The Greatest Showman and the Beauty of the Entrepreneurial Spirit

I love stories about underdogs defying all odds and proving they are stronger than people realized. This helps explain my unbridled enthusiasm for the new movie musical The Greatest Showman.

Born into nothing, Barnum was a lowly servant with big dreams.

But there is so much more to this film than the baseline plot: a story of society’s outcasts finding success through unconventional means. Above all, The Greatest Showman is a tribute to the resilience and power of the entrepreneurial spirit.

The film tells the story of P.T. Barnum, the man responsible for the founding of the Ringling Brothers Circus. I don’t know much about the real-life P.T. Barnum, but the character in the film, as depicted by Hugh Jackman, is the hero I wish to discuss.

You’re More Than You Can Ever Be

Born into nothing, Barnum is a lowly servant with big dreams working in a wealthy household. Without a family or support system, he is forced to learn how to rely on himself from a very young age. And no matter how cruel the rest of the world treats him, he is unfazed by the opinions and actions of others.

After getting in trouble for teasing his employer’s daughter, Barnum is struck hard in the face. But this does not lessen his resolve for greatness. Surrounded by luxuries far beyond his own means, Barnum gets a glimpse of the life he could live if he were to rise above his circumstances. So he commits himself to achieving something amazing and larger than himself.

In the song, “A Million Dreams,” young Barnum demonstrates his unbreakable optimism when he sings:

‘Cause every night I lie in bed
The brightest colors fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake
I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see
A million dreams is all it’s gonna take
A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make”

But instead of merely obsessing over daydreams, Barnum made his dream a reality. He grew up, married the same girl he was beaten for teasing years earlier, and works a series of mundane factory jobs. When he gets laid off, again, he decides that enough is enough and searches for his true calling in life. As all entrepreneurs understand, setting off on your own comes with a fair set of risks, and Barnum faces plenty. But, from high risks often come high rewards.

Using all the money he has, he purchases a building and turns it into “Barnum’s American Museum.” Unfortunately, this venture is a dud. The only tickets he sells are to his wife and two daughters. So, like a good entrepreneur, Barnum goes back to the drawing board to figure out what the people actually want.  

Too often, stories about lackadaisical dreamers place too much emphasis on the dreams themselves, and not what it takes to make those dreams become a reality.

What is most admirable about this part of Barnum’s life is his unwavering dedication to hard work. Stories about lackadaisical dreamers often place too much emphasis on the dreams themselves, and not what it takes to make those dreams become a reality.

In the song, “Come Alive,” Barnum is seen working diligently to manifest his dreams in reality and reflecting on the fact that through this hard work, his dreams can unfold. He sings, “And the world becomes a fantasy, and you’re more than you can ever be, ‘cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open.”

The Market Is the Great Equalizer

Barnum longs to give the world something extraordinary, the likes of which they have never seen. But he realizes he cannot do this by merely imitating what has already been done. He decides to do something bolder, and by doing so, he ends up adding value to the world in ways he never imagined.

The market is the great equalizer, as this film drives home. Barnum’s original museum highlighted the spectacular and unbelievable marvels of the world. Unfortunately, none of these rarities were real. His original museum relied on poor quality replicas of mermaids and other mythical phenomena, which were not appealing to consumers. But the lack of customers drives Barnum to go in search of real, and rare, human acts.

Lettie Lutz, later known as “the bearded lady,” is resigned to a life of shame and isolation. She has no aspirations aside from keeping her head down while doing laundry for a living. But that was before she met Barnum.

After putting up signs looking for rare and exotic acts for his upcoming production, Barnum stumbles upon Lettie and is taken aback by her stellar vocal abilities. He begs her to join his act as a singer.

Barnum’s enthusiasm for his project is contagious, and Lutz agrees to come aboard. His excitement from finding Lutz redoubles his resolve to put together the greatest show on earth.  

Barnum goes around collecting other so-called “circus freaks,” ranging from the incredibly tall to the incredibly tattooed and even a death-defying trapeze act. Barnum’s gang of outcasts set out not only to prove they deserve to be a part of society but that they have value to add to the world through entertainment. And this is when Barnum’s production really begins to take off.

As Barnum predicted, audiences were both shocked and thrilled to see such unique individuals brazenly performing. In 1850, when the film is set, being different was no cause for celebration. If you did not fit into society’s prescribed boxes, you didn’t belong. It was as simple as that. But by offering something consumers craved, these unconventional performers took their supposed “flaws” and turned them into a sought-after market entity.

