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Failure Made Disney Great by Lawrence W. Reed

December 15, 2016, will mark the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney’s passing. Half a century later, I vividly recall the intense sadness I felt when I learned, at age 13, that he had died. It was as though I had lost a close member of the family. I doubt that I ever missed a single episode of his television show. I can still hear his avuncular voice in my head as if he had spoken to me just yesterday. I can’t think of a single movie he made that I haven’t seen and enjoyed immensely, multiple times.

What a phenomenal man Walt Disney was! A cartoonist and animator, businessman, filmmaker, theme park pioneer, and cultural icon, he may have manufactured more happiness in the world than any other man or woman of the 20th century. He was an American original and an American patriot, too. He deeply appreciated that liberty in America allowed him to invent, experiment, and ultimately succeed, as evidenced in this remark three years before his death: “To retreat from any of the principles handed down by our forefathers, who shed their blood for the ideals we still embrace, would be a complete victory for those who would destroy liberty and justice for the individual.”

The characters Disney and his colleagues created or popularized boast names that billions of people still know today: Mickey Mouse, Jiminy Cricket, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Three Little Pigs, Peter Pan, Bambi, and Cinderella, to name only a few. His films include so many that are unforgettable — it’s no wonder he remains the record-holder (a total of 59) for both Oscar nominations and actual wins. Hundreds of millions of people have been enthralled by the movies that featured those characters, as well as by other Disney flicks like Old Yeller, The Absent-Minded Professor, Mary Poppins, Sleeping Beauty, and One Hundred and One Dalmatians. His company’s representative song, “When You Wish upon a Star,” evokes smiles from all ages in 2016, just as it did when Disney unveiled it way back in 1940.

Some people think that entrepreneurs build, innovate, and take risks just for the money they might make. To the imaginative Walt Disney, money was never the prime motivator. Not even close — though what could be wrong about that if it had been? Money paid the bills, but he hired his brother Roy to worry about it. Walt was driven by the sheer joy of creativity and the fulfillment that comes from bringing happiness to others. “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible,” he once said. These words from his dedication speech at the July 1955 opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, encapsulate his amazing spirit:

To all who come to this happy place, Welcome! Disneyland is your land. Here, age relives fond memories of the past … and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America … with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.

No one could do justice to the life of Walt Disney in a short article, so I won’t even attempt to. Allow me to zero in on one particular aspect that underscores why he’s a hero: he knew failure and how to learn and prosper from it. As he put it himself, “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me.… You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”

In “The Importance of Failure” (Freeman, November 2011), economists Steven Horwitz and Jack Knych explained that permitting failure is just as important as allowing success:

For example, in 1921 Walt Disney started a company called the Laugh-O-Gram Corporation, which went bankrupt two years later. If a friend of Disney or the government hadn’t let him fail and move on, he might never have become the Walt Disney we know today.

More important than this individual learning process is the irreplaceable role failure plays in the social learning process of the competitive market. When we refuse to allow failure to happen, or we cushion its blow, we ultimately harm not only the person who failed but also all of society by denying ourselves a key way to learn how best to allocate resources. Without failure there’s no economic growth or improved human well-being.…

To the imaginative Walt Disney, money was never the prime motivator. 

Failure drives change. While success is the engine that accelerates us toward our goals, it is failure that steers us toward the most valuable goals possible. Once failure is recognized as being just as important as success in the market process, it should be clear that the goal of a society should be to create an environment that not only allows people to succeed freely but to fail freely as well.

Disney heard a lot about failure at the family dinner table before he ever failed himself. His father, Elias, tried twice to be a successful orange grower in Florida but couldn’t make it work. He flopped as a professional fiddle player in Colorado. He didn’t do much better farming in Missouri. Elias tried a lot of things to keep his family fed. That he never quit trying left a deep impression on young Walt.

Before he was 20, Walt Disney had to make several adjustments in his career. He drove an ambulance in France for a time, but when he returned to the United States, he couldn’t find a similar job. He decided to be an actor, then changed his mind in favor of drawing comic strips for newspapers. No luck there, either. Roy found him a job at a bank, but Walt didn’t find the work satisfying. From there, in 1921, he started his first company, the soon-to-go-bankrupt Laugh-O-Gram Corporation. Unable to pay his rent, he even ate dog food until he could get back on his feet.

In 1926, Walt’s prospects suddenly brightened with an animated series centered around a character he created, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but his luck ran out two years later when he lost the rights to Oswald to Universal Studios.

Stephen Schochet, author of Hollywood Stories: Short, Entertaining Anecdotes about the Stars and Legends of the Movies, notes some of Disney’s later misfortunes, big and small:

When Walt tried to get MGM studios to distribute Mickey Mouse in 1927 he was told that the idea would never work — a giant mouse on the screen would terrify women.

The Three Little Pigs was rejected by distributors in 1933 because it only had four characters; it was felt at that time that cartoons should have as many figures on the screen as possible. It later became very successful and played at one theater so long that the poster outside featured the pigs with long white beards.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was sneak previewed to college students in 1937 who left halfway during the film causing Disney great despair. It turned out the students had to leave early because of dorm curfew.…

For the premiere of Pinocchio Walt hired 11 midgets, dressed them up like the little puppet and put them on top of Radio City Music Hall in New York with a full day’s supply of food and wine. The idea was they would wave hello to the little children entering into the theater. By the middle of the hot afternoon, there were 11 drunken naked midgets running around the top of the marquee, screaming obscenities at the crowd below. The most embarrassed people were the police who had to climb up ladders and take the little fellows off in pillowcases.

