Two studies supported our predictions: Study 1 showed a decline in the use of general moral terms such as virtue, decency, and conscience throughout the twentieth century. In Study 2, we examined the appearance frequency of fifty virtue words (e.g., honesty, patience, compassion) and found a significant decline for 74 percent of them. Overall, our findings suggest that during the twentieth century, moral ideals and virtues have largely waned from the public conversation.
About 7 in 10 Americans (69 percent) now say moral values in the country as a whole are getting worse. Roughly two-thirds—65 percent—now have a negative view of moral values. This represents the percentage of Americans who think moral values are only fair or poor and either worsening or staying the same.
Some 81 percent of adults say the nations “state of moral values” is getting worse, compared to only 11 percent who say values are improving.
When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all. Moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner.
The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste.
As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”
Morality was once revealed, inherited, and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.