Not only did this allow a ragtag gang of performers to earn livings far beyond what they originally thought possible, they also became a family and found inner peace and acceptance.

While many of these performers were chastised for being different, even by their own families, Barnum gave them a sense of belonging and a camaraderie they had been searching for their whole lives. In the song, “This is Me,” Lutz belts out a ballad of acceptance, proclaiming that she is okay with who she is, despite what people may say. She has created value and through that has gained a new sense of self-worth.

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down

I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out

I am brave, I am bruised

I am who I’m meant to be, this is me

Look out ’cause here I come

And I’m marching on to the beat I drum

I’m not scared to be seen

I make no apologies, this is me.”

Film critics have been quick to condemn this aspect of the film as “exploitation,” since Barnum earned a profit off of his rare performers. But each member of Barnum’s circus was there because he or she wanted to be. Voluntary association is not exploitation, especially when the performers themselves were able to improve their standard of living and their own emotional well being.

Reframing the Narrative

 “If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.”

In the AMC series, Mad Men, the main character and ad man extraordinaire Don Draper famously says, “If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.” Barnum puts this kind of advice into action.

A highbrow, snooty, and prominent theater critic attends one of Barnum’s performances and writes a particularly nasty review. He even goes as far as to dub Barnum’s act a “circus”–which, at the time meant “a public scene of frenetic and noisily intrusive activity,” hardly a compliment and according to the critic, unworthy of high-class audiences. But this didn’t discourage Barnum.

Instead, he changes the name of his show, “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome” to include the word “circus,” establishing a new definition for the word. By not only refusing to be offended but also going so far as to adopt the offensive name for his show, he is able to reclaim the narrative and continue proving that he is more than what others may think.

Yet he doesn’t stop there.

He then decides to add some credibility to his act. After hearing of Jenny Lind, a woman dubbed, “the greatest singer in all of Europe,” Barnum offers her an exorbitant amount of money to join his act.

While his performers are talented, none are classically trained, nor are they known among high-class circles in Europe. When Jenny takes center stage and blows the audience away, Barnum proves that his “circus” is anything but: a fact the theater critic later admits.

But he soon confronts a crisis. A mob of citizens angry that such unconventional performers were being allowed on stage set fire to his building, turning his dreams into ashes.

After a brief period of doubt and desolation, Barnum snaps back into entrepreneur mode and finds a way to continue his show. Since he cannot afford to rebuild or purchase a new facility, Barnum has the genius idea to save on overhead costs by using large tents instead: the same tents that are now so closely associated with circuses. Little did we know as children that these tents first emerged as an entrepreneurial response to tragedy.

But the entrepreneurial spirit is one of dedication and resilience. And through all of the disappointment and struggles, Barnum was able to leave a legacy behind not only for himself, but for each performer who found personal liberation through his show. He was also able to provide for his family and give them the life he dreamed of as a young boy.

While this movie has been unjustly panned by many critics, it is resonating with entrepreneurs and reminding them to hold fast and work hard to make their dreams a reality.

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A Federal Gas Tax Will Only Fuel Bureaucracy

The Trump administration will release its long-awaited infrastructure plan in coming weeks. The plan is expected to include $200 billion over 10 years of federal funding. Where will the money come from? The president has pondered raising the federal gas tax.

Revenues from the 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax go into the Highway Trust Fund and are then dished out to the states. But 98 percent of U.S. streets and highways are owned by state and local governments, and the owners should do the funding. States that need to improve their highways can increase their own gas taxes, sales taxes, issue debt, add user charges, or pursue public-private partnerships.

The federal gas tax rate more than quadrupled between 1983 and 1993 from 4 cents to 18.4.

There is no advantage in raising federal highway revenues rather than the states raising their own. The states can tackle their own infrastructure challenges, and about half of them have raised their transportation taxes in the past five years.

Supporters of a federal gas tax hike say that the tax has not been raised since 1993, and its real value has been eroded by inflation. That is true. But the federal gas tax rate more than quadrupled between 1983 and 1993 from 4 cents to 18.4 cents, as shown in the chart below. The 4-cent rate would be 9.8 cents in today’s dollars, so the real gas tax rate has risen substantially since the early 1980s.