Even after Disney scored international fame for his film making, not all of his films made money. Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Pollyanna, for example, were all box office flops at first. Undaunted, Disney faced each disappointment by planning his next adventure.

“A person should set his goals as early as he can and devote all his energy and talent to getting there,” he said. “With enough effort, he may achieve it. Or he may find something that is even more rewarding. But in the end, no matter what the outcome, he will know he has been alive.”

While making movies, he found time for another challenge. It was literally in his own backyard, where he designed and built a miniature, half-mile-long steam railroad. The locomotive was big enough for him to personally ride on it. The project had its own trestle, overpasses, and even a 90-foot tunnel beneath his wife Lillian’s flowerbed. It inspired the railroad he later built around the perimeter of Disneyland.

Unable to pay his rent, Disney even ate dog food until he could get back on his feet.

Perhaps because he had learned from so many previous failures and disappointments, Disney burned the midnight oil to make his Anaheim theme park dream succeed. It was a financial success from the day it opened. Today, the Walt Disney Company is easily the world’s largest operator of theme parks in terms of guest attendance per year and is a $50 billion firm employing more than 175,000 people.

Walt Disney’s legacy is deeply embedded in our culture and for good reason: he knew how to entertain. He produced lasting and happy memories for people in nearly every nation. And he never, ever quit. His advice to young people is as commendable today as it was when he offered it more than half a century ago, in part because it’s also the way he lived his own life: “Do a good job. You don’t have to worry about the money; it will take care of itself. Just do your best work— then try to trump it.”

For additional information, see:

Lawrence W. ReedLawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

AUTHORS NOTE: This is the final essay in my formal, weekly Real Heroes series, which began in April 2015. I wish to thank the many readers who sent me encouraging notes after reading one or more of my articles that made an impact in some way. It’s a theme I’ll likely return to in this Friday spot with some frequency, though I now welcome the time to write about some other things as well. In the coming weeks, FEE and a publisher will be announcing the details of a mass-market paperback, due for release in bookstores in September, which will present approximately 40 of my Real Heroes essays.

Personal Character Conquers Another Welfare-State Tragedy

On a fateful day he’ll never forget, 18-year-old Lawrence (“Larry”) Cooper, an unmarried black man and high school dropout, found himself on the wrong side of the law. He attempted an armed robbery of a store in downtown Savannah, Georgia. It was April 1987. The cash involved? A mere $80, enough to finance his cocaine habit for less than a day. Larry was caught and sent to a maximum-security prison.

One month after Larry’s arrest, his son was born. The boy wouldn’t see his father outside of a cell until November 2015, when his dad was finally released.

“I wasn’t there to even sign the birth certificate,” Larry told me just a month ago.

These lamentable chapters of the Larry Cooper story are distressingly familiar in America.

Today, incarcerated black American males number about 750,000. That’s more than the entire prison populations of India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel, and England combined. In August 2013, a report from the Sentencing Project on Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System revealed that “one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.”

The leading cause of incarceration of black males is nonviolent drug offenses. This is no accident. As President Richard Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser and Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman revealed in a 1994 interview,

We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

The next leading causes are false accusations, then crimes against persons, followed by crimes against property. Economist Thomas Sowell argues convincingly, as do many others, that the genuinely criminal behavior — the violations of person and property — have much less to do with racism and poverty than they have to do with the debilitating, family-busting policies of the welfare state. (And it doesn’t help that poor, inner-city families are often trapped in lousy government schools.) Sowell observes,

Murder rates among black males were going down — repeat, down — during the much lamented 1950s, while [they] went up after the much celebrated 1960s, reaching levels more than double what they had been before. Most black children were raised in two-parent families prior to the 1960s. But today the great majority of black children are raised in one-parent families. Such trends are not unique to blacks, nor even to the United States. The welfare state has led to remarkably similar trends among the white underclass in England over the same period.… You cannot take any people, of any color, and exempt them from the requirements of civilization — including work, behavioral standards, personal responsibility and all the other basic things that the clever intelligentsia disdain — without ruinous consequences to them and to society at large.

Larry Cooper was one of the statistics, a prime candidate for exhibit A in this national tragedy. But today, he’s well on his way to a life of honor and redemption. Perhaps the jury on him is still out, but I’m betting he’s a hero in the making.

Growing up in Savannah in the 1970s and ‘80s, Larry faced the challenges posed by a broken family.

“My dad had 33 kids with six or seven women,” he informed me in a February 2016 interview over breakfast.

“Mom and Dad separated early, so Dad just wasn’t around. I saw him maybe twice a year.”

As a teenager, Larry started skipping school, stealing, smoking marijuana, and then doing cocaine.

“I dropped out of school when I was 16 and it broke my mama’s heart,” he said. His mother implored him to find employment so he took a landscaping job that lasted only a week before he was in the streets again.

Hanging out with the wrong people, trapped in a vicious circle of using drugs and stealing what he could to afford more — and with only a brokenhearted mother at home to offer any hope at all — Larry was headed for destruction. His poor choices caught up with him two years later with a 10-year sentence for armed robbery. But things would get much worse before they would get better.

Bad behavior, including aggravated assault, earned Larry additional prison time — a grand total of 28 years. He went in at age 18 and emerged at 47. It will be another decade before he can say he’s been a free man for as long as he wasn’t.

“Over the years while behind bars,” Larry says, “I thought more and more about what my mama had told me. She said this would happen if I didn’t straighten up. She prayed hard for me, all the time. She visited me as much as she could. I still remember how bad I felt when she once came to see me but was turned away because I was ‘in the hole’ for bad things I done. But she never gave up on me.”

I asked Larry what the low point of his time in prison was. I expected it might have been a run-in with a guard or another inmate, an ugly incident of short duration.

