Champions of Freedom

John Stossel

1/11/2012 12:01:00 AM - John Stossel

It's election season, and so once again people look for heroes. Is Ron Paul one? Maybe. He's fought a long, lonely battle to limit the power of government. As government grows, I yearn for champions of freedom who fight back. Rep. Paul has done that.

But it's a mistake to look for heroes in politics. It's too ugly a business. My heroes are people like Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek and Ayn Rand.

Damn -- they're all gone.

Here are some other champions of liberty you might not know about: Alfred Kahn was a bureaucrat who, under President Carter, managed to kill off the Civil Aeronautics Board and Interstate Commerce Commission. By bringing freer markets to transportation, he saved Americans billions of dollars.

Norman Borlaug saved billions of lives. He invented a high-yield wheat that ended starvation in much of the world. He also criticized the environmentalists who fight the bioengineered food that could end hunger altogether.

How about Larry Flynt, founder of Hustler magazine? He brought tastelessness to new depths -- but by spending his own money to defend free speech in court. He is a champion of freedom. So is musician Willie Nelson. He brought the battle against drug prohibition to the very roof of the White House (where he reportedly smoked weed).

How about the former president of the Czech Republic, the late Vaclav Havel? He demonstrated that speaking truth to totalitarians, while being willing to suffer the consequences, can be more potent than tanks.

John Blundell's book "Ladies of Liberty" tells the story of female heroes I knew little about -- women like Mercy Otis Warren, who helped shape the American Revolution, and the Grimke sisters, who fought slavery.

Damn, they're gone too.

I interviewed some champions of liberty, like John Allison, who ran BB&T, the 12th-biggest bank in America.

Most people don't think of businessmen as champions of liberty, but I do.

People resent bankers, and frankly, we should resent those who use their cozy relationship with government to freeload. But folks don't understand banks; they think bankers simply grab money for themselves. Allison is one of the few CEOs willing to face the cameras and explain banking to people.

"Banking is essential," Allison told me. "Banks allocate capital to people that deserve it. We see really big problems when the banks do a bad job and give capital to the wrong people."

When the bailouts were proposed, Allison spoke against them.

"I was the only CEO of a large bank that was opposed to TARP."

But when TARP passed, a federal regulator forced Allison to take your tax money.

"He said, 'You know, John, you guys have way more capital than you need ... (but) ... if you don't take TARP, you're in really serious trouble, because we make all the rules on how you run your bank.' So we ended up taking TARP. ... And it was a rip-off for healthy banks, because we didn't need the money. ... And we paid a huge interest rate."

Allison also defended individual freedom and private property by refusing to lend money to developers who acquired land through government confiscation called eminent domain.

"When the (Supreme Court's) Kelo decision was passed and basically there was carte blanche for the government to take somebody's property and give it to some other private individual, we said we wouldn't make loans to developers that did that. Interestingly enough, we lost some public entity accounts ... but we had thousands of people move their checking accounts to BB&T. ... We're proud that a business would actually act on principle ... ."

Allison became outspoken about freedom after reading Ayn Rand's "Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal."

Steve Forbes is another businessman eager to explain that when people are free to practice capitalism, it's good for the world.

"The purpose of business is not to pile up money," he told me, "but to create happiness -- giving people a chance to discover their talents. ... It's the best poverty-fighter in the world.

We certainly need more champions of freedom like these.