The chart shows that the states have steadily raised their own gas taxes in recent years. API discusses state gas taxes here, and they emailed me data back to 1994. (I’ve interpolated a few missing years). The state average — currently 33 cents — includes both gasoline excise taxes and other taxes on gasoline.

I hope Trump does not go down the road of gas tax increases. Pumping more money through federal bureaucracies would fuel more top-down planning and inefficiency. Funding for highways and other infrastructure should be handled by state and local governments and the private sector.

More on infrastructure here and here

Reprinted from Cato At Liberty.

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Stop Calling It an Opioid Crisis

The National Center for Health Statistics reported last month that a record 63,600 deaths occurred in 2016 due to overdoses. Digging deeper into that number shows over 20,000 of those deaths were due to the powerful drug fentanyl, more than 15,000 were caused by heroin, and roughly 14,500 were caused by prescription opioids, although it has been known for years that, in most cases of prescription opioid deaths, the victims had multiple other potentiating drugs onboard. The rest of the deaths were due to methamphetamines, cocaine, benzodiazepines, and methadone.

Drugs Involved in U.S. Overdose Deaths*
Among the more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths estimated in 2016, the sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs (synthetic opioids) with over 20,000 overdose deaths. Source: CDC WONDER
* Provisional counts for 2016 are based on data available for analysis as of 8/2017.

In its end-of-year report, the National Center for Health Statistics noted deaths from fentanyl increased at a steady annual rate of 18 percent per year from 1999-2013 and then shot up 88 percent from 2013-2016.

The death rate increase from prescription opioids has remained steady at 3 percent per year since 2009. Fentanyl is not routinely prescribed in the outpatient setting, and when it is, it is most commonly given in the form of a skin patch for slow, transdermal release, unsuitable for abuse or nonmedical use. The evidence shows it is being smuggled into the country, often by mail, in powdered form from factories in China and elsewhere, where it is used to fill counterfeit prescription opioid capsules or to lace heroin to enhance its potency.

In the case of heroin, NCHS found the death rate steady from 1999-2005, then it increased 10 percent per year from 2005-2010, 33 percent per year from 2010-2014, and has been increasing at a rate of 19 percent per year since 2014.

Meanwhile, after increasing 13 percent annually from 1999-2009, the death rate increase from prescription opioids has remained steady at 3 percent per year since 2009.

Prescription Painkillers Are Not the Problem

This focus on the prescription of opioids makes many patients needlessly suffer in pain. For nearly a decade, policymakers have bought into the misguided narrative that the opioid overdose crisis is a result of careless doctors and greedy pharmaceutical companies getting patients hooked on prescription opioids and condemning them to the nightmarish world of drug addiction. As a result, the Drug Enforcement Administration has ordered decreases in prescription opioid production. There was a 25 percent reduction in 2017 and a 20 percent reduction is ordered for 2018.

States have set up monitoring programs that put doctors and patients under surveillance leading to a dramatic reduction in the prescription of opioids since 2010. In fact, high-dose prescribing fell 41 percent since 2010. The popular opioid OxyContin was replaced with an abuse-deterrent formulation in 2010 (that could not be crushed for snorting or dissolved for injecting), and, since then, several other such formulations have come online.

This focus on the supply and prescription of opioids makes many patients needlessly suffer in pain. Some, in desperation, turn to the illicit market to get relief, where they find heroin and heroin-laced fentanyl often cheaper and easier to get. Some others resort to suicide.

Policymakers mistakenly focus on doctors treating their patients in pain. By intruding on the patient-doctor relationship, they impede physician judgment and increase patient suffering. But another unintended consequence is that, by reducing the amount of prescription opioids that can be diverted to the illicit market, they have driven nonmedical users to heroin and fentanyl, which are cheaper and easier to obtain on the street than prescription opioids, and much more dangerous.

We’re Calling This the Wrong Thing

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that from 2006 to 2010 the opioid prescription rate tracked closely with the opioid overdose rate, at roughly 1 overdose for every 13,000 prescriptions. Then, after 2010, when the prescription rate dropped and it became more difficult to divert opioids for nonmedical use, the overdose rate began to climb as nonmedical users switched over to heroin and fentanyl. There is a dramatic negative correlation between prescription rate to overdose rate of -0.99 since 2010.

The overdose rate is not a product of doctors and patients abusing prescription opioids. It is a product of nonmedical users accessing the illicit market.

The problem will not get better — it will probably only get worse — as long as we continue to call this an “opioid crisis.” The title is too nonspecific. This is a crisis caused by drug prohibition, an unintended consequence of nonmedical drug users accessing the black market in drugs.

