Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CEIL by the author from an essay he published in December 2006 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.”
In 25 years of traveling to 70 countries I’ve come across some pretty nasty governments and some darn good people. To be fair I should acknowledge that I’ve also encountered some rotten people and a half-decent government or two. The ghastliest of all worlds is when you have rotten people running nasty governments, a combination that is not by any means in short supply.
Indeed, as Nobel laureate and Austrian economist F. A. Hayek famously explained in The Road to Serfdom, the worst tend to rise to the top of all regimes—yet another reason to keep government small in the first place. “The unscrupulous and uninhibited,” wrote Hayek, “are likely to be more successful” in any society in which government dominates life and the economy. That’s precisely the kind of circumstance that elevates power over persuasion, force over cooperation, arrogance over humility.
So I take special note when I encounter instances of good people working around, in spite of, in opposition to, or simply without a helping hand from, government of any kind. Some might say this betrays an unwarranted bias. But in today’s dominant culture as represented by media elites, university bon vivants, and public-school mandarins, it is not government that gets shortchanged. By their thinking, the capacity of government to meet our needs is virtually limitless. It’s private initiative that gets the shaft. It’s the nonpolitician that is deemed unreliably compassionate, incorrigibly greedy, or hopelessly unorganized.
I offer here two stories of very good people I’ve met on opposite corners of the earth. If either story kindles anyone’s faith in what private initiative can accomplish, it’ll make my day as well as my point.
A man named Nicholas Winton is the centerpiece of the first story. He was a young London stockbroker as war clouds gathered across Europe in 1938-39. A friend convinced him to forgo a Christmas vacation in Switzerland and come to Czechoslovakia instead. Near Prague in December 1938 he was shocked to see Jewish refugees freezing in makeshift camps. Most had been driven from their homes by Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland , the part of Czechoslovakia handed over to Hitler at Munich the previous September.
Winton could have resumed his Swiss vacation, stepping back into the comfortable life he left behind. What could a lone foreigner do to assist so many trapped families? Despite the talk of “peace in our time,” Winton knew that Europe was sliding toward war and time was running out for these desperate people. The next steps he took ultimately saved 669 children from death in Nazi camps.
Victims of a socialist government’s persecution being helped by a stockbroker. Sort of makes mincemeat of Marx’s “class consciousness,” doesn’t it?
The parents were anxious to get their children to safety, even though it would mean sending them off alone. Getting the children to a country that would accept them seemed an impossible challenge. Nicholas Winton didn’t waste a minute. He wrote to governments around the world, pleading for an open door, only to be rejected by every one but two: Sweden and Great Britain . He assembled a small group of volunteers to assist with the effort. Even his mother pitched in.
With 5,000 children on his list, Winton searched for foster homes across Britain. British newspapers published his advertisements to highlight the urgent need for foster parents. When enough homes could be found for a group of children, he submitted the necessary paperwork to the Home Office and assisted his team of volunteers in organizing the rail and ship transportation needed to get the children to Britain . He took the lead in raising the funds to pay for the operation.
The first 20 of “Winton’s children” left Prague on March 14, 1939. Hitler’s troops devoured all of Czechoslovakia the very next day, but Winton’s team kept working, sometimes forging documents to slip the children past the Germans. By the time World War II broke out on September 1 the rescue effort had taken 669 children out of the country in eight separate groups by rail. The last batch of 250 would have been the largest of all, but war prompted the Nazis to stop all departures. Sadly, none of those children lived to see the Allied victory less than six years later. Pitifully few of the parents did either.
Why did Nicholas Winton take on a challenge ignored by almost everyone else? My colleague Ben Stafford and I asked him that very question at his home in Maidenhead, England in July 2006. He was then 97, but looked and spoke with the vigor of someone years younger. “Because it was the thing to do and I thought I could help,” he told us. Today, the “Winton children” plus their children and grandchildren number about 5,000 people. You can learn more about Winton at www.mackinac.org/7872. (Sir Nicholas turned 100 years of age last May.)
I do not have a name for the person who figures at the center of my second story. I met him in war-ravaged Cambodia in August 1989.
In advance of my trip to Southeast Asia, considerable local press attention focused on area doctors who donated medical supplies for me to take to a hospital in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. A woman from a local church who saw the news stories called and explained that a few years before, her church had helped Cambodian families who had escaped from the Khmer Rouge communists and resettled in my town of Midland, Michigan. The families had moved on to other locations in the United States but stayed in touch with the woman who called me and other friends they had made in Midland.
The caller said she had told her Cambodian friends about my pending visit. Each family asked if I would take letters with cash enclosed to their desperately poor relatives in Cambodia . I said yes. Three of the families were in Phnom Penh and easy to find, but one was many miles away in Battambang. That would involve a train ride, some personal risk, and a lot of time it turned out I didn’t have. If I couldn’t locate any of the families, I was to give the cash to any needy Cambodian I could find.
When I realized I wasn’t going to make it to Battambang, I approached a man in tattered clothes in the hotel lobby. I had seen him there a few times before. He always smiled and said hello, and spoke enough English to carry on some short conversations. I told him I had an envelope with a letter and $200 in it, intended for a family in Battambang. I asked him if he could get it to them. “Keep $50 of it if you find them,” I instructed. We said goodbye. I assumed I would never hear anything of what had become of either him or the money.
Several months later I got an excited call from the woman who had originally called me about taking those letters. She said she had just received a letter from the Cambodians in Virginia whose family in Battambang that envelope was intended for. A line in the letter read, “Thank you for the two hundred dollars!”
That poor man found his way to Battambang all right. And he not only didn’t keep the $50 I offered, he somehow found a way to pay for the $10 train ride himself. I doubt that he applied for a federal grant.
The next time somebody tells me we can put our faith in politicians who spend other people’s money, I will tell them about what these two people did with their own.