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From Prague Spring to Now: An Interview with Larry Reed

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“By and large, as people mature and learn about how the real world works, they tend to become more pro-liberty. I know a lot more former socialists than I know former libertarians.”

On March 31st, Larry Reed, the President of the Foundation for Economic Education, joined Merion West‘s Erich Prince to discuss his journey to libertarianism, which was inspired by 1968’s Prague Spring, his 1982 run for Congress, and the state of individual liberties around the world.

To begin, could you walk us through your personal journey to libertarianism, the philosophy you’ve come to embrace? What were the catalyzing moments that brought you there? I recall reading about your interest in Prague Spring. Is that what made everything click for you?

I grew up in a family that was relatively apolitical. My father had instincts in a conservative direction, but it was not a big thing with him. My mother had no interest, at all, in political or economic issues, but I think my father planted some anti-authoritarian instincts early. So maybe that helped me generate an interest in world events.

In 1968, I became very interested at the age of fourteen in developments in Czechoslovakia. Early that year was Prague Spring, the flowering of some freedoms in that Communist country, and I watched that. I cheered the Czechs on. And when the Soviets invaded in August, I was infuriated by it. Days later, I discovered there was a group going to have a demonstration in Pittsburgh about thirty miles away [from my home] to protest the Soviet invasion.

So I bought a bus ticket, went up the Pittsburgh, and joined in the demonstration. At that time, that particular organization [leading the demonstration] was called Young Americans for Freedom, and they put you on a mailing list from the Foundation for Economic Education, the organization I now lead. I began reading more widely in economics and philosophy and history, and the whole message of liberty just really took hold from there. And it’s defined my life ever since.

So it’s really come full circle. You’re reading their material at age fourteen and now you’re leading that very organization.

That’s right. There was a time when I began speaking for FEE, that was in 1978 or 1979, after writing my first article for them in 1977. I later became a member of its board of trustees in the 1990’s, chaired it for three years, and then became president in 2008. So this is the fiftieth year that I count myself as being active in the movement for liberty around the world because it was in 1968 that I  became active in these ideas.

During that period you’re describing—from 1968 to today—we’ve seen a lot of fluctuation in the extent of liberty throughout the world. What direction do you see the liberty movement going, from when you started, to the end of the Cold War, to now?

It’s been three steps forward, two steps backward in much of the world. But, by and large, when you consider the extent of the world that was dominated by the Soviet Empire thirty years or so ago, there is more freedom on balance in the world today than there was then. That’s not to say there haven’t been serious slippages in places like the United States. There certainly have been, but I remain an optimist, and I think that these things always go in fits and spurts forward and backward. Ultimately, I think liberty will win out, but that’s not to say we won’t experience some real tough challenges in the meantime. For the long run, however, I remain an optimist for liberty, as well as for this country.

You ran for Congress in 1982. There is some precedent for academics and economists seeking political office. I’m thinking of Charles Wheelan, who wrote the book Naked Economics, for example, running for Congress in Illinois. Not an economist specifically, but there was William F. Buckley, of course, running for mayor of New York City. Eric Cantor was unseated in his primary challenge by economist David Brat. Is there a pattern that we can expect for academics who try their hand at electoral politics?

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Like many of the people you mentioned, I think I was motivated by a desire to do more than just teach the ideas of free-market economics. I wanted actually to affect change in public policy in that direction, so I gave politics a [try] in 1982, and I’ve always said ever since that I never regretted either running or losing. I decided afterward that one time was probably enough. I enjoyed it. I learned a lot, and it opened many doors for me

Was the majority of your speaking during that campaign focused on economics—or did the nature of running a campaign require you to also delve into social issues and other areas that maybe were a bit outside of an economist’s traditional area of expertise?

I was expected, I think, by people in that district to tell them my opinions on a broad range of issues. I was always quick to say, ‘Look, I do have opinions outside of economics, but my specialty is economics.” Nonetheless, I would tell them what my views were on foreign policy matters, as well as some social issues. But I always tried to bring it all back to economics and stress that nothing really matters if you don’t have a free economy. Not much else really matters because government will dominate every aspect of life if it dominates the economy. That was my specialty, and that’s where I focus most of my speaking.