Policymakers should stop harassing doctors and their patients and shift their focus to reforming overall drug policy. A good place to start would be to implement harm reduction measures, such as safe syringe programs, making Medication Assisted Treatments like methadone and suboxone more readily available, and making the opioid antidote naloxone available over-the-counter, so it can be easier for opioid users to obtain. Even better would be a sober reassessment of America’s longest war, the “War on Drugs.”

Renaming the problem a “heroin and fentanyl crisis” might be a way to trigger a refocus.

Reprinted from Cato At Liberty.

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Juries Should Be More Than Rubber Stamps for Prosecutors

I haven’t written in any detail about “jury nullification” since late 2010, and it’s time to rectify that sin of omission.

Nullification occurs when a jury votes not guilty because a law is either unjust or wrongly applied, not because a defendant is actually innocent. And I know that’s what I would do if I was on a jury and the government was persecuting someone for engaging is self-defense or getting nabbed by a revenue camera.

The bottom line is that Walter Williams is right when he says that it is immoral to obey bad laws.

Let’s review some expert opinions.

Writing on the editorial page of the New York Times, a former prosecutor urges jury nullification.

Earlier this year, prosecutors charged Julian P. Heicklen, a retired chemistry professor, with jury tampering because he stood outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan providing information about jury nullification to passers-by. …The prosecutors who charged Mr. Heicklen said that “advocacy of jury nullification, directed as it is to jurors, would be both criminal and without constitutional protections no matter where it occurred.” The prosecutors in this case are wrong. The First Amendment exists to protect speech like this — honest information that the government prefers citizens not know. …Jury nullification is not new; its proponents have included John Hancock and John Adams. The doctrine is premised on the idea that ordinary citizens, not government officials, should have the final say as to whether a person should be punished. As Adams put it, it is each juror’s “duty” to vote based on his or her “own best understanding, judgment and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court.” …Nullification has been credited with helping to end alcohol prohibition and laws that criminalized gay sex. Last year, Montana prosecutors were forced to offer a defendant in a marijuana case a favorable plea bargain after so many potential jurors said they would nullify that the judge didn’t think he could find enough jurors to hear the case.

column in the Washington Post by Professor Glenn Reynolds, from the University of Tennessee, argues that juries have an obligation to rein in bad prosecutors.

Despite the evidence, those responsible for convicting you may choose to let you go, if they think that sending you to jail would result in an injustice. That can happen through what’s called “prosecutorial discretion,” where a prosecutor decides not to bring or pursue charges against you because doing so would be unfair, even though the evidence is strong. Or it can happen through “jury nullification,” where a jury thinks that the evidence supports conviction but then decides to issue a “not guilty” verdict because it feels that a conviction would be unjust. …Prosecutorial discretion is regularly applied and generally regarded as a standard part of criminal justice. …So-called jury nullification, on the other hand, gets far less respect. Though it is clearly within the power of juries to refuse to convict whenever they choose, judges and prosecutors tend to view this practice with hostility. …there has been a massive shift of power toward prosecutors, the result of politics, over-criminalization, institutional leverage and judges’ failure to provide supervision. It’s time to redress the balance.

By the way, Glenn has proposed ways (see postscript of this column) of addressing this imbalance, tied to over-criminalization.

And here’s another column in the Washington Post arguing in favor of jury empowerment. 

As I tried cases, I gained enormous respect for the seriousness with which jurors approached their work. …These jurors had no problem convicting anyone of a violent offense, if the government proved its case. For drug crimes, however, it was a different story. …they frequently voted “not guilty” in nonviolent drug cases, no matter how compelling the evidence. …When I started teaching law, I published an article in the Yale Law Journal situating these D.C. jurors in a long line of jurors…who refused to convict American patriots of sedition against the British crown; jurors who acquitted people guilty of violating the Fugitive Slave Act; and jurors who would not punish gay people for “sodomy” for having consensual sex

Amen. Juries should pursue justice, not act as rubber stamps when prosecutors are acting as cogs for an unjust regime.

Now let’s look at a real-world example, as reported by the New York Times.

