I came from a nonpolitical, working class family. My father quietly voted Republican, and my mother didn’t vote at all. When Dad wanted to take my sister and me on a week’s winter vacation to Florida in 1963 and our public school principal objected, Dad let him know in exceptionally colorful terms that we were his kids, not the government’s, and we were headed south, period. Perhaps that incident planted a seed of anti-authoritarianism in me that sprouted in a darkened theater two years later.
In the summer of 1965, my mother announced that she was taking me to a theater in Pittsburgh, 40 miles from our home, to see a film called “The Sound of Music.” I knew nothing of it other than that a lot of singing was involved, and to my mind, that was a good enough reason to stay home. I went reluctantly—and was enthralled. The music and the scenery were memorable, but it was the plot and message that changed my life. I was not quite 12 years of age.
“The Sound of Music” was a rude awakening. This was much bigger than a school telling me that I couldn’t take a vacation. This was a foreign regime (Nazi Germany) absorbing a peaceful neighbor (Austria) and a father facing orders to abandon his family to serve in the military of that very regime he hated. The film sparked a fire inside me, and it has stayed lit ever since. Stories of people yearning for freedom and going to great lengths to secure it captivated me. Socialism, communism, fascism, and all the collectivist “isms” became anathema. They reduced to A pushing B around because A thinks he’s got a good idea.
Then came the “Prague Spring” of early 1968. It wasn’t Austria, but it was right next door. The news of the stirrings of liberty in communist Czechoslovakia dominated the news. I cheered as the Czechs boldly rattled their Soviet cage. When Moscow crushed Czech liberties with troops and tanks, I was outraged and eager to say so. I bought a bus ticket to Pittsburgh and joined in a demonstration against the invasion. We burned a Soviet flag. I joined Young Americans for Freedom, which gave its new members a collection of classic works on liberty and free enterprise. The message was simple: If you want to be an effective anticommunist, you had better know something about philosophy and economics.
From there, I went on to earn degrees in economics and history and started teaching at Northwood University. After seven years at that, I went into think tank work, most notably at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan and now the Foundation for Economic Education in New York.
Who would have thought a couple hours in a theater would make a life’s worth of difference? But that’s what happened to me.