The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey

In 1999, I attended the meetings of the Mont Pelerin Society in Vancouver. People had come from all around the world to this august association founded by economist Friedrich Hayek to meet with their ideological soulmates, their fellow believers in freedom. At the opening banquet, the president of the society, Ramon Diaz, was introduced as someone who had been imprisoned in Uruguay for his pro-freedom views. That information got the attention of many of us in the room. When Ramon Diaz got up to speak, I noticed people leaning forward in anticipation to hear from someone who was arguably a libertarian hero. How, I wondered, did he get thrown in prison? Was it for speaking out on some issue? What was it like being in prison? Then Ramon Diaz launched into his speech about the future of freedom and told no personal stories. Not one. My attention wandered as, I noticed, did that of many people in the room. What a missed opportunity, I thought, and one of many such missed opportunities.

I've believed in freedom since about age 17, and over my 34 years since then, I've known lots of people, famous and otherwise, who have great stories to tell. I've loved hearing their stories. Sometimes their stories are about a battle for freedom they fought, with words or deeds or both. Sometimes their stories are about particular government oppressions they experienced or witnessed. Sometimes their stories are about particular ways in which freedom has benefited them or others.

Although many of these people are great storytellers, they seem rarely to tell their stories in front of large audiences and almost never tell their stories in print. The one major print counterexample I can think of is Leonard Read's fictitious story, written in 1958, called "I, Pencil." In it, Read takes the persona of a pencil, explaining all the steps needed to make the pencil, pointing out that no person in the world can do all these steps, and pointing that the division of labor created by a free economy not only makes this happen, but also leads to high-quality pencils that cost only a few cents each. That essay has been reprinted numerous times and I have given it to 10-year olds, 30-year olds and 50-year olds to read. They all "get it" in various degrees, and I'm convinced it's because it's a dramatic story.

That's why I wrote The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey. No one I know of who believes in freedom has written a book that makes the case for freedom in a personal way. Yet the vast majority of people resonate to messages that have a personal component. We love stories about how people learned various things from their life experiences. I notice this in the classes I teach, the speeches I give, and the articles I write. People often remember a larger principle or concept by relating it to the story told that illustrates it. People also love to observe conflict; they like to see physical or verbal battles between good and evil in which good triumphs, or at least gets the last word. I believe that the market is due, indeed overdue, for a book that contains dramatic personal stories and stories about conflict whose message is pro-freedom. The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey is that book.

Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, who read the book from cover to cover, had this to say:

The Joy of Freedom is a quasi-autobiographical clarion call for a free society. It is passionate and eloquent, yet at the same time, thoughtful, informed, and profound. A splendid statement of the moral case for a free society, at the same time it is an informed and comprehensive survey of its practical virtues and of the harm done by widespread government intervention.

Shelby Steele, author of A Dream Deferred: the Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America, writes, of The Joy of Freedom:

If you think, as I did, that economics is a tedious and finally impenetrable subject, this is the book for you. It is a can’t-put-it-down read that engages you in story and events even as it educates. Here economic principles are not dry theories; they are events in Henderson’s life. And we come to root for him as he struggles to see through one economic commonplace after another. I congratulate him on a fine achievement.

Robert Crandall, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes:

David Henderson provides a delightful personal narrative of a libertarian’s lifelong journey through the maze of modern government policy. He demonstrates how straightforward economic reasoning can expose the multitude of fallacies that are used to justify government’s role in the economy — in matters as diverse as modern environmental policy and the military draft. This is a must read for non-economists and particularly for those who obtain most of their information from The New York Times, National Public Radio, or CBS Evening News.

And Forbes columnist Dan Seligman calls The Joy of Freedom, "A dazzling intellectual memoir, a high-level lesson in market economics, a terrific read."

Many of my own stories are about my attempts to understand the world through experience, conversation, and reading. In Chapter 5, you'll read about the manager of a large business with whom my school-teacher father argued with, and of how I discovered that private property rights could protect us from his wrath. In Chapter 8, I describe the incredible bounty created by free markets and how this bounty has affected my life and the lives of those around me. Chapter 1 recounts a debate I had as a teenager with a former vice-president of the United States. Early in my education as an economist, I got to be an intern with President Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers. In Chapter 12, I tell of that experience and others that led me to believe that most government most of the time wreaks incredible destruction on people's lives and is completely unaccountable for it.

I also tell stories from later in my life, after I had become a policy economist, of interactions with Nobel laureates Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and George Stigler, with former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers, and with Ralph Nader, to name a few. In Chapter 6, for example, I tell of a hearing at which I testified in favor of a Reagan administration proposal to let hundreds of women knit ski caps in their home for profit after the Department of Labor had tried to shut them down. Chapter 2 recounts an interview I conducted with Ralph Nader, in which Nader, who made his reputation as a critic of unsafe cars, defended federal laws that kill thousands of people a year. And in Chapter 16, I relate my experiences and those of others that have convinced me that government schooling is a failure.

My stories about others tend to focus on people who had a clear insight while young or who carried out courageous acts in the battle for freedom. In Chapter 10, I tell of my economist friend, Francois Melese, who, as a teenage volunteer, saw incredible poverty in Nicaragua in the early 1970s and gradually figured out what caused it and how it could be ended. In Chapter 4, I introduce Walter Oi, who, as a young blind economist in the 1960s, and with no personal stake in the issue, did some seminal work showing that military conscription is inefficient and should be abolished.

I also tell important stories from history that put well-known events in a completely new perspective. Many people have heard of the Detroit race riot in 1964, but few know how that riot started. Chapter 7 tells how, and it will surprise you. Chapter 7 also points out an important fact about the famous bus in which Rosa Parks refused to sit.

These are just a sliver of the stories that are told in greater detail in this book. But I want to end with one that I tell in my preface to The Joy of Freedom. One of the most famous and exciting pieces of music ever is the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which uses as its text the poem "Ode to Joy," by German poet Friedrich von Schiller. Schiller had originally written the poem as an ode to freedom, and wherever the word "freude" (joy) appears in the known version, Schiller had first written "freiheit" (freedom). To satisfy the Prussian censor, though, Schiller replaced "freedom" with "joy," probably in full knowledge that his readers would know what he really meant. Then, on Christmas Eve 1989, just a few weeks after the Berlin Wall came down, Leonard Bernstein celebrated the Berliners' freedom by conducting Beethoven's symphony, having the chorus use the original "freiheit" instead of "freude." Appropriate, don't you think?

March 12, 2002