As much as chocolate and watches, Switzerland is known for bank secrecy. …it also made Swiss banks targets for an assault by the United States government… Bank Frey was among the very few to defy the legal onslaught. And Mr. Buck…was the bank’s public face, responsible for landing and then managing American accounts. That put Mr. Buck in the government’s cross hairs. In 2013, a federal grand jury indicted him for conspiring to help Americans avoid taxes. …But things didn’t go as prosecutors had planned… The crux of the defense was that the responsibility to pay taxes and declare income did not rest with Mr. Buck. It was his clients who had decided not to pay taxes. He was under no obligation to tattle… Prosecutors branded him as a crucial cog in an international tax-evasion scheme. …Then it was Mr. Agnifilo’s turn. …“Stefan Buck has nothing whatsoever, nothing whatsoever, to do with the choice that an American taxpayer makes” to not declare offshore assets. …The jury deliberated for a little more than a day. …the verdict: not guilty.

The story doesn’t mention jury nullification, but I’m assuming – from a technical legal perspective – the prosecutors had an open-and-shut case against Mr. Buck. After all, he did “conspire” to help Americans protect their income from the IRS.

But the jury decided that conviction would be absurd because a Swiss person on Swiss soil has no obligation to help enforce bad U.S. tax policy. So they voted not guilty because that was the only moral choice.

And the good news is that this is becoming a pattern.

In October 2014, one of UBS’s top executives, Raoul Weil, went on trial in Florida. Federal prosecutors accused him of helping clients hide billions. Mr. Weil’s lawyers argued he had no knowledge of or responsibility for what had happened. The jury deliberated for barely an hour before acquitting him. The same week, a Los Angeles jury acquitted an Israeli banker who faced similar accusations. The Americans’ pursuit of foreign bankers no longer looked invincible.

The even better news is that these nullification decisions by juries may now lead to some “prosecutorial discretion.”

The Justice Department had now lost the three cases it had tried against foreign bankers who helped Americans avoid taxes. Dozens more cases are pending. Those who represent accused Swiss bankers say they expect Mr. Buck’s verdict to embolden defendants and to cause prosecutors to think twice before bringing new charges.

In other words, the bad law will still exist but hopefully will have little or no impact because prosecutors are less likely to file charges and juries won’t convict when they do.

That’s a victory for liberty, though it surely would be best – as we discussed just a few days ago – if politicians repealed the bad laws that make unjust prosecutions possible.

P.S. I’ve confessed mixed feelings about potential nullification in cases of vigilante justice.

P.P.S. In my younger days, I assumed that cops and prosecutors were the good guys, helping maintain an orderly society. I still think that most of them want to do what’s right, but I also now realize that our Founding Fathers were very wise to include strong protections for defendants in our Constitution. Simply stated, some cops and some prosecutors are bad, and those bad apples are why I favor strengthening the Fourth Amendment and have become more skeptical of the death penalty.

P.P.P.S. Even if you’re a law-abiding person, you should support civil liberties.

Reprinted from International Liberty.

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Macron Is Using the “Fake News” Excuse to Attack Press Freedom

In press statements for the beginning of this year, French president Emmanuel Macron announced his plans for cracking down on fake news. Haunted by the controversial Macron Leaks towards the end of the presidential campaign (which he won in May last year), the new French president was expected to go after the practice early in his term. The accuracy of the online information flow is important, but Macron’s solutions are seriously worrying.

Macron’s Aim

In the press conference, Emmanuel Macron announced that restricting the presence of fake news online was essential to French democracy, and added:

“As you know, propagating fake news on social media these days only demands a couple of tens of thousands of euros, and can be done while remaining completely anonymous.”

While it is true that you can spend tens of thousands of euros, fake news can easily be spread with no money whatsoever. All it takes on social media is for a post to go viral, in which case there is no need to sponsor the posts at all.

In order to achieve better public information, Macron wants to make transparency about who operates and runs news websites compulsory (if it sponsors content on social media), and give judges the possibility to completely delete content. His proposed bill will only apply for election periods, during which he says that public opinion should be fuelled by facts, not false information. This restriction was due to the “#MacronLeaks” which happened shortly before the second round of France’s presidential election in May last year. Thousands of emails of Macron’s staffers had been leaked on 4Chan and led to wild accusations.

The Reaction to #MacronLeaks Says Everything

It turns out that what followed the controversy of these #MacronLeaks is really all you need to know about why regulating fake news is a terrible idea. In a quick reaction, the French election commission, which is supposed to be impartial, strongly urged media outlets not to cover the leaks and went even further by asking them to “not relay the contents of these documents in order not to alter the integrity of the vote, not to break the bans laid down by the law and not to expose themselves to the committing of criminal offences.”