His answer: “Seven years in solitary confinement.”

Seven years?” I exclaimed.

“Yes, and every day it was the same: one hour out in the yard, 15 minutes in the shower, and then 22 hours and 45 minutes in solitary,” he replied. “At first, I was in despair. But then I started reading and then writing to folks, exercising in my cell and thinking hard about what had happened to me and what was going on in my life. It took those long hours by myself to make me come to my senses and start feeling bad about the people I stole from, all the friends and family I had hurt. Things mama told me finally started to have an effect on me.”

Larry’s mother arranged his baptism when he was a child, but he never made time to read more than a few words of the Bible — or anything else, for that matter. A prison chaplain introduced him to a Bible study course conducted by mail. Larry enrolled and completed it.

“That’s when my life really began to change,” he told me. “Ever since that course, I’ve been a different man. I’ve settled down. I use my brain now. I’m no longer the man I used to be.”

Larry’s personal and spiritual recovery were well underway before I’d ever heard of him. His reading had brought him into contact with ideas of political and economic liberty. He wrote my former place of employment in Michigan, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, asking for more information. My old colleagues there forwarded his letter on to me at FEE, and that began a correspondence that now fills two shoeboxes on a shelf in my home office.

Never before had I contemplated developing a friendship with a man in prison. I wouldn’t know how to begin. If Larry hadn’t taken the initiative to contact me, such an undertaking would never have happened. I now count it as a great blessing in my life.

Larry was much more diligent in writing than I was, I confess with some remorse.

“I had more time on my hands than you did,” he jokes.

But I’m pleased to have helped deepen his understanding of liberty by sending him many books and articles.

“Were there any particular things I sent you that made a big impact?”

Without skipping a beat, he replied, “Yes. One was your book, A Republic — If We Can Keep It and the other was What It Means to Be a Libertarian by Charles Murray.” The reader will excuse me, I hope, if I report this with a smile and considerable pride.

Larry and I corresponded but never spoke by phone until after his release. I was looking forward to the day when I could finally drive down to Savannah to spend time with him. Until we met, I didn’t even know what he looked like, but we embraced as if we were brothers.

We dined at the Bonefish Grill on Abercorn Street, then went to see the fantastic film Race about Olympian Jesse Owens. The next morning, we had breakfast, and I recorded the interview with him that this article is based on before visiting the public library on Bull Street so I could show Larry how to create his first email account.

I learned much from Larry during that breakfast interview. For example, he opposes the drug war from a vantage point I’ve never experienced — from inside prison walls where, he says, “drugs are everywhere.” I asked him where they come from.

“All sorts of ways and places,” he said. “Guys out on work detail get ‘em. People throw ‘em over the prison gate. Guards and officers bring ‘em in.”

Larry’s views on current issues are interesting, but his personal transformation is, to me at least, positively captivating. As the well-known expression puts it, “I love it when a plan comes together.” The sad part of it is that Larry’s mother, one of the few anchors in his life, died just three months before he earned his freedom.

“At first I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled. “She was living for the day I would get out, which was the day after Thanksgiving, 2015. It really hit me at Christmas. At my first Christmas dinner as a free man in 28 years, family and old friends got together. Everybody was there but mama. It took me so many years to realize how important your character is. Thanks to mama and my faith, I’m not going to ever let it slip again.”

The Salvation Army in Savannah is generously providing Larry with a place to live and a church to attend on Sundays as he puts his new life together. He’s working two jobs, one with a prestigious catering service and the other with a local staffing firm that places him in short-term stints at manual labor.

He doesn’t want welfare.

“I try to earn every penny I get,” he asserts proudly. He’s both optimistic and excited about his future. He’d love to start a new family.

“I want to prove to myself that I can be a good independent man and make amends for what I did. I take one day at a time, but my spirits are real good.”

After all Larry’s been through and with freedom so new to him, I suppose there’s a chance of a relapse. Surely there will be occasional bumps on his ongoing road of recovery. I hope I’ve encouraged him and can continue to do so.

There are many lessons here: Strong families and good parenting can make all the difference in the world. Building character for navigating the pitfalls of life is a priceless undertaking you’ll likely never regret. Don’t underestimate the value of a mother who never gives up on a wayward son. Through an inner transformation, in this case facilitated by a spiritual renewal, even the seemingly incorrigible can turn his or her life around. Never miss an opportunity to encourage someone who is clearly trying to do the right thing.

I intend to stay in touch with Larry Cooper. I’ll watch his progress and assist with it if and when I can. He’s already taught me a valuable truth: that heroes aren’t always the ones who make the headlines or the history books. They may just be on the other side of a wall.

For further information, see:

Lawrence W. ReedLawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

Real Hero Jesse Owens: “Hitler Didn’t Snub Me — It Was Our President” by Lawrence W. Reed

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens famously won four gold medals, all at the 1936 games in Berlin, Germany. But in the hearts of Americans who know their Olympic history, this African American man did more than win races: he struggled against racism.

At the time of Owens’s death in 1980 at age 66, President Jimmy Carter paid this tribute to him:

Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty, and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans.

Carter’s words were especially fitting in light of an unfortunate fact in Owens’s life: unforgivably, a previous American president had given him the brush-off.

Born in Alabama in 1913, James Owens at the age of nine moved with his family to the town in Ohio that bore his middle name, Cleveland. His first school teacher there asked him his name. With a deep Southern twang, he replied “J.C. Owens.” She heard “Jesse,” so that’s what she wrote down. The name stuck for the next 57 years.

