Interview With Lawrence Reed
Interview with Lawrence Reed conducted by Bradley Hunt on the 7th of March 2021
Mr. Lawrence Reed is President Emeritus of not one, but two think tanks: The Foundation for Economic Education and the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He taught at Northwood University between 1977 and 1984 and served as the chairman for the Department of economics, designed the dual major in economics and business management, and even founded their annual Freedom Seminar. He received an honorary doctorate in public administration at Central Michigan University and an honorary doctorate of laws at Northwood University. In 1993, he was appointed by Governor Engler to the Headlee Amendment Blue Ribbon Commission and named to the Secchia Commission on Total Quality Government where he worked toward responsible spending and efficient governance. Among other accomplishments, he is also a prolific journalist and author, writing for seventy-eight countries and publishing several books. Mr. Reed has done almost exactly what I dream of doing.
Origin Story and Motivations (how you became the man you are)
Why do you enjoy the study of economics and when did you realize you wanted a career in it?
My interest in individual liberty pre-dates my study of economics. In my early teens, I was interested in history and current events. That prompted me to take notice of the “Prague Spring” developments in Czechoslovakia in early 1968. I cheered on the Czechs as they pushed for greater freedom from the communist regime and its puppet masters in Moscow. Then when the Soviets invaded the country in August 1968 to put an end to liberalization, I was outraged. One thing led me to another but by the end of that year, I was regularly reading books and articles from the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), never thinking of course that I would some day become president of it. The more I read, the more I was drawn to economics because it explains more of what happens in the world that perhaps any other science. I learned of a famous economics professor at a college only an hour from me (Dr. Hans Sennholz at Grove City College in Pennsylvania) and decided that was where I wanted to pursue an economics degree after high school. As a young man, Dr. Sennholz saw the tyranny of socialism under Hitler first-hand, and he later earned a PhD. under the tutelage of world-famous Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises — so both my underlying love of liberty and my newfound interest in economics blossomed under his instruction.
Upon graduation from Grove City College, my first choice for a career was to become a commodity futures broker but when my applications for employment at a couple brokerage houses were rejected, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in history with a minor in economics. That would allow me to further my economics knowledge and pursue my love of history at the same time. My goal then became to earn a Master’s and then find a place to teach. That place was Northwood University, where I taught from 1977 to 1984.
My involvement with the Foundation for Economic Education deepened during these years, as I became a writer and a speaker for the Foundation in addition to my full-time teaching duties at Northwood. After seven years of teaching, I accepted an offer to be president of an economic policy think tank in Idaho in 1984. Then I moved back to Michigan in 1987 to accept the job as president of a newly-formed economic policy think tank there, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. I served in that capacity for 21 years before accepting the job of president of the Foundation for Economic Education in 2008, from which I semi-retired to the president emeritus role in 2019.
I’ve always enjoyed the study of economics, especially when I can combine it with history, because I have been able to put it to good use in two other areas of my life: writing and speaking. I credit my ability to write and speak on economic and history topics with much of the success I’ve had in life, especially the opportunities to lead think tanks.
What made you choose to be a writer and work for a think tank?
I am first and foremost an advocate for ideas of liberty, which economics (and history too) illuminates greatly. I am passionate that peaceful humans should be free from arbitrary interference so long as they do no harm to others. Understanding economics helps one make this case because economics explains the miracle of the marketplace, how voluntary interactions give rise to prices, why incentives matter, how wealth is created, etc.
I’ve had an interest in writing for as long as I can remember, perhaps because it’s such an important means of advocacy and communication. Nobody in my family has ever been a writer, so I can’t credit the impulse to a parent or relative. I guess it was just obvious to me from an early age that if you want to influence other people, you have to communicate in both the written and spoken word. Because I was such an avid reader from the earliest grades, I think I developed writing skills by observing how good writers wrote. Then around age 16 I started writing letters to the editor for my hometown newspaper. I think the first few were not well-written but I got better with practice.
When I taught economics at Northwood University from 1977 to 1984, I came to believe that teaching in some capacity would be my career. It didn’t occur to me that running a think tank would be another way to do that but when the opportunity first presented itself, I quickly discovered that I liked it. It allowed me to continue teaching (in public forums and seminars, not so much in conventional classrooms) and it made me realize that I had some people and management skills that helped me succeed. The bottom line is this: Running think tanks gave me opportunities to run my own show, so to speak, and ultimately reach far more people with the message of individual liberty than I could reach as a college professor.
How did you become a good leader and develop good character?
My father was a good example — honest, hard-working, responsible and always fair and considerate toward others. So that was a good start. I also read Dale Carnegie’s classic, “How To Win Friends and Influence People,” at an early age and that had lasting impact. By far, though, the two biggest factors in developing my personal character were 1) my best friend and senior vice president at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Joe Overton, who was a sterling example of solid character; and 2) my increasing devotion to the teachings of Christ.
As far as becoming a good leader, I try to learn a lot by observing. The successful management style of President Reagan, coming on the heels of the unsuccessful style of Jimmy Carter, greatly influenced me as well. Reagan had immense Emotional Intelligence, Jimmy Carter had little. Reagan knew how to attract and keep good people, Carter did not. People skills aren’t inherited. They can be learned if one wants to learn and is observant. That’s why I recommend the best self-improvement books such as Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends…” and Olivia Cabane’s “The Charisma Myth” as well as books on emotional intelligence. I am more convinced every day that having emotional intelligence in abundance is one of the primary keys to success in building organizations and managing people.
Life Path (how you succeeded)
Has there been a time when you did something wrong that you were ashamed of? How did you use that experience to improve yourself?
