Hans F. Sennholz (1922-2007)

Dr. Hans F. Sennholz: A Devoted Teacher and Mentor of Economics and Moral Behavior (written 2007)

Wherever it has been tried, freedom has always produced abundant fruits. If freedom always worked, why was it seldom given a chance? Business economists can seldom let their ideologies trump their analyses, and they would argue that if you have the best product [i.e. freedom] and you are not selling, you must have a problem of marketing. Could it be that the failure to disseminate the principles of the free society is related to the failure of their spokespersons?

Truth has always been the same. Yet ignorance prevails in many fields. True ideas do not spread automatically. Great ideas need great advocates. The first great works attacking inflation were written by Copernicus, Oresme, Juan de Mariana (1536-1624), and Ferdinando Galiani (1728-1787), all good moralists. In the Protestant camp, John Locke devoted the last years of his life to studying and writing about Christianity, disseminating its benefits. Adam Smith was a moral philosopher. During his time, he became famous for his essays on morals as well as for his work on economics. Despite their differences in moral outlook, those who have been influenced by Ayn Rand, also strive to make a moral defense of freedom.

Great ideas need great persons to disseminate them and earn the trust of listeners.

It is hard to go to a meeting of freedom-loving people and not meet someone who was touched by the principled teachings of Dr. Hans Sennholz. My family as well as the trustees and staff of Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the organization that God and men have entrusted me to run and prosper, were all impacted personally by Dr. Sennholz.

While he impacted many, I would say few lives have been touched so much as mine. I first met Dr. Sennholz in 1976. Alberto Benegas Lynch, who directed a center in Argentina that was modeled after the Foundation of Economic Education, asked me if I would be willing to translate for him at several private speaking events. I was happy to volunteer my services. During one of our many conversations, Dr. Sennholz asked me, “what is your goal in life?” I answered that I wanted to be a professional tennis player in order to earn enough money to keep disseminating the values of the free society. He followed up by asking "why don’t you teach?" I laughed. Totalitarians of all different styles had a firm grip on the academic arena. The low pay of university professors was not enough to sustain anyone trying to make a living out of education.

Needless to say, I graduated and soon became a teaching assistant and young professor. During that time, I recall that the number of young liberals in Argentina could be counted on both hands, with fingers to spare. A few years later, I was given a scholarship, thanks to Hans Sennholz, via Benegas Lynch, to study at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. That story deserves an entire book but I will not tell it here. At Grove City College I studied Economics under Dr. Sennholz and lived in an apartment above the Sennholzs’ garage. It was also there that I met my wife, Melanie Bailey (’83).

I was able to recommend other Argentinean students for the same scholarship I received. Of the dozen or so students that came to Grove City, most have helped multiply Dr. Sennholz’s teachings, reaching millions of people. One former student is the dean of a prestigious university. Another is the founder and head of Junior Achievement in Argentina. Chief economists, managing directors, businessmen, politicians, think tank executives, mothers, educators, and other leaders, were also touched by Dr. Sennholz’s teaching and example.

I know that Dr. Sennholz, faithful to his teaching, would tell us that he did not sacrifice, he chose to leave Wall Street, he chose to stay at Grove City, and he chose to be faithful to his calling, his wife, and our adopted country. But sacrifice is not inimical to choice. Except for the dictionaries of Ayn Rand, sacrifice is defined as, “forsaking something of value for the sake of something even more valuable.”

Dr. Sennholz’s strong moral convictions permeated all of his teachings. Moral convictions are essential for freedom to exist. Hayek argued that, “freedom, if it is to work well, requires not only strong moral standards but moral standards of a particular kind,” and that “it is possible in a free society for moral standards to grow up which, if they become general, will destroy freedom and with it the basis of all moral values."

Even an almost-pure positivist, such as Milton Friedman, in his most famous book in defense of freedom wrote that: "It is entirely appropriate that men make sacrifices to advocate causes in which they deeply believe. Indeed, it is important to preserve freedom only for people who are willing to practice self-denial, for otherwise freedom degenerates into license and irresponsibility."

And to quote an author more dear to the heart of Dr. Sennholz, Ludwig von Mises, in one of his most-neglected statements: "Mankind would never have reached the present state of civilization without heroism and self-sacrifice on the part of the elite. Every step forward on the way toward an improvement of moral conditions has been an achievement of men who were ready to sacrifice their own well-being, their health, and their lives for the sake of a cause that they considered just and beneficial. They did what they considered their duty without bothering whether they themselves would not be victimized. These people did not work for the sake of reward, they served their cause unto death."

Economics explains many things, but it can’t explain why people will devote their life to produce fruits that they will not see. If freedom has a chance, it is not only because it works, but because educators such as Dr. Sennholz, and institutions such as Grove City College chose to sacrifice many things to follow a principled path. When most of the Christian leaders began to flirt with socialism, Dr. Sennholz’s staunch and principled educational work, based on sound economics, was a major influence in preserving Grove City College's mission. Without him, Grove City College would not be the jewel that it is today.

On behalf of your international students and disciples, as well as the millions of people you have impacted, thank you Dr. Sennholz.