Jesse could run like the wind and jump like a kangaroo. He broke junior high school records in the high jump and the broad jump. In high school, he won every major track event in which he competed, tying or breaking world records in the 100-yard and 220-yard dashes and setting a new world record in the broad jump. Universities showered him with scholarship offers, but he turned them all down and chose Ohio State, which wasn’t extending track scholarships at the time.

Imagine it. You come from a relatively poor family. You could go to any number of colleges for next to nothing, but you pick one you have to pay for. At 21, you have a wife to support as well. So what do you do? If you are Jesse Owens, you work your way through school as a gas station attendant, a waiter, an all-night elevator operator, a library assistant, even a page in the Ohio legislature. Owens worked, studied, practiced on the field, and set more records in track during his years at OSU.

The biography at JesseOwens.com tells the stunning story that unfolded in 1935:

Jesse gave the world a preview of things to come in Berlin while at the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, [where] he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of about 45 minutes. Jesse was uncertain as to whether he would be able to participate at all, as he was suffering from a sore back as a result of a fall down a flight of stairs. He convinced his coach to allow him to run the 100-yard dash as a test for his back, and amazingly he recorded an official time of 9.4 seconds, once again tying the world record. Despite the pain, he then went on to participate in three other events, setting a world record in each event. In a span of 45 minutes, Jesse accomplished what many experts still feel is the greatest athletic feat in history — setting three world records and tying a fourth in four grueling track and field events.

Ohio wasn’t the Deep South, but in the mid-1930s, it wasn’t a paradise of racial equality, either. OSU required Owens and other black athletes to live together off campus. They had to order carryout or eat at “black-only” restaurants and stay in segregated hotels when traveling with the team.

The eyes of the world were focused on Berlin in early August 1936. Five years earlier and before the Nazis came to power, the German capital had been selected as the site for the summer 1936 Olympic games. An effort to boycott them because of Hitler’s racism fizzled. It would be a few more years before events convinced the world of the socialist dictator’s evil intentions. Jesse Owens entered the competition with Americans thrilled at his prospects but wondering how Hitler would react if “Aryan superiority” fell short of his expectations.

Jesse didn’t go to Berlin with a political axe to grind. “I wanted no part of politics,” he said. “And I wasn’t in Berlin to compete against any one athlete. The purpose of the Olympics, anyway, was to do your best. As I’d learned long ago … the only victory that counts is the one over yourself.”

If, a hundred years from now, only one name is remembered among those who competed at the Berlin games, it will surely be that of Jesse Owens.

Owens won the 100-meter sprint, the long jump, the 200-meter sprint, and the 4 x 100 sprint relay. In the process, he became the first American to claim four gold medals in a single Olympiad. Owens waved at Hitler and Hitler waved back, but the nasty little paper-hanger expressed his annoyance privately to fellow Nazi Albert Speer. He opined that blacks should never be allowed to compete in the games again.

A side story of Owens’s Berlin experience was the friendship he made with a German competitor named Lutz Long. A decent man by any measure, Long exhibited no racial animosity and even offered tips to Owens that the American found helpful during the games. Of Long, Owens would later tell an interviewer,

It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler.… You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Lutz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.

Back home, ticker tape parades feted Owens in New York City and Cleveland. Hundreds of thousands of Americans came out to cheer him. Letters, phone calls, and telegrams streamed in from around the world to congratulate him. From one important man, however, no word of recognition ever came. As Owens later put it, “Hitler didn’t snub me; it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send a telegram.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, leader of a major political party with deep roots in racism, couldn’t bring himself to utter a word of support, which may have been a factor in Owens’s decision to campaign for Republican Alf Landon in the 1936 presidential election.

“It all goes so fast, and character makes the difference when it’s close,” Owens once said about athletic competition. He could have taught FDR a few lessons in character, but the president never gave him the chance. Owens wouldn’t be invited to the White House for almost 20 years — not until Dwight Eisenhower named him “Ambassador of Sports” in 1955.

Life after the Olympics wasn’t always kind to Jesse Owens. When he wanted to earn money from commercial endorsements, athletic officials yanked his amateur status. Then the commercial offers dried up. He was forced to file for bankruptcy. He felt the sting of racial discrimination again. But for the last 30 years of his life, until he died in 1980 of lung cancer, he found helping underprivileged teenagers to be even more personally satisfying that his Olympic gold medals.

For further information, see:

Jeremy Schaap’s Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics

David Clay Large’s Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936

Lawrence W. Reed
Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.

EDITORS NOTE: Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

Real Hero James U. Blanchard: You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down by Lawrence W. Reed

Great movements are marked by the dedication and accomplishments of steadfast individuals who make the most of every moment, every opportunity, and every available resource. When those great men and women pass from the scene, they leave behind untold numbers of friends and followers who derive comfort from their memory and inspiration from their deeds.

Such a man was James U. Blanchard III, who died on March 20, 1999, at the age of 56.

The causes to which he devoted ceaseless energy and with which his name will always be associated are liberty and sound money. Jim knew that neither is long safe without the other. Few American entrepreneurs in the second half of the 20th century did as much as he did to promote them both. The opening sentence of his family’s formal notice of his passing summed him up well: “James U. Blanchard III was a man who accomplished much against great odds and changed more people’s lives than he ever knew.”

I was privileged to know Jim Blanchard for the last 15 years of his life. For two years, I served as chief economist for his firm. I spoke at many of his conferences. I traveled with him to Brazil, Nicaragua, and Kenya. Though many others knew him better, it didn’t take much acquaintance with him for anyone to marvel at what a man in a wheelchair can get done if he puts his mind to it.

Jim was nearly killed in a tragic automobile accident at the age of 17 and was unable thereafter to walk. But if anything, his handicap only spurred him on.