The unintended consequences were more damaging to Macron than they could have been otherwise. Thousands of leaked emails, which required weeks and months of work in order to identify whether or not they were legitimate or relevant, were automatically put under rules of censorship. It should be noted as well that the administration was led by François Hollande, the then-incumbent president who had endorsed Emmanuel Macron for president.

However, the more authorities tried to restrict the media’s ability to report on the leaks, the more they encouraged people to look it up themselves while creating a mysterious vibe around the whole dossier. With the free flow of information partially blocked, the unintended consequences were more damaging to Macron than they could have been otherwise. From the point of view from a Le Pen supporter: if Macron puts a red flag on these leaks, there must be something about them. As the French say: Il n’y a pas de fumée sans feu (There is no smoke without fire).

A good practical example of how the advantage of allowing all sides to research and communicate freely was the faux-pas of his own rival.

Marine Le Pen, eager to exploit the leak, alluded to the existence of an offshore bank account that Macron would have used to reduce his tax burden. Bringing this up on a nationally broadcasted television debate turned out to be a mistake because whether or not Le Pen got the idea from the leak or from elsewhere, no proof of such a claim was substantiated, and it ended up costing her credibility.

Too Much Power

Seeking the truth is not the job of the government but of those who observe the news. The general question of government isn’t “who should have the power?” but “how much power should there be?” The facts are: that Emmanuel Macron clearly seeks to limit the risks for future leaks to damage his reputation for his re-election campaign; that the administration is closely linked with the authorities that put reporting bans on media outlets; that Macron’s Minister of Justice had to step down because he called journalists on the phone to tell them not to report on a story; and that another two members of the government are suing a media agency because it revealed that the holiday cottage they stayed in belonged to an international narcotics smuggler.

All of these reflect badly on the legislative outreach for more control into press freedom. But far more importantly: if Macron’s supporters are convinced that Le Pen’s accession to power would be truly fascistic, they would be ill-advised to lay the groundwork for authoritarian lawmaking in which government decides which news is fake and which isn’t.

Seeking the truth is not the job of the government but of those who observe the news. It’s only in the free market of ideas that information can transparently be checked and double-checked elsewhere. Yes, this means that reported news can be false. Yes, this means that there can be conflicts of interests. But far worse than both these things are institutions which basically claim to be the Ministries of Truth. We know how that ends.

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Even in Prison, This Professor Never Stopped Teaching Liberty and Love

Nothing is so contagious as example; and we never do any great good or evil which does not produce its like – Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680).

Heroes for liberty are not peculiar to any region of the world or to a particular time period or to one sex. They hail from all nationalities, races, faiths, and creeds. They inspire others to a noble and universal cause – that all people should be free to live their lives in peace so long as they do no harm to the equal rights of others. They are passionate not solely for their own liberty, but for that of others as well.

In my last book, Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction, I wrote about 40 individuals whose views, decisions and actions served this cause in various ways. That book planted the seed for this new weekly series to be published each Thursday at But this time, others from around the world will do the writing, and I’ll be content to do the editing while keeping that to a minimum to preserve the author’s voice. It is my hope that when all is said and done some months from now, the literature of liberty will be greatly complemented by this collection of short biographies. The authors will be writing about heroes for liberty who are (or were) citizens of each author’s own country. Each week’s installment will be added to the collection here.

The subject of this seventh essay in the series is the Vietnamese human rights activist Dr. Doan Viet Hoat, who turned 75 on Christmas Eve last month. The author, Phan Anh Hong, was one of the many “boat people” who escaped Vietnam when the war ended in 1975. He lives in Dallas, Texas and is a state revenue tax specialist and blogger at Here’s a 10-minute interview with me about Dr. Doan Viet Hoat on the Bob Harden radio show in Naples, Florida.

— Lawrence W. Reed, President, Foundation for Economic Education


The man I am fortunate to tell you about as part of this “Heroes” series is alive and well at 75, and someone I know personally. Let me first offer some words about who he is and what he’s done. Then I’ll tell you why I admire and respect him immensely.

Working for a Freer Vietnam

Dr. Doan Viet Hoat was born on Christmas Eve in 1942 near Hanoi in what was then French Indochina, now Vietnam. After earning his Ph.D. in America (at Florida State University in 1971), he returned to South Vietnam and became a professor and later vice president of the first private Buddhist university in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

Just four years later, the communists from the North conquered the country, seized the university, and arrested Dr. Doan in a mass roundup of intellectuals with ties to the U.S. For no other reason than those ties, he was remanded without trial to a “re-education camp” for twelve years. He shared a prison room there with 40 other people.

