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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Remembering Ralph

The cause of liberty lost a stalwart with the passing last evening (September 7, 2010) of Ralph Smeed of Caldwell, Idaho, at the age of 88. No one in the Gem State was ever more colorful and relentless in his defense of the free society. 

“One of a kind” seems a trite understatement in Ralph’s case. If you knew him, you probably couldn’t think of anybody else quite like him. He was iconic and iconoclastic. He was gentle and grandfatherly on many occasions, cantankerous and irascible on others. He made everybody mad at one time or another but it was almost always because he wanted to make us think—and he usually succeeded unless you were an utterly incorrigible statist. He always stood out in any crowd, partly because of his bolo ties but mainly because he was often the only one beseeching everybody else to stand for principle and not be afraid to defend it. He was known for his pithy, one-line zingers. He even improved upon Lord Acton’s famous remark (“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”) by adding, “And power attracts the corruptible.”

Thirty years ago, the free market movement could boast maybe four or five “think tanks” in the U.S., with all but one either located in Washington, D.C. or focused on national and international issues. The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), on whose board Ralph proudly served, was the nation’s first but the earliest one founded within a state with programs focused in that state was the one that Ralph started in 1977 in Boise (later moved to Caldwell)—the Center for the Study of Market Alternatives (CSMA). That makes Ralph a think tank pioneer. I was privileged in 1984 to be called to Idaho by Ralph to run CSMA for almost three years.

Through CSMA, his newspaper columns, his conversations and his often painful prodding as Idaho’s libertarian gadfly, perhaps tens of thousands of Idahoans and other Americans were swayed toward liberty by this remarkable man. Among them were former U.S. Senator Steve Symms, who says, “There never would have been a Senator Steve Symms if it weren’t for Ralph Smeed. Ralph was always my biggest critic yet best supporter. When we weren’t together, we talked on the phone often. I will truly miss him.”

Ralph Smeed was born in Caldwell, Idaho on December 30, 1921. He was troubled by the bureaucracy he saw firsthand when he served in the Army during World War II but his intellectual blossoming really began in the late ‘40s when James Gipson of the venerable Caxton Printers gave him copies of Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law,” FEE’s journal, “The Freeman,” and other libertarian materials. He was a delegate for Goldwater at the 1964 Republican National Convention. In 1965, Ralph attended a FEE seminar where he came to know FEE’s founder, Leonard Read, and the works of such liberty luminaries as Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Henry Hazlitt and Ayn Rand. In short order, he became Idaho’s best known and most passionate, well-read and thoroughly principled lover of liberty.

Wayne Hoffman is one of those countless individuals whose life was changed by Ralph Smeed. A former journalist who once thought Ralph was off-base by suggesting the mainstream media possessed a statist bias, Hoffman later became a convert to free market ideas because of Ralph. He recalls Ralph’s own bias, a bias for action on behalf of liberty:

“Last year Ralph invited me to come to a regular Sunday brunch with his friends. That’s where we really debate the issues of the day, but Ralph always lamented that we didn’t accomplish anything at those meals. ‘We just meet, eat and retreat,’ he’d say. ‘We don’t do ANYTHING.’

“I got great value out of it, because those meetings helped me formulte many of my newspaper columns. The ‘meet, eat and retreat’ people did come up with a pretty neat idea, however, not long ago. After Ralph was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and went on his trip to Houston for treatment, our brunch club, along with Dick Rowland and Chris Derry, came up with the idea of forming a leadership academy that will bear Ralph’s name. ‘Well, you finally did something besides meet, eat and retreat!’ Ralph said.”

Hoffman is now the president of CSMA’s successor organization, the Idaho Freedom Foundation—a group committed to the very ideas for which Ralph devoted his long life. IFF recently bestowed upon Ralph its first “Lifetime Achievement Award.”

Dick Rowland, president emeritus of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, fondly recalled Ralph this way in an e-mail to me a few days ago: “We, our children and our children’s children will be enriched and inspired by Ralph’s sturdy compass of passionate wisdom and hard work that produced accomplishments too numerous to count. He taught us to work harder, faster and smarter for cherished individual liberties. He urged us to make the statists say clearly what they stand for: a bigger, more intrusive government and a less effective citizen. ‘The bigger the government gets, the smaller you get,’ Ralph liked to say.”

Maurice Clements, one of Ralph’s closest and best friends for years, counts among Ralph’s lasting contributions the donation of hundreds of books and the funding of a vast libertarian library at Albertson College in Caldwell, formerly the College of Idaho. Clements notes that Ralph is even better known locally for constructing a 10 x 24-foot reader board sign at the edge of Caldwell near a freeway. For years it has “amused, tantalized and provoked the citizens of Idaho” to think about ideas and in ways they ordinarily wouldn’t. Among the comments Ralph posted on the board were these: “If you don’t believe in Christmas, don’t take the day off” and “What have you done today to save the republic?”

After one of Ralph’s recent hospitalizations, friends posted this on the reader board: “Ralph is back home from the hospital. Pray for him.” The when his health deteriorated, they posted this: “Ralph is back in the hospital. Pray for the staff.” Even Ralph laughed at that one. (Thanks to Smeed friend Laird Maxwell for information on the reader board.)

After a contentious and expensive ballot drive, voters in 1986 made Idaho the 21st right-to-work state. For the past 24 years, no worker in that state has been compelled to join or pay dues to a labor organization as a condition of employment. Many people worked to make that happen and significant credit goes to Ralph for planting the intellectual seeds that sprouted with that successful effort. It’s no small coincidence that since 1986, Idaho has been among the most economically healthy of the 50 states.

At FEE, we will always be grateful for Ralph’s work, his fealty to liberty and to our organization as a supporter and trustee. Most recently, in 2008, he teamed up with friend and fellow former FEE trustee Dave Keyston of California to fund the printing of a 50th anniversary edition of Leonard Read’s classic essay, “I, Pencil.” Ralph was passing it out by the hundreds right up until his health took a turn for the worse. He was pushing liberty 24/7 and never let up until his health forced him to.

I last spoke to Ralph on September 3, the Friday before he died. I called his hospital room. He answered, “Larry, how the Hell are you?” We quickly turned to a discussion of the health of “the cause.” One thing seemed to be uppermost in his mind at that moment: giving encouragement and credit to those who work for liberty. We don’t do enough of that, he explained. He never hinted at any need for recognition for himself, but he urged me to implore others in the movement to be constant encouragers of our kindred spirits. I assured him I would do that. It’s a sentiment I share, and I am proud to convey it here.

Kris Mauren of the Acton Institute (and a current FEE trustee) shares this sentiment with Ralph’s many friends and fans: “When I look back and think of Ralph’s single minded focus on liberty, I am embarrassed by how relatively little is my commitment, despite a professional life dedicated to promoting it. What a model of dedication, perseverance and energy he has been! The fight for liberty demands no less from each of us.”

Ralph Smeed, 1921-2010: A life devoted to the right things and never hesitant to say so. He is irreplaceable and will be sorely missed for a very long time.

Links to articles announcing the passing of Ralph Smeed:

Idaho Press-Tribune

  • 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