Not once did I hear Jim bemoan his physical plight. If he talked about it at all, it was to relate how sitting in a wheelchair gave him time to read. In his 20s, he read voraciously. Introduced to the writings of Ayn Rand by a medical student friend, he became an unabashed defender of laissez-faire capitalism. Rand’s influence on Jim is perhaps best exemplified by the name he gave his oldest son: Anthem. Jim also became a devoted reader of the Freeman and of books by FEE’s founder, Leonard Read.

In 1974, Gerald Ford signed a bill that restored the right of Americans to own gold. The real hero of that moment was Jim Blanchard, who had formed the National Committee to Legalize Gold in 1971 and spearheaded a nationwide grassroots campaign. He knew that governments don’t like gold because they can’t print it. He saw gold ownership as a fundamental human right, a hedge against government mismanagement of money, and a first essential step down the long road to monetary integrity.

True to his spirit, some of Jim’s efforts were dramatic and unconventional. He arranged for a biplane to tow a “Legalize Gold” banner over President Nixon’s 1973 inauguration. He also held press conferences around the country at which he would brandish illegal bars of gold and publicly challenge federal officials to throw him in jail. These and many other stories about Jim’s colorful career can be found in his 1990 autobiography, Confessions of a Gold Bug.

Once gold became legal, Jim held his first annual investment conference in New Orleans. Expecting 250 attendees, he was stunned to see 750 show up. More than 40 years later, Blanchard’s New Orleans Investment Conference carries on and has drawn tens of thousands of individuals from all 50 states and dozens of nations. Investment advice comprised most of the 25 programs Jim assembled, but he always made sure that attendees were provided a hefty dose of sound-money and free-market ideas. His speakers included Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, Robert Bleiberg, Walter Williams, and many other great economists. Ayn Rand’s last public appearance was at a Blanchard conference. (In October 2015, I’ll be speaking again at the conference myself.)

In the meantime, Jim’s original $50 investment to begin a coin business in the 1970s grew into a giant within the industry. When he sold the business 15 years later, it was a $115-million-a-year precious-metals and rare-coin company. He cofounded the Industry Council for Tangible Assets to combat unscrupulous business practices in the coin and bullion industry, and he helped to reverse several burdensome laws and regulations that afflicted American investors.

Jim’s adventurous instincts and love of liberty combined to put him on the front lines of important struggles around the world. On my return in 1986 from visiting with activists in the anti-communist underground in Poland, I went to Jim with a request. I advised him that for $5,000, pro-freedom forces in Warsaw could translate Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose into Polish and then print and distribute hundreds of copies throughout the country. He wrote that check on the spot, and many others for similar causes behind the Iron Curtain. Not content only to fund these worthy endeavors, he often transported illicit, pro-freedom literature himself when he visited communist countries.

One of Jim’s favorite foreign projects was assisting anti-communist rebel forces inside war-torn Mozambique in the 1980s and early 1990s. He once sent a colleague and me on a clandestine journey inside the country to live for two weeks with the rebels in the bush and help to spread a pro-freedom message. Once the war was over and Mozambique adopted policies friendly to private property and free markets, Jim pitched in to assist in reconstruction.

“I remember my father as the bravest and most adventurous person that I have ever known to this day,” Anthem recently told me.

He never let anyone tell him no. He was fearless in his belief in the goodness of the human spirit. He understood that the path to personal betterment is best shepherded by free enterprise, and [he understood] the importance of balance between natural rights and property rights protected by a responsible, accountable, made-as-limited-as-possible government.

If Jim were alive today, he would beam with pride in his son, who carries three famous names: Anthem Hayek Blanchard is founder and president of Anthem Vault, a Nevada-based company pioneering a gold-backed cryptocurrency called HayekGold after Nobel laureate and Austrian economist F.A. Hayek. (Browse through the news items on the company’s web page and you’ll learn more about the currency that wouldn’t even be legal today had it not been for the work of Anthem’s father.)

Anthem says his father taught him “above all else” that true freedom can only be achieved once the world experiences a Hayekian choice in currency that technologies like bitcoin, HayekGold, and other virtual assets are wonderfully making a rapidly growing reality. I know Pop would be the most excited person in the world about all of these new technology developments enabling Austrian economics to flourish in a modern digital society.

Jim Blanchard overcame personal tragedy to become a powerful figure for liberty and sound money. His indomitable spirit lives on in all those who know that the noble causes to which he devoted his life require both hard work and eternal vigilance.

Video from FreedomFest: Remembering James U. Blanchard III with Lawrence Reed

RELATED ARTICLES:

Jim Blanchard’s 1990 autobiography, Confessions of a Gold Bug

Jim Blanchard’s 1984 interview of Austrian economist F.A. Hayek

Steve Mariotti’s 2014 interview with Anthem Hayek Blanchard


Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.

EDITORS NOTE: Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

Real Heroes: Homeschool Parents — Home Education Inspires a Love of Learning by Lawrence W. Reed

The hero in this story is not any one person but rather nearly two million Americans — moms and dads who go the extra mile and who, often at great sacrifice to themselves, are rescuing children in a profoundly personal way. They are the homeschoolers, parents who give up time and income to directly supervise the education of their children. They teach, they arrange learning experiences within their home and elsewhere in cooperation with other parents, and they inspire an appetite for learning.

Of all the ingredients in the recipe for education, which one has the greatest potential to improve student performance?

No doubt the teachers unions would put higher salaries for their members at the top of the list, to which almost every school reformer might reply, “Been there, done that!” Teacher compensation has gone up in recent decades, while indicators of student performance have stagnated or fallen.