When finally released, he might have fled the country to join friends and relatives in the U.S., but he chose instead to stay and work for change. He started an illegal, underground newsletter called “Freedom Forum” and declared in its first issue,

A new struggle has started … It is the war against poverty, backwardness and arbitrariness. It is the aspiration toward a rich, strong, progressive, free and democratic Vietnam. And in this new struggle, there can be only one winner, the nation and people of Vietnam; and only one loser, the forces of dogmatism, arbitrariness and backwardness.

A year later, police raided his home and arrested him. He was then convicted of conspiring to overthrow the communist regime and sentenced to another 15 years in prison. While incarcerated, he wrote pro-freedom essays and arranged for some of them to be smuggled out, for which he received increasingly harsh punishment, endured assignment to hard labor, and suffered degenerating health because of poor conditions and lack of medical treatment.

Thanks largely to pressure from foreign governments and international human rights organizations, Dr. Doan was released and expelled from Vietnam in 1998. He was granted citizenship by the U.S. where, in the last 20 years, he has continued to champion human rights and received numerous awards for his courage, including being named by the International Press Institute as one of its “50 World Press Freedom Heroes of the 20th century. After two years as a scholar-in-residence at Catholic University of America, he retired and now resides in the Washington, D.C. area.

The Nature of Heroes

When FEE’s Lawrence Reed, the editor of this series, asked me to write about Dr. Doan Viet Hoat, my first thought was that I think of him more as a role model than a hero. I can certainly attest to having learned a great deal from Dr. Doan in all the times we’ve sat down for conversations about life, people, politics, and society in the U.S. as well as in Vietnam. But perhaps because of the culture and history of my native Vietnam, I confess to being a little allergic to the word “hero.”

Their actions make society better, more human, more loving, more caring, and more compassionate. The Vietnamese people have heard a lot of hero stories. Some were true, and many were simply made up by the government or some sympathetic group. Furthermore, I think that to be a hero requires extra effort and responsibility to save a country from an external force that wants to erase that country’s culture, economy, history, or race. This very high standard for hero status explains why many people in our society have helped in various ways to save lives but do not view those actions as necessarily rising to “heroic.” But certainly, this is a point over which good people can reasonably disagree.

This I know for sure: Dr. Doan is a well-known and much-appreciated advocate of freedom and democracy for Vietnam. It is my honor to know him as my role model.

Role models in our society come from many sectors such as business, entertainment, sports, religion, and politics. In my view, the best of them share this about their daily lives: Their actions make society better, more human, more loving, more caring, and more compassionate — and by choice, actions and habit, not by force.

Dr. Doan is a role model who came from an environment no one wants to be in. He was in prison twice for a quarter of his life, not because he violated the laws or hurt someone, but because he spoke for the truth. He expressed his opinion. He supported liberty and human rights. No one, even a dictator, can legitimately take away a person’s freedom of thought or his freedom of expression.

An Exemplar of Compassion

And in Dr. Doan’s case, the prison cell did not prevent him from fighting for what he believes. In fact, prison only made him stronger. It made him resolve to commit his entire life to human rights and liberty—and not just for himself but for others, for the Vietnamese people, and for the oppressed anywhere.

Imprisonment simply focused his attention on the importance of liberty.

Even in prison during those two decades, Dr. Doan taught fellow inmates to understand liberty, love, compassion, and responsibility. In spite of what he’s been through, he did not and does not express hate of any kind. His vision for society is about people respecting each other. To even the prison guards, who were duty-bound to harass him, he “turned the other cheek.”

This gentleness and desire to help others come naturally to him. It was on display for many to see as early as 1965 when he participated in student relief activities to help flood victims in Vietnam. Imprisonment simply focused his attention on the importance of liberty as the best way people can be helped. In the Buddhist view, this is his Karma.

The communist government of Vietnam thought that expelling Dr. Doan would stop his influence. Many Vietnamese who live overseas also thought when Dr. Doan was expelled that he would no longer be an effective fighter for liberty; some thought he might simply retire quietly. They all were wrong. With the support of his wife and his children, he continues to fight for what he believes. He works hard to help others to continue to fight for liberty and human rights in Vietnam.

