Truth Shines Clearest When Times Are Darkest
Forty years ago, in April 1973, the world lost Baldy Harper. Recently, a devoted FEE supporter and Freeman
reader reached out to share the following eulogy by Charles Koch, which can now be found here
The eulogy is simple, beautiful, and offers a sketch of people whose lives were intertwined for the sake of liberty long ago.
I say “long ago” because I was born in 1973. And as I continue sliding toward my fortieth year kicking and squirming, I am increasingly interested in those who paved the way for us to be here. I’m fascinated by their lives and work. In reflecting on their reflections, as with this eulogy, I can’t help but be drawn into a kind of pensive recursion. After all, past, present, and future are woven together in time’s braid, which we cling to for as long as we can.
As I grow older, I’m more aware that we’re all inheritors of a great tradition, one upon which we, too, are building in layers, like a coral reef. In the process of building upon our tradition, we can sometimes forget it’s there. We can obsess about objectives or goals without properly venerating the past.
Harper is well known for founding the Institute for Humane Studies
in the 1960s. But fewer recall he worked with FEE for many years, starting in 1946. What must things have been like with such luminaries working together over those years? Baldy Harper, Leonard Read, Henry Hazlitt—people we often forget—were drawing from and building upon a scaffolding built by greats before them.
Harper was neither stuck in the past nor obsessed about movement objectives. Instead he thought of libertarian work as “a pleasure that amounts to almost constant recreation.” Harper found flow. He relished the moment-to-moment joy of working for liberty in the now—all without forgetting the past or failing to have a vision. And in living, we can only wonder at what Harper managed to create in his life.
At the risk of expressing a little bit of disappointment in those of us working today, I want to talk for a moment about the present state of affairs in the liberty movement.
Consider, by way of contrast, how Harper articulates the foundations of his libertarianism:
There is a force in the universe which no mortal can alter which rules over the affairs of human conduct, call this force God or call it natural law, the golden rule and the Decalogue provide the basic moral codes for man's conduct.
Whatever you call this, whether it is secular, religious or genetic in origin, it animates us. (I can’t help but note the similarities to the way Leonard Read grounded his own worldview
Today we have a larger movement. But we also see many more internecine conflicts and fracturing—a kind of perpetual one-upmanship that keeps a lot of brilliant minds running basically in place. Facebook is like a virtual Panopticon of the liberty movement. Daily, one finds talented people wasting time and movement resources on arguments about how liberty is to be grounded, whether it can be grounded, or which philosophical justification or that does the job that will finally allow us to go into the world as missionaries. And at this rate, it will take an eternity. Those minding the Temple of Liberty these days might as well be arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. There is a sense in which before we answer such questions, no one is allowed to try anything of consequence.
And the world keeps turning. And the state keeps growing. Otherwise, we contribute to the whitepaper-industrial complex.
I can say all of this without hesitation, because I too have engaged in esoteric arguments and churned out whitepapers that did no earthly good. (And I might do so again if the Complex pays me. Remember that, funders.) Ultimately, we’re all committed to this thing. And we’re losing ground as we argue, snipe, and waste time as the world turns.
When I look at what our forebears did in this movement, I am motivated to take the best of what they did, to build on their foundations, and to think of every opportunity to move the needle for liberty as being precious, of every dollar we spend as being potentially impactful. This, of course, requires the virtue of unselfishness, too.
Baldy Harper, like other happy warriors, did not fear death. He thought, “The range of action of a freed soul or spirit can thus be compared to one's imagination.” In some strange way, I think most of us are more afraid of the death of liberty than our own deaths. I’m sure Baldy was—especially after living through the astonishing inhumanity that disfigured much of the first half of the twentieth century.
Harper reminded us,
Truth has a way of cutting through the dominant mass of ignorance and deletion like a light in the darkness, and in times like the present, we should remember the truth shines clearest and penetrates farthest when times are darkest.
Harper’s beacon will guide us into an uncertain future. And while we may get tripped up from time to time in the clumsy process of coalescence, our movement will continue to mature, and we will eventually find ourselves and our way. Such will require us, each as individuals, to commit to a life of integrity, of constant entrepreneurial alertness
, and to cultivating a peaceful disposition as we interact with others. Harper showed us how. Indeed, if Baldy Harper could have looked into the future, he would be very happy with what he helped set in motion.
Postscript: Koch’s lovely eulogy says as much about its author as its subject, despite what you read in the New Yorker.