Other standard answers include smaller class size, a longer school year, more money for computers, or simply more money for fill-in-the-blank. The consensus of hundreds of studies over the past several years is that these factors exhibit either no positive correlation with better student performance or only a weak connection. On this important question, the verdict is in and it is definitive: The one ingredient that makes the most difference in how well and how much children learn is parental involvement. Homeschooling is the ultimate in parental involvement.

When parents take a personal interest in their children’s education, several things happen. The child gets a strong message that education is important to success in life; it isn’t something that parents dump in someone else’s lap. Caring, involved parents usually instill a love of learning in their children — a love that translates into a sense of pride and achievement as their students accumulate knowledge and put it to good use. As one might expect, time spent with books goes up and time wasted in the streets goes down, but there’s so much more to the homeschooling experience, as explained by Marianna Brashear, curriculum development manager at the Foundation for Economic Education:

Much time is spent not just in books, but seeing the world and participating in field trips with hands-on learning. There is so much knowledge that is gained through real-world exposure to a vast array of subjects far more lasting than reading out of a textbook. The word “schooling” in homeschooling is misleading because education takes place in and out of formal lessons. The biggest waste of time in schools comes not just from indoctrination, but also from “teaching to the test,” where kids memorize, regurgitate, and forget.

American parents were once almost universally regarded as the people most responsible for children’s education. Until the late 19th century, the home, the church, and a small nearby school were the primary centers of learning for the great majority of Americans.

In more recent times, many American parents have largely abdicated this responsibility, in favor of supposed “experts.” The context for this abdication is a compulsory system established to replace parental values with those preferred by the states and now, to an increasing degree, by the federal government. (It’s important to remember how much the current system was established as a reaction to immigrants, especially Catholics. See Robert Murphy’s “The Origins of the Public School” in the Freeman, July 1998.)

Twenty years ago, a report from Temple University in Pennsylvania revealed that nearly one in three parents was seriously disengaged from their children’s education. The Temple researchers found that about one-sixth of all students believed their parents didn’t care whether they earned good grades, and nearly one-third said their parents had no idea how they were doing in school. I can think of no reason to believe things have improved on this front in the two decades since.

Homeschooling is working — and working extraordinarily well — for the growing number of parents and children who choose it.

Teaching children at home isn’t for everyone. No one advocates that every parent try it. There are plenty of good schools — private and many public and charter schools, too — that are doing a better job than some parents could do for their own children. And I certainly praise those parents who may not homeschool but who see to it that their children get the most out of education, both in school and at home. Homeschooling almost always goes the extra mile, however, and it is working extraordinarily well for the growing number of parents and children who choose it.

This outcome is all the more remarkable when one considers that these dedicated parents must juggle teaching with all the other demands and chores of modern life. Also, they get little or nothing back from what they pay in taxes for a public system they don’t patronize. By not using the public system, they are in fact saving taxpayers at least $24 billion annually even as they pay taxes for it anyway.

In the early 1980s, fewer than 20,000 children were in homeschools. From 2003 through 2012, the number of American children 5 through 17 years old who were being homeschooled by their parents climbed by 61.8 percent to nearly 1.8 million, according to the US Department of Education. That’s likely a conservative estimate, but it equals 3.4 percent of the nation’s 52 million students in the 5–17 age group.

Parents who homeschool do so for a variety of reasons. Some want a strong moral or religious emphasis in their children’s education. Others are fleeing unsafe public schools or schools where discipline and academics have taken a backseat to fuzzy, feel-good, or politically correct dogma. Many homeschool parents complain about the pervasiveness in public schools of trendy instructional methods that border on pedagogical malpractice. Others value the flexibility to travel, often with their children for hands-on, educational purposes; the ability to customize curricula to each child’s needs and interests; and the potential to strengthen relationships within the family.

“When my wife and I first decided to homeschool our three children,” says Bradley Thompson, a political science professor who heads the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism at Clemson University, “we did it for one reason: we wanted to give them a classical education — the kind that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson might have received when they were young boys.” He adds,

Within a couple of years, we added a second reason: we didn’t want our children exposed to the kind of socialization that goes on in both government and some private schools. Over time, however, we added a third reason: homeschooling became a way of life for our family, a way of life that was irreplaceable and beautiful. By the time our third child goes to college, we will have been homeschooling for 18 years. Those years have been, without question, the most important of my life.

Homeschool parents are fiercely protective of their constitutional right to educate their children. In early 1994, the House of Representatives voted to mandate that all teachers — including parents in the home — acquire state certification in the subjects they teach. A massive campaign of letters, phone calls, and faxes from homeschool parents produced one of the most stunning turnabouts in legislative history: by a vote of 424 to 1, the House reversed itself and then approved an amendment that affirmed the rights and independence of homeschool parents.

The certification issue deserves a comment: we have a national crisis in public education, where virtually every teacher is duly certified. There is no national crisis in home education.

Critics have long harbored a jaundiced view of parents who educate children at home. They argue that children need the guidance of professionals and the social interaction that comes from being with a class of others. Homeschooled children, these critics say, will be socially and academically stunted by the confines of the home. But the facts suggest otherwise.

Reports from state after state show homeschoolers scoring significantly better than the norm on college entrance examinations. Prestigious universities, including Harvard and Yale, accept homeschooled children eagerly and often. And there’s simply no evidence that homeschooled children (with a rare exception) make anything but fine, solid citizens who respect others and work hard as adults. Marianna Brashear informs me thus:

More and more early college and dual enrollment programs are available for rising 9th through 12th graders, and these programs, too, are quite eager to admit homeschoolers for their ability to take responsibility and to self-motivate, for their maturity, and for their determination to learn and succeed. For example, my 14-year-old daughter will be starting with a nearby technical institute in August and will receive high school and college credit simultaneously. She will be in a class with other high school students, and they are on track to receive AA degrees before graduating high school.