Dr. Doan’s treatment by the Vietnam government did not prevent him from acknowledging its improvements in more recent years, nor have those improvements prompted him to give up on the hope to achieve so much more. In a 2005 speech at Johns Hopkins University, he made his views clear:

It is true that Vietnam has made some progress…What needs to be emphasized is another simple fact: Vietnam is better today because it is freer. Freedom is functional [i.e., essential] to progress and development. Vietnam will advance faster in a more balanced and sustainable manner if the people have freedom in all areas of social life, not just in the economy, and [if] the government is more accountable to the people.

Many Vietnamese have little hope for their future, but Dr. Doan works tirelessly to change that with his defense of liberty. For more than half a century, he has worked to make his native country a better, freer place. This is why for me, he is a role model and a very special one at that.

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Mexican Cities Are Escaping Corruption and the Cartels through Secession

I’m sometimes accused of being too radical, though I take that as a compliment (including the time a British journalist wrote that I was “a high priest of light tax, small state libertarianism”).

In reality, I’m actually a moderate. I don’t want to eliminate all government, just the 90 percent that is ineffective or counterproductive. 

As a result, some of my friends accuse me of being a squish, which is probably a fair characterization since I only scored a 94 out of 160 on Professor Bryan Caplan’s Libertarian Purity Quiz.

In my defense, I say let’s get rid of all the programs and departments that clearly shouldn’t exist (such as TransportationHousing and Urban DevelopmentEducationEnergy, and Agriculture), and then we can have a fun discussion of whether the private sector can take over things like roads, policing, and the military.

And it does seem that many so-called public goods actually can be handled by the market. I’ve written about private roads and private money, for instance, but the example that really caught my attention was the private, church-run city in Nigeria.

And the New York Times has a fascinating story about similar developments in Mexico.

Fifteen-foot stone turrets are staffed by men whose green uniforms belong to no official force. Beyond them, a statue of an avocado bears the inscription “avocado capital of the world.” And beyond the statue is Tancítaro, an island of safety and stability amid the most violent period in Mexico’s history. Local orchard owners, who export over $1 million in avocados per day, mostly to the United States, underwrite what has effectively become an independent city-state. Self-policing and self-governing, it is a sanctuary from drug cartels as well as from the Mexican state. …Tancítaro represents a quiet but telling trend in Mexico, where a handful of towns and cities are effectively seceding, partly or in whole. These are acts of desperation, revealing the degree to which Mexico’s police and politicians are seen as part of the threat.

I can’t resist commenting that the reporters should have written that police and politicians “are the threat” rather than “are seen as part of the threat.”

The Mexican government is a grim example of the “stationary bandit” in action.

Anyhow, back to our story about de facto secession and privatization.

Such enclaves…you will find a pattern. Each is a haven of relative safety amid violence, suggesting that their diagnosis of the problem was correct. …The central government has declined to reimpose control, the researchers believe, for fear of drawing attention to the town’s lesson that secession brings safety.

Tancítaro is not the only example of a quasi-private town.

Rather than ejecting institutions, Monterrey’s business elite quietly took them over… C.E.O.s would now oversee one of the most central functions of government. …they circumvented the bureaucracy and corruption that had bogged down other police reform efforts. Crime dropped citywide. Community leaders in poorer areas reported safer streets and renewed public trust… Monterrey’s experience offered still more evidence that in Mexico, violence is only a symptom; the real disease is in government. The corporate takeover worked as a sort of quarantine.

Wow, who would have imagined the New York Times would ever have a story stating that “the real disease is in government.”

Sadly, the story goes on to say traditional politicians are now regaining control in Monterrey, so the period of good governance is coming to an end.

In an ideal world, the central government would allow towns to formally secede, and those towns could then contract to have private management. But that’ll never happen since politicians wouldn’t want real-world examples showing the superiority of markets over government.

For now, we’ll have to settle for ad hoc and unofficial secession and privatization.

P.S. We can also hope that Liberland succeeds.

P.P.S. While today’s topic is de facto secession of local governments, my support for decentralization makes me sympathetic to regional secession. See, for example, Scotland, Liechtenstein, California, Italy, Belgium, and Ukraine.

P.P.P.S. I did once write about the “libertarian paradise of Argentina,” but that was mostly in jest.

Reprinted from International Liberty.

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“Let People Be Free” – Lawrence Reed Interviewed in Brazil

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