Jeff Sandefer is an entrepreneur, a teacher and a passionate defender of freedom. As an entrepreneur, he founded his first company at age 16; recently he sold Sandefer Capital Partners, an energy investment firm with several billion dollars in assets.As a teacher, his students at the University of Texas five times voted him the school’s Most Outstanding Teacher and he was named by BusinessWeek as one the top Entrepreneurship professors in America.
Seven years ago Jeff and a group of successful entrepreneur-teachers started the Acton School of Business – named after the Victorian scholar of freedom Lord Acton, who most famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The school is dedicated to serving America’s next generation of principled entrepreneurs. Acton is famous for its 100-hour work weeks, and the Princeton Review – the gold standard for business school rankings – has consistently ranked Acton as one of the top MBA programs in the country.
While teaching entrepreneurship is Jeff’s “calling,” he cares even more that his three children – Taite, Charlie and Sam – and their children and grandchildren, enjoy the blessings of freedom. Jeff is a longtime board member of National Review magazine, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Philanthropy Roundtable and the Harvard Business School. He also served for six years as the Chairman of the Acton Institute for the study of Religion and Liberty and is a member of the Mont Pelerin Society.
Please help me welcome Jeff Sandefer.
Thank you, Rich. It is an honor to be introduced by such a good friend, a man who not only is my favorite education reformer, but brings incredible energy and good humor to such a difficult quest.
It is an honor too to be with so many freedom fighters. From my years on the board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, I have seen how a state think tank can do so much for the cause of liberty. My thanks to all of you, for all that you do.
As I was preparing this talk, I was wondering what it might feel like to be on the front lines, defending freedom, in times like this.
Do you feel as I do?
Are you still wondering how a President from Texas, a self-proclaimed “compassionate conservative,” could have understood so little about freedom and free markets?
Are you angry with men like Mark Sanford, who with so much promise, and so much to give, let personal appetites destroy their ability to serve?
Are you holding the Republican Party banner at arm’s length, like a soiled piece of cloth, wondering if we can ever wash off the stench from politicians who promised one thing to get elected, but spent money like drunken sailors once they were in office?
Does your heart, like mine, cry out for a Buckley or a Reagan or a Thatcher?
I am nothing more than an entrepreneur, a teacher, and a father of three. But I have had the honor of teaching with some of the finest entrepreneurs in this country. And I have sat at Bill Buckley’s feet, and watched Margaret Thatcher from up close, and studied Ronald Reagan from afar.
If you feel as I do today, please listen closely to what I say next, for it embodies all that I have learned as an entrepreneur and a teacher:
Do not give up hope. For we freedom fighters have three simple truths, ancient truths, entrepreneurial truths, that are the secret to the American dream. Embrace them, master them, and you not only change the world – but you will change yourself as well.
Let me say that again:
Do not give up hope. For we freedom fighters have three simple truths, that are the secret to the American dream. Embrace them and you not only change the world, but you change yourself, as well.
I came here today because I believe that some of you in this room will change the world. Not in a small way, but in a profound one. Because I have witnessed how the courage of ordinary people, armed with these three truths, can change the world.
Can the truths change your life as well? Stay with me for these next few minutes and I promise you’ll have your answer.
Let’s begin with a story from my friend Oliver DeMille, founder of George Wythe College.
The year is 1764. A student named Thomas Jefferson is dumped by his girlfriend, an event so devastating that 20 years later he is still writing about it in his journal. Shortly thereafter, his best friend comes to him and says: “Thomas, we need to talk, I’m getting married.”
Jefferson begins to congratulate his friend but is interrupted. “No Thomas, we really need to talk, I’m getting married….to her.” Jefferson decides to give up on romance and rededicate himself to his studies.
In that same year, 1764, John Adams is a teacher. He writes in his journal that he enjoys teaching because it allows him to escape the frustrating worlds of business and politics, and gives him a chance to think and learn. Later that year he will meet and marry Abigail.
That same year, James Madison is 13 years old. He is a good student, but so quiet and shy that his parents wonder if he will ever amount to much.
In 1764, George Washington is a businessman. His journal shows that his top priority that year is to pay off his debts, to which he has foolishly given a personal guarantee.
That is the year 1764.
A decade later, this same group of ordinary people will declare independence from the greatest power on the face of the earth, and sign it with their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.
A decade after that, they will write and help ratify the United States Constitution, which Gladstone called the “greatest document struck by the mind and purpose of men.”
But in 1764, they are just ordinary people, like us. Two students, a teacher, a businessman.
So here is truth number one. We believe that ordinary Americans, armed with a worthy calling, can change the world.
We believe ordinary Americans are heroes awaiting a call.