Related to this, we had an opinion piece this winter by a libertarian-leaning writer, Eddie Ferrara. The premise of his article was that libertarian ideas seem to often be winning in the United States, even if candidates from the Libertarian Party are not enjoying much in the way of electoral success. Is that an idea that you can get behind? Do you think it’s necessary for actual members of the Libertarian Party to be getting more and more representation in legislatures in order to see those ideas grow?

I’m in favor of anyone getting into legislatures or the federal congress, if they are steadfast in their support for smaller government and greater individual liberty. I think it is true that ideas of liberty or libertarianism are more widely embraced by Americans than the poll numbers for the Libertarian Party may show, but that’s for a lot of reasons.

We are dominated by a two-party system. Many people come out on Election Day, who might be more libertarian in their thinking, but they end up pulling the lever for the party they think is most likely to have a shot at winning. So Libertarians rarely get much support beyond single digits. But look at particular issues where we are winning. More people today, as a portion of the population, question the drug war. More people, I think, are questioning the idea of government dominating health care or education. But it’s still a long slog to get to where we need to be. One more thing too, I think most people today are appalled at the explosion in federal spending. So they’re more “libertarian” than the Congress is on that issue. I’m not for any particular party. I would just like to see more liberty, whether it’s delivered to us by one of the major parties or in the future perhaps by a third party.

I wanted to give you a chance to respond to one criticism of the libertarian movement that we encountered last month when interviewing Amy Wax, who’s the professor from University of Pennsylvania’s Law School in the news a lot. During my conversation with her, we discussed the possibility that the libertarian movement these days is driven mostly by young men, who come to view libertarianism as more a phase in their life that they grow out of. Then they often migrate over to a more traditional conservative viewpoint. I’m wondering if you have a response to that point.

For the argument that every libertarian in their youth gravitated in some other direction, I can probably cite three, four, five or more from other persuasions who gravitate in the libertarian direction. By and large, as people mature and learn about how the real world works, they tend to become more pro-liberty. I know a lot more former socialists than I know former libertarians. At the intellectual level at least when people move across the spectrum, most of the time it’s from a more statist or socialist perspective to a more pro-liberty one. I see that as a maturation process, growing up and recognizing that as an adult, you have to be respectful of the lives, property, rights, and contracts of other people. I see more drift in our direction than I do in the other.

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You’ve alluded to the intersection of economic liberty with political liberty. We see things recently out of China about the growth of the surveillance state and the censorship of films, both of which were excellently described by a writer I know, Kent Harrington, in two columns this past month. Can you talk a little more about this intersection, especially as it pertains to recent events in East Asia?

I think political freedom, in the long run, is largely determined by the degree of economic freedom. In the short run, you can see trends in the other direction, but, in the long run, as people enjoy more economic freedom, they’re more likely to embrace political freedom. People who realize that it makes sense for me to have a little more freedom economically—”We prospered because of it. I’ve done better because of it.”— before long, they’re more likely to think that things like competition in politics makes sense too. The Chinese government, of course, has been hoping since the 1980’s that it can keep the lid on its one-party political monopoly. But, at the same time, they grant more freedom economically. But that’s a problematic issue, and I can see the very strong possibility that a couple generations from now, young people who’ve come of age in a much freer Chinese economy may come to the realization that freedom in politics makes a lot of sense too.

For our last question, I’d like to return to the United States and the office of President of the United States. When you’re a president or an executive, sometimes it’s hard once you get in office to make good on some of your campaign rhetoric or even ideas you might personally hold dear. Realities of day-to-day politics might get in the way. With that said, I’m wondering if there’s a president in your lifetime, who you think has been the best for individual liberty.

Well they’ve all been disappointing, but the best president in my lifetime has been Ronald Reagan. The best president of all time in my view was either Calvin Coolidge or Grover Cleveland. So you have to go quite a way back before I can really cheer one on in a major way. But, in my lifetime, Reagan certainly gave us the best rhetoric and, in many respects, some of the best policies. But they were often disappointing. Now he had to fight a Democratic Congress for much of his time in office. He never had a Republican House and only had a Senate for six years. So he always had to fight the big spenders in the House. But nonetheless, I still regard him quite highly.

Mr. Reed, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been very interesting.

My pleasure. Thank you, Erich.

Erich J. Prince is a co-founder and the editor at Merion West. Erich has written for a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, and the Orlando Sentinel. His writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress. Contact Erich at erich@merionwest.com.