Profiles in Liberty: Lawrence Reed—Ambassador of Freedom

By Trent Hill

Lawrence Reed, Larry to his friends and many students, is best known as the president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), one of the largest and oldest free-market educational institutions in the United States. He also founded the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank in Michigan. Reed is known all over the world for his advocacy of freedom. His stories are laced with optimism and passion, his responses to questions are riddled with quotes from various giants of the liberty movement.

Reed’s free-market journey began when he was a young boy in Western Pennsylvania. Reed jokingly notes that his ancestors lived in the area during the Whiskey Rebellion—so he may have inherited some “authority questioning genes.” When he was 12 he saw “The Sound of Music” and was entranced by the themes of government oppression versus “people who just wanted to be left alone.” In 1968 he witnessed Czechoslovakia’s “Prague Spring,” during which the Czech and Slovak peoples experienced a reawakening of freedom—before being brutally suppressed again by the Soviet Union, which invaded the country and put down the peaceful uprising against communism. Reed remembers wanting to do something but feeling helpless.

He joined the conservative youth organization Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) soon after reading a newspaper article about the group. They organized an anti-communist rally in Pittsburgh that he attended. He recalls with pride that he burned a Soviet Union flag in Mellon Square. In those days, YAF was very freedom-oriented, and members would frequently receive books like F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, Frederic Bastiat’s The Law. Reed even recalls being sent copies of The Freeman, the magazine of FEE, the foundation he would lead over 40 years later. As someone who benefited immensely from a student group that advocated free-market ideas, Reed understands how vital organizations like Young Americans for Liberty are. In response to a question about how important liberty-oriented student groups are, he replied, “It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of student groups to the liberty movement!” Reed himself went on to found and lead chapters of YAF at his high school and college.

Lawrence Reed very quickly came to the conclusion that the best way to combat communism was with the ideas of liberty. Educating himself about the moral and economic foundations of freedom became his mission. He attended Grove City College as an undergraduate and studied under Dr. Hans Sennholz, who had himself been a student of Ludwig von Mises and was one of the top scholars of Austrian economics in the nation at the time. Reed wrote his first article for The Freeman, FEE’s main publication, in 1977.

But to assume Reed is just an egghead would be a serious mistake. Although he’s widely recognized among Austrian economic thinkers, he is also a globe-trotting freedom fighter who has seen tyranny up close. Since 1985 he has visited 70 countries on six continents, mostly during the course of his anticommunist work. He traveled to communist countries, including the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Nicaragua, and Poland—most of them multiple times. He has studied inflation in Brazil, witnessed voodoo ceremonies in Haiti, and defended the leadership of the anticommunist rebellion in Marxist Mozambique.

In 1986 he was thrown out of Poland—the only country he was ever tossed out of—after spending two weeks living with the anti-regime underground. Indeed, one of his most treasured possessions is “a copy of Milton Friedman’s book Free to Choose illegally translated into Polish and printed and distributed by the Polish underground. It contains a handwritten inscription from a leading Polish freedom-fighter." Talk about moving—all too often we take for granted that we can stroll down to Barnes and Noble and purchase whatever pro-liberty literature we desire, but here is a tangible artifact of real censorship on a nationwide level. During Reed’s anticommunist travels he spent countless weeks living among and assisting rebels in various countries scourged by tyranny. This means he has firsthand knowledge of the destruction socialism causes: “Socialists have said that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, but as I’ve written in a number of places, socialists never make omelets. They only break eggs.”

Reed, unlike many theorists in the liberty movement, does see a need for people to get involved politically. He once ran for Congress himself, in fact. Although he says the lessons he learned were important and he has never regretted it, he discovered that politics really is not for him. Yet he recognizes a need for others to be involved, and he follows politics very closely. He references an Ayn Rand quote for good measure: “I am interested in politics so that one day I won’t have to be interested in politics.”

When asked about whether there are any politicians he admires, he offers quite a few caveats. Like any good libertarian, he is naturally distrustful of politicians in general and quips, “most of the politicians I admire are dead.” He eventually names a few living ones: “I deeply appreciate such members of Congress as Ron Paul, Jeff Flake, Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, and Michele Bachmann, and Senators Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint.”

Despite all of Reed’s personal encounters with tyranny all over the globe, he remains unfailingly optimistic. What did he learn from his many travels? “I’ve learned that individuals are often phenomenally enterprising in the face of enormous, artificial roadblocks.” Reed tells a story to audiences all over the world about the Polish underground, a story that he says still moves him to tears:

I remember visiting with a couple in Poland in 1986 during martial law, Zbigniew and Sofia Romaszewski, who had just been released from prison for running an underground radio. They were active once again on behalf of freedom because it meant everything to them. I asked them many questions including, ‘When you were broadcasting, how did you know if people were listening?’ She said, ‘We could only broadcast a few minutes at a time and then had to go off the air to avoid detection, but one night we asked people to blink their lights if they were listening and were supportive of freedom for Poland. We then went to the window and for hours, all of Warsaw was blinking!’

Lawrence Reed was indefatigable, and indeed he still is, in his pursuits to help spread the message of liberty. This included putting his life in danger to get pro-liberty literature behind the Iron Curtain.

This optimism is laced through everything Reed suggests to his students and colleagues. When asked about what he would want readers to know, he urged liberty advocates to stay hopeful, follow the golden rule, and never make enemies out of allies. “Smile. Stick to your principles. Don’t ever give up.”

Reed’s history in the movement reads like a Who’s Who of freedom: Hans Sennholz, Leonard Read, Henry Hazzlit—he knew them all personally. First and foremost, though, he credits his father for imparting to him a lifetime’s worth of knowledge about virtue, honesty, and hard work. In 2003 Rep. Ron Paul made a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives commending Lawrence Reed for his lifetime of service to advancing freedom worldwide. He said of Dr. Reed, “few have so vigorously thrust themselves into the intellectual and policy battle on the side of freedom,” high praise indeed. Despite Reed’s remarkable accomplishments, singular life stories, and deep understanding of ideas, he still comes across as genial, patient, and most importantly, pro-liberty. Reed is the liberty movement’s ambassador to the rest of the world, and we couldn’t ask for a better one.

Trent Hill [thill19@lsu.edu] is a history major at Louisiana State University and the editor of IndependentPoliticalReport.com.