Homeschool parents approach their task in a variety of ways. While some discover texts and methods as they go, others plan their work well before they start, often assisted by other homeschoolers or associations that have sprung up to aid those who choose this option. Writing in the Freeman in May 2001, homeschool parent Chris Cardiff observed that because parents aren’t experts in every possible subject,

families band together in local homeschooling support groups. From within these voluntary associations springs a spontaneous educational order. An overabundance of services, knowledge, activities, collaboration, and social opportunities flourishes within these homeschooling communities.

My FEE colleague, B.K. Marcus, also a homeschool parent, identifies this natural “socialization” as a critically important point:

Homeschooling produces communities and participates in a division of labor. Homeschooling is social and cooperative, contrary to the stereotype of the overprotected child under the stern watch of narrow-minded parents. Traditionally schooled kids show far fewer social skills outside their segregated age groups.

A quick Internet search reveals thousands of cooperative ventures for and between homeschoolers. In Yahoo Groups alone, as of June 2015, about 6,300 results pop up when you search for the keyword “homeschool.” More than 800 show up in Google Groups. Facebook is another option for locating a plethora of local, regional, and national homeschool groups, support groups, events, co-ops, and communities.

In every other walk of life, Americans traditionally regard as heroes the men and women who meet challenges head-on, who go against the grain and persevere to bring a dream to fruition. At a time when more troubles and shortcomings plague education and educational heroes are too few in number, recognizing the homeschool champions in our midst may be both long overdue and highly instructive.

Common to every homeschool parent is the belief that the education of their children is too important to hand over to someone else. Hallelujah for that!

For further information, see:

Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.

EDITORS NOTE: Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

Real Heroes: A Good Samaritan in Cambodia by Lawrence W. Reed

In 30 years of traveling to 81 countries, I’ve come across some pretty nasty governments and some darn good people. To be fair, I should acknowledge that I’ve also encountered some rotten people and a half-decent government or two. The ghastliest of all worlds, of course, is when you have rotten people running nasty governments — a combination that is not in short supply.

Indeed, as Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek famously explained in The Road to Serfdom, the worst tend to rise to the top of all regimes — yet another reason to keep government small in the first place (as if we needed another reason).

“The unscrupulous and uninhibited,” wrote Hayek, “are likely to be more successful” in any society in which government dominates life and the economy. That’s precisely the kind of circumstance that elevates power over persuasion, force over cooperation, arrogance over humility, and corruption over honesty.

So I take special note when I encounter instances of good people working around, in spite of, in opposition to, or simply without a helping hand from government. In today’s dominant culture and climate, private initiative is frequently shortchanged or viewed with suspicion. In some quarters, “private” means unreliably compassionate, incorrigibly greedy, or hopelessly unplanned. We’re overdue for a celebration of the good character many people exhibit when there’s no fame or fortune in it, just the satisfaction that comes from knowing you’ve done the right thing.

Sadly, I can’t give you the name of the person I want to tell you about, and shame on me for that. I spent a grand total of perhaps an hour with him, in short increments as he gave me rides in his “cyclo” (or rickshaw) from one place to another in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in August 1989. When I was about to fly home to the United States, I gave him something without ever expecting he would do with it what I asked. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask for his name and contact information because, in all the years since, I’ve wished for an opportunity to thank him.

I lived in Midland, Michigan, at the time. The area press, particularly theMidland Daily News and the Saginaw News, featured stories about my upcoming visit to Southeast Asia. Local doctors donated medical supplies for me to take to a hospital in the Cambodian capital. A woman named Sharon from a local church saw the news stories. She called me and explained that a few years before, her church had helped Cambodian families who escaped from the Khmer Rouge communists and resettled in mid-Michigan. The families had moved on to other locations in the United States but stayed in touch with the friends they had made in Midland.

Sharon told me that she sent copies of the news stories to her Cambodian friends her church had helped a few years before. Through Sharon, each family asked if I would take letters with cash enclosed to their desperately poor relatives in Cambodia. When they sent anything through the mail, it usually didn’t end up where it was supposed to, especially if cash was involved. I offered to do my best, with no guarantees.

The families who were in Phnom Penh would prove relatively easy to locate, but the last family was many miles away in Battambang. That would have involved a train ride, some personal risk, and a lot of time I didn’t have. If I couldn’t locate any of the families, I was advised not to bring the cash back home but to give it to any poor person. Finding poor Cambodians in 1989, after the savagery the nation endured under the butchery of the Khmer Rouge a decade before, was like looking for fish in an aquarium.

When I realized I wasn’t going to make it to Battambang, I approached a man in tattered clothes in the hotel lobby. I had seen him there a few times before. He always smiled and said hello, and spoke enough English to carry on some short conversations. I had a sense — intuition, perhaps — that he was a decent person.

“I have an envelope with a letter and $200 in it, intended for a very needy family in Battambang. Do you think you could get this to them?” I asked. He replied in the affirmative. “Keep $50 of it if you find them,” I instructed. We said goodbye. I assumed I would never hear anything of what became of either him or the money. I am pained to this day by the realization that without much thought, I had sold him short.

Back home in Michigan several months later, I received an excited phone call from Sharon. “The Cambodians in Virginia whose family in Battambang that last envelope was intended for just received a letter from their loved ones back home!” And then she read me a couple paragraphs from that letter. The final sentence read, “Thank you for the two hundred dollars!

