Dante said in the Divine Comedy that “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who remain neutral in time of great moral crisis.” For those of us who understand the dangers of collectivism and its growth in America during the 20th century and especially now, the time of great moral crisis is upon us NOW. However, among those aware of the dangers of omnipotent government, there are two kinds of people.
One has grown weary or apathetic of the fight for freedom and compromised with the dominant ideas of the day. They include many prominent libertarians and conservatives as well as organizations that promise to “defend our rights” while conceding the argument that “some” rights should be limited. Some of them have gained fame, fortune, and success, and claimed that “compromise” with the other side is necessary because “idealism” and “radical ideas” will never be the “practical” thing to do.
However, there is a second, smaller group of individuals who recognize that, as Ayn Rand said, “In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.” They realize that in the process of compromising with their opponents, they concede that statists have a point, that maybe the government really does have the right to interfere in our lives, and the question is only how much of our lives the government may run for “the social good.” This second group recognizes that the problem with conservatives is that they can only say “slow down!” on the road to serfdom. By compromise, they may gain all sorts of recognition and win the battle, but inevitably, they lose the war because they betray their own side.
There is an even smaller group of intellectuals among those who refuse to compromise with evil. These are people for whom the fight for freedom is not a burden but a joy. Many of them are alienated and belittled by their fellow intellectuals, lose opportunities for prestigious academic positions, have a hard time getting their books published, and are frequently lambasted as “radicals” by the media. However, they generally manage to live happy and successful lives and rarely, if ever, complain of their fate. I believe that the distinguishing feature of such men and women is that they care about ideas – they believe that what is True and Good is True and Good no matter how unpopular it is and no matter how much misfortune their views give them. As one jailed Soviet dissident said “I cannot do otherwise.” Not all of them are right, and in fact many of them differ with me on many views, but all of them believe that life is only worth living when it is lived on one’s own terms — or as Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
If I were to worship anyone or anything in this world, it is these men and women that I would worship and proudly call my heroes. Their greatness comes not from their willingness to make great sacrifices or act with unusual bravery, as society tells us, but simply to life every day of their lives with the proud motto that ideas matter. They wont think twice about sacrificing worldly success, material values, or even their lives for that they believe in: for them it is not a sacrifice but the preservation of the only terms they are willing to live their lives by. As Howard Roark said in The Fountainhead when he acted on principle and forfeited a major commission, that is “the most selfish thing you’ve ever seen a man do.”
These men are not just an abstract ideal: there are many examples of them in real life. I would like to recognize one you might not have heard of: Ludwig von Mises. I think Mises the best and most dedicated defender of classical liberalism of the 20th century. He developed his idea in a climate of increasing state worship and socialist revolution across the world. He staunchly defended laissez faire economics during a period of growing government involvement in every level, and wrote his epic, Human Action, shortly after the world was getting out of a the Great Depression and into a major world war, as government was being accepted as the cure to every social and economic problem. He lost out prestigious university positions and had trouble printing his epic work when Keynesianism “proved” him wrong. Most of his former students turned away from his ideas and told him that he was his own worst enemy, and that everything he published was only hurting his career. As Lew Rockwell says, “Mises was surely aware that he was not advancing himself, and that every manuscript he produced, every book that came to print, was harming his career ever more. But he didn’t back off. Instead he chose to do the rarest thing of all in academia: he chose to tell the truth regardless of the cost, regardless of the trends, regardless of how it would play with the powers that be.”
Mises prevailed. He gained a small but growing following of new intellectuals who saw the truth in his views. The Mises Institute, established after his death, has been a major success, placing many free-market economists in university positions and becoming a major source of economic research, education, and support for free – market economists. Certainly neither Mises nor the Mises Institute are right on all the issues, but you will never find such dedication to ideas among the nihilistic and pragmatic liberals of today.
So here is my tribute to heroes. I hope I can live up to my heroes by living according to my own ideals and never forgetting that ideas matter.