A Virtue We Must Cultivate

by Lawrence W. Reed

The following article was originally published in Speak Freely’s ‘Roaring Twenties’ print edition, created for Students For Liberty’s LibertyCon Europe 2022. The event was held in Prague, Czechia on 23rd/24th April 2022.

“If the battle for civilization comes down to the wimps versus the barbarians,” wrote economist Thomas Sowell, “the barbarians are going to win.”

The truth of Sowell’s observation should be more apparent today than when he wrote it nearly a decade ago. The barbarians have removed their sheep’s clothing and their fangs are sparkling in the moonlight. 

I refer to the enemies of liberty, the statists who work night and day to insert the iron fist of government into our lives at every opportunity. They demand more of our property. They insist that our children enroll in their indoctrination factories. They foist unconscionable debt on generations yet unborn. They demonize the productive and successful as they applaud and subsidize some of the worst behaviors in our midst. They want to take charge of our healthcare, our employment, our retirement — in short, our lives from cradle to grave. And they lie without shame to achieve their ends, because to them, truth and liberty are obsolete. 

Even long-cherished pillars of Western Civilization such as speech, press and religion are under assault. Cancel culture and censorship are right out of the barbarian playbook. 

George Orwell warned us of the barbarian vision: “a boot stamping on a human face, forever.” It’s a world where we all do as we’re told because the self-anointed believe they know what’s best for us. Meantime, they line their pockets, stroke their egos, and flush our freedoms down the drain. If we roll over and let them win, it may be a very long time before liberty re-emerges. 

Congratulations for choosing to get involved with a liberty-loving organization devoted to 1) battling the barbarians; and 2) offering a positive, alternative vision. We cannot win the future without both of those approaches. But there is also one more element I urge upon you: Courage! Lots of it.

In a 1937 book, Winston Churchill noted the importance of courage. It is “rightly esteemed the first of human qualities,” he wrote, “because it is the quality which guarantees all others.” People afraid to speak truth to power will sooner or later forfeit their freedom to those who crave power. Indeed, anything of value is in danger of being lost if people are not prepared to defend it. 

To develop courage, I urge you to read about men and women who had it and made a difference in the world because they did.

In 404 A.D. as the Roman Empire was disintegrating, a monk named Telemachus stepped unannounced into the arena of a gladiatorial duel and shouted “Stop!” 

So many in the crowd were moved by the monk’s appeal that the Emperor Honorius ended the brutal games forever. One man’s courage made it possible.

Two and a half centuries ago, human bondage was common in the world and widely accepted. A Cambridge student named Thomas Clarkson began a movement in the 1780s to convince Britain to end slavery within its Empire. He braved threats and ridicule but built a movement, perhaps the greatest humanitarian campaign ever. Within decades, Clarkson and his allies changed the conscience of a nation and ultimately, that of the world as well.

During America’s struggle for independence from Britain, a woman named Mercy Otis Warren risked her life to denounce tyranny. She became “the conscience of the Revolution” and a decade later, a leading voice for the adoption of the Bill of Rights. 

The most courageous man of the 20th Century might well have been a Polish hero, Witold Pilecki. When the Nazis invaded his country from the West and the Soviets from the East, he joined the freedom fighters. He volunteered to get arrested so he might be sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. While a prisoner there, he formed a secret resistance and smuggled documents to the West. He escaped to fight in the battle for Warsaw and after the war, he spied on the Soviets on behalf of the anti-communist underground. He was ultimately executed, but his example makes decent people around the world proud of him, and of Poland.

In Prague where this essay is to be distributed, a young man named Jan Palach laid down his life to protest the Soviet invasion of his country. It was January 1969. Palach’s supreme sacrifice will be remembered for centuries as a statement for freedom, an act of defiant courage, an inspiration for Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution just 20 years later.

These examples are admittedly extraordinary. Not every person could be expected to muster the degree of courage these brave souls did. But we all can do our part by celebrating courage as a virtue and resolving to practice it in our own way and in our own contexts, and as much as we can. 

We must start by recognizing that liberty is far more than simply a happy circumstance. It is nothing less than mutual respect for human dignity and rights. It is what makes life worth living. Life without it is unthinkable. 

So, I implore young people who love liberty to make courage a principle by which you live. Combine it with good sense, viable strategies, and persuasiveness. Know the arguments for it and offer them in the public square with confidence. Commit yourself to strong personal character and self-improvement, so that your effectiveness will always grow. 

If you can say someday that when liberty was challenged, you rose to defend it and did not run for cover, your children and grandchildren will thank you. They will remember you as heroes for a noble cause. 

The French philosopher Voltaire wrote, “So long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannize will do so; for tyrants are active and ardent and will devote themselves…to put shackles upon sleeping men.”

As lovers of liberty, we must not sleep while our values are under siege. We must be people of courage! That’s how we will win.

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