Among the freedom fighters

By Stephen Bowen | Aug 29, 2009

The two weeks I recently spent in Washington, D.C. was the longest period of time I have ever been away from my wife and kids, but the pain of this was made easier to bear by the small group of people with which I lived and worked during that time. They were people from all over the world who were, in their own nations, waging a fight for freedom and liberty against the forces of tyranny and statism. I was proud to be among them.

All of us came to Washington to be part of a training program established by the Atlas Economic Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that specializes in establishing public policy research centers, both here in the United States and abroad, that are dedicated to advancing limited government, free markets and individual liberty.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center, where I work, shares these aims, so I joined the program, which was designed to help think tanks like ours adopt good business practices. I was joined there by staff members from four other U.S.-based think tanks, all of which share the same limited-government goals as the Maine Heritage Policy Center and all of which are fairly well established.

The five of us were accompanied in this effort by men and women from like-minded think tanks from around the world, most of whom face far greater obstacles in their pursuit of freedom and liberty than we do. Whether from Africa, Latin America, Central Europe or Asia, they all faced the task of speaking out for limited government and free markets in nations with little tradition of either. Worse still, they often faced stiff and sometimes dangerous opposition for doing so.

A young Nepalese woman named Samyukta, for instance, spoke of how her organization’s offices are routinely visited by the ruling Maoist government, which keeps a careful watch on organizations like hers. Tobias, a Tanzanian, described his efforts to establish a free-market think tank in a country rich with natural resources but suffering from decades of a socialist collectivism that has made Tanzania one of the poorest nations in the world. The delegation from South America expressed grave concern over the rising influence of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, whose corrupt politics and oppression of free speech threaten freedom in the entire region. They described how they are forced to host the Web sites for their organizations outside their home countries, out of concern that government forces might attempt to shut them down.

All of this may make our efforts to resist creeping statism here at home seem pedestrian by comparison, but not to the foreigners at this conference. To them, that the United States seems headed down the same path their own countries once followed – a path of dramatically higher taxes, increased government control over the economy and growing threats to individual liberty – is tragic.

They were shocked to hear, for instance, about the Obama administration’s recent request that Americans report “fishy” e-mails from their friends and neighbors to a special White House office. Having the government “keep track of disinformation,” as White House communications director Linda Douglass put it, by turning neighbor against neighbor and compiling secret lists of Americans for uses unknown struck them as something more likely to be found in many of their own countries. That such blatant government threats to free speech could happen here was a crushing disappointment to them.

Why? Because to them, the United States is a model and an inspiration. Its individual liberty and freedoms made it entrepreneurial and risk-taking, and its market economy and limited government made it rich and prosperous. As a result, it has provided a higher standard of living and more personal freedom to more people than any nation in history. Now, however, those that rule the country want the government to run the nation’s health care system and much of the remaining economy besides, want to force unionization and far greater government control over the workplace, and want to use the apparatus of the state to stifle free speech.

We joked with our friends from abroad that perhaps the freedom movements in their own countries had more to teach us than we had to teach them.

On one of the last days of the program, the group traveled to the Jefferson Memorial, where, away from the classroom for the first time in days, we were able to reflect on Jefferson’s admonition that “the sum of good government” could be simply defined as “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

The Obama administration and its allies, including a compliant congressional delegation from Maine that refuses to hold town hall meetings with constituents, wants a government very different than that envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, a fact that was not lost on this little group of freedom fighters from abroad.

My time with them was sobering but hopeful. I wish them the best of luck advancing freedom in their home countries, and for my colleagues in the American think tanks, we clearly have far more work to do.
Comments (1)
Posted by: Joseph Tassi | Aug 29, 2009 14:57

The Jefferson quote you use in your latest assualt on linear thinking is swell. However, the Jeffersonian ideal of individuals restraining from injuring one another, regulating their own pursuits of industry seems to have been lost on the Military Industrial Complex, Big Tobacco, the Health Care and Insurance Industries, Oil and coal (the Rockefellers sent in U.S troops to break up mining strikes by using deadly force)Wall Street, and the numerous think tank groups that advocate American corporate imperialism.

The malignant growth that has invaded the selective reasoning process of the Maine Heritage Policy Center is disturbing, leaving me with only one alternative, and that is to eliminate that influence on my life by no longer reading your column but not first without offering you forgiveness, and then forgiving myself for my own ignorance.

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