Never a big thing, but certainly lots of small ones: being vindictive after firing a bad employee, failing to show gratitude sufficiently when someone did something good for me are two examples. I try at all times to be as introspective (self-examining or self-critical) as possible so when I discover these things, I very consciously work to prevent repeating them. Ask forgiveness, both of the person you’ve wronged and of the Creator whose rules you’ve broken, and then do your best to learn from your mistakes and not repeat them: You can’t do much better than that.
How did you begin working for a think tank? Once you were hired in, how did you rise into the presidency?
In the case of think tanks I was president of in Michigan and Idaho, I was hired as the president right from the start, so I didn’t work my way up. I guess I had proven myself sufficiently in other endeavors to be hired as a president. Personally, I like responsibility. I have always been more comfortable running something than in being lower in the pecking order. I like being in charge, but my management style as I’ve suggested above is not imperious or excessively hierarchical. I am not afraid of making tough decisions but I like managing a superb team that I’ve assembled more by consensus than by barking orders.
In the case of FEE (hired as president in 2008 and served in that capacity for 11 years), my association with the organization by that point was longstanding. I was first an avid reader of its publications (starting in 1968), then later an author and speaker for the organization, then a regular monthly columnist, then a member of the board of trustees, then chairman of the board of trustees. So by the time I was chosen as president, I had already held the other important positions within the organization, even as I was employed full-time elsewhere.
What steps did you take to get your writings published? How does one make money writing about economics and public policy?
By the mid-70s, I was keen on getting published and set my sights primarily on getting published by the Foundation for Economic Education at first. But I had 4 or 5 articles rejected before my first acceptance, so I had to learn from each experience to get better. As I got better as a writer, I was able to get more acceptances in more places, then when I wrote my first book, more doors started to open. But I could never make a living by doing only writing; that’s something that relatively few people can do. I’ve always had full-time jobs that allowed me time to either write as part of that job, or time on my own to write on the side. Few publications pay well but it certainly pays to develop a niche, that is, a specialty that people will look for you to fill. In my case, that’s often economics or history or a combination.
The Role of Language in Your Story (relating your story to the Hayakawas’ Language in Thought and Action)
Individuals are often stuck in a two-value orientation where they envision only two options, whether it be good or bad, democrat or republican, American or foreigner, etc. How do you communicate in a way that opens people up to the possibility of a multi-value orientation where there are now more options to choose form and more ways to see the world?
The best answer I can provide to this question is to refer you to an article I wrote in 2013. The link is: https://fee.org/articles/advancing-liberty-in-2014-ten-rules-of-thumb/. Feel free to excerpt from that as you see fit.
What strategies have you used to build the rapport necessary to obtain the positions you held?
I try to be a good judge of character because hiring for character is more important than hiring for expertise. A person of good character is teachable and can grow. A person of lousy character, no matter how much they know, is poison sooner or later. This often means taking time to hire right, check references, do thorough interviews, etc.
Once you hire good people, give them responsibility and support. Don’t do their job for them. Hold them accountable by agreeing on goals, being transparent and forthright, and the being a good cheerleader.
Affective connotations are necessary to communicate emotional information and to motivate readers. But journalism seems to be infected with distortions of all kinds such as the overuse of emotional writing. In your writing, how do you maintain a responsible balance between fact and feeling?
I try not to advance an opinion that isn’t just a knee-jerk view but that is well-supported by logic and example. I do considerable research for most topics I write about, and cite other authors appropriately. I try to show empathy for the situations others find themselves in. I don’t regard myself as the center of the universe, which is why I am increasingly turned off by Objectivists and Objectivism. If I make an emotional appeal, it is almost never emotional exclusively; I accompany it with a reasoned case based on facts, logic and experience.
Advice and the Future (anything else you would like to say)
You might find useful insights from this interview, which you should feel free to excerpt as you see fit:
How can I follow in your footsteps and still follow my own path in life?
Definitely you should put a priority on setting your own path. No two people are exactly alike. But some truths are inescapable, such as these: Keep your character high (you’ll never regret it), and it will open doors you never foresaw. Be introspective. Learn all you can. Keep your priorities in proper order. Be disciplined. Be optimistic. Don’t let a setback discourage you; instead, make it a learning experience. Remember that diamonds are never polished with soft cloths.
Though I’ve written a lot about the importance of character, this piece probably sums it all up better than anything (feel free to excerpt): https://fee.org/articles/what-does-the-world-need-more-of/.
Also, if you wish, I would be happy to be an unofficial “mentor” for you in coming months and years. You are always welcome to visit and spend some time here in Georgia. Looking back decades, I know there were times when I later wished a person I respected had given me more of their time and advice, so I am always eager to make sure I don’t fall short in this area. There are so many things I could tell an interested person about lessons I’ve learned in life that I can’t possibly put them all down in writing, or express them in writing the same way as I can in person, so keep my invitation in mind. Over the years, I have very much enjoyed the time I’ve spent with younger people who truly want to learn and do their best, and that offer is hereby extended to you too!
Also, don’t neglect your spiritual life. I had times in the past when I thought everything else was more important but I know now that when you realize there’s something bigger than yourself, that you have a loving Creator, it makes all the difference in the world in so many ways.
You have done a lot in life, but you are not done yet. What are your plans?
At any given time, I seem to have a list of at least 20 subjects I want to research and write about. So I expect to be writing a lot of articles for as long as I can. Perhaps a few more books too. I also am interested in doing more short travels for purely education reasons, and have begun doing that in recent months (such as to museums and historic sites). I don’t want to be one-dimensional so I hope to make more time also for other interests, from animals to photography to music. Furthermore, I am quite interested in extraordinary people (hence, my book on “Real Heroes”) so I expect to do more interviews with and writing about heroic people, present and past.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
The answer to the last question in this interview will tell you more about my management style:
Also, my book titled “Are We Good Enough for Liberty?” will provide you with a lot more thoughts on why I think character is so critically important.