That man whose name I’m unsure of and whose address I never secured had found his way to Battambang. Not only did he not keep the $50 I offered; he somehow had found a way to pay for the train ride himself. Does his act of honesty tug at your heartstrings? If it does, then you appreciate something the world desperately needs, something that is indispensably crucial to a free and moral society. The man I trusted the money to was poor in material wealth but rich in something more important. As I wrote in a recent book,

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.

In 2016, I hope to visit Cambodia again. It will be my first time there since 1989. I have a slim lead on how I might find the man I gave that letter and $200 to. I know it’s a long shot. He may have moved away or passed on. But if I find him, it will be a thrill I’ll never forget.

I will embrace him as a brother and be sure he understands that in my book, he is one Real Hero.

For further information, see:


Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.

EDITORS NOTE: Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

Real Hero Peter Fechter: The Berlin Wall and Those Who Refused to Be Caged by Lawrence W. Reed

For the 28 years from 1961 to 1989, the ghastly palisade known as the Berlin Wall divided the German city of Berlin. It sealed off the only escape hatch for people in the communist East who wanted freedom in the West.

No warning was given before August 13 when East German soldiers and police first stretched barbed wire and then began erecting the infamous wall, not to mention guard towers, dog runs, and explosive devices behind it.

By one estimate, 254 people died there during those 28 years — shot by police, ensnared by the barbed wire, mauled by dogs, or blown to bits by land mines — most of them in the infamous “death strip” that immediately paralleled the main barrier. The communist regime cynically referred to it as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Wall.”

In my home hangs a large, framed copy of a famous photo of a poignant moment from that sad day in 1961. It shows a young, apprehensive East German soldier glancing about as he prepares to let a small boy pass through the emerging barrier. No doubt the boy spent the night with friends and found himself the next morning on the opposite side of the wall from his family. But the communist government ordered its men to let no one pass. The inscription below the photo explains that, at this very moment, the soldier was seen by a superior officer who immediately detached him from his unit. “No one,” reads the inscription, “knows what became of him.” Only the most despicable tyrants could punish a man for letting a child get to his loved ones, but in the Evil Empire, that and much worse happened all the time.

Like millions of others, a strapping 18-year-old bricklayer named Peter Fechter yearned for so much more than the stifling dreariness of socialism. He hatched a plan with a friend, Helmut Kulbeik, to conceal themselves in a carpenter’s woodshop near the wall and watch for an opportune moment to jump from a second-story window into the death strip. They would then run to and climb over the 6½ foot high concrete barrier, laced with barbed wire, and emerge in freedom on the other side.

It was August 17, 1962, barely a year since the Berlin Wall went up, but Fechter and Kulbeik were ready to risk everything. When the moment came that guards were looking the other way, they jumped. Seconds later, during their mad dash to the wall, guards began firing. Amazingly, Kulbeik made it to freedom. Fechter was not so lucky. In the plain view of witnesses numbering in the hundreds, he was hit in the pelvis. He fell, screaming in pain, to the ground.

No one on the East side, soldiers included, came to his aid. Westerners threw bandages over the wall but Fechter couldn’t reach them. Bleeding profusely, he died alone, an hour later. Demonstrators in West Berlin shouted, “Murderers!” at the East Berlin border guards, who eventually retrieved his lifeless body.

Christine Brecht, writing on the Berlin Wall Memorial website, reveals subsequent events involving the Fechter family:

In addition to the painful loss of their only son, the family of the deceased was subjected to reprisals from the East German government for decades. In July 1990 Peter Fechter’s sister pressed charges that opened preliminary proceedings and that ultimately ended in the conviction of two guards. Found guilty of manslaughter, they were sentenced to 20 and 21 months in prison, a sentence that was commuted to probation. During the main proceedings, Ruth Fechter, the victim’s younger sister who served as a joint plaintiff in the trial, expressed herself through her attorneys. They explained that she thought it important to speak out, to no longer be “damned by passivity and inactivity” and to get out of “the objectified role that she had been put in until then.” She movingly described how she and her family experienced the tragic death of her brother and had felt powerless to act against his public defamation. They had been sworn to secrecy, an involuntary obligation that put the family under tremendous pressure. “We were ostracized and experienced hostile encounters daily. They were not born of our personal desire, but were instead imposed on us by others, becoming a central element in the life of the Fechter Family.” After all those years, participating in the trial as a joint plaintiff offered Ruth Fechter an opportunity to participate in the effort to explain, research and evaluate the circumstances of her brother’s death. And she added that the legal perspective occasionally overlooks the fact that in this case “world history fatally intersected with the fate of a single individual.”

The world must never forget this awful chapter in history. Nor should we ever forget that it was done in the name of a vicious system that declared its “solidarity with the working class” and professed its devotion to “the people.”

We who embrace liberty don’t believe in shooting people because they don’t conform, and that is ultimately what socialism and communism are all about. We don’t plan other people’s lives because we’re too busy at the full-time job of reforming and improving our own. We believe in persuasion, not coercion. We solve problems at penpoint, not gunpoint. We’re never so smugly self-righteous in our beliefs that we’re ready at the drop of a hat to dragoon the rest of society into our schemes.

All this is why so many of us get a rush every time we think of Ronald Reagan standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate in 1987 and demanding, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” This is why we were brought to tears in the heady days of 1989 when thousands of Berliners scaled the Wall with their hammers, picks, and fists and pummeled that terrible edifice and the Marxist vision that fostered it.

Peter Fechter and the 253 others who died at the Berlin Wall are real heroes. They deserve to be remembered.

For further information, see:


Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.

EDITORS NOTE: Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.