Deep down, the left disdains the ordinary man or woman. To them, ordinary men and women are fools who must be shackled and managed and milked for the common good – a common good defined by a ruling class who believe they are smarter and wiser and deserve power and influence.
But we know better.
The left can appeal to the dark side of the human spirit, to pride and envy, a lust for power and a desire for heaven on earth. However, freedom fighters believe that ordinary Americans, armed with a worthy calling, can become entrepreneurial heroes.
So what is a calling? At our school, Acton, we believe a calling begins by using your most precious God given gifts, doing something that brings you great joy, and solving a deep burning need in the world.
So here’s a question for you: have you found your calling? Do you know your most precious gifts? Do you find great joy in your daily tasks, or just grumble through them? Have you found a deep burning need in the world so intense that you would pledge your life, your fortune and your sacred honor — or are you just going through the motions?
We’ll return to this question in a moment.
Truth number two. We know how to turn good ideas into action, and action into results, in a way that makes the pie bigger for all.
We believe that ideas have consequences, but we know that results matter more than good intentions.
It turns out that ideas, by themselves are rather cheap. And potentially destructive. Global warming is an idea. So is egalitarianism. So is socialism. They all sound important – even urgent – even virtuous. But the wrong ideas, those that try to perfect human nature or substitute the edicts of pseudo-intellectuals for the common sense of the average man, can enslave – and even kill – millions of people.
Have you ever wondered why the left, with so much more power at its fingertips — from government coercion, to the mainstream media, to our corrupt universities, to bloated left wing foundation — hasn’t just overwhelmed us?
It’s because, very simply, the left is incompetent. They create the Post Office; we create Federal Express and UPS. The incompetent cannot deliver the mail or build bridges to somewhere or create companies that prosper – they do not know how to make the pie bigger – so their only recourse is to fight over the crumbs of decay.
So as we celebrate the magic of freedom and free markets, never forget that they require more than good ideas and vision, but also mastering the skills, tools and talents it takes to turn ideas into action and action into results.
Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson, when asked to credit the church and clergy for the soaring cathedrals of Europe, nodded instead towards the skill of bricklayers by reminding that: “Piety is never a substitute for technique.”
Liberals not only have false piety to false gods, but poor technique, and that means with no power to create, no power to make the pie bigger, they can only consume and destroy. I was in Russia in the early 1990’s and I saw firsthand what happens to people when you take away their freedom.
Some words from my journal from that trip:
“People shuffle by, gray themselves, making due in a world more unreal than the left could ever imagine. Faintly, just faintly, everywhere you stand, there is the faint smell of urine. The young people are the lightest shade of grey; the middle age are darker; most have lost any sign of life. The elderly woman who cleans is the worst. Stooped almost to the ground, she moves in tiny steps, now more of a cleaning machine than a human being, sweeping dirt into the people’s dustpan, doing her duty. If she looks away, even for a moment, the trash and dirt are back, breeding in an unknown place, in an unknown way, but with a certainty that have made her what she is today.
Barack Obama can make all the promises he wants, but I have seen what government power delivers in the end. I have seen the final result, when people surrender their freedom in the name of the common good.
And that will not happen to my children.
Not on my watch.
We know how to turn good ideas into action, and action into results, in a way that makes the pie bigger. The left knows only how to fight over the crumbs of decay.
Writing papers and debating how many angels fit on the head of a pin – even a devoutly conservative pin, isn’t enough to guarantee freedom.
So how are you going to put your ideas into action? Are you personally committed to righting a specific wrong?
Will you run for office, and vote for what is right, instead of what will get you re-elected? Will you launch a grassroots movement that will bring about change to your local schools? Will you sweep away an outdated regulation and let the market do its work? Who knows, you might even start the next FedEx or UPS, and put some bloated government bureaucracy out of its misery.
But you must take that first step, or you will never turn good ideas into actions, or actions into results.
We’ll return to this question in a moment too.
But now, the last truth. Liberty is right; slavery is wrong. Man longs to be free.
Yes, we can get things done. Yes, America is the richest and the fairest and the most powerful country on the face of the earth. But we must appeal to something more powerful than expediency in the defense of freedom.
The Founding Fathers fought for liberty not for material gains or for power, and certainly not because liberty was expedient, but rather, because they thought that men deserve to live free.
I once had the pleasure to be with Lady Thatcher, watching her watch a small group of American businessmen cower during the 1987 stock market crash, as they questioned the future of capitalism. Finally she had had enough. ”Gentlemen,” she reminded them, “ the most important word in the phrase ‘free markets’ is not the word ‘markets,’ but the word ‘free.’” Of course, as usual, she was right on target.
How often have you, like me, hidden behind some technical argument to make your point on a policy matter – arguing our solutions are best because they work; that free market principles matter most because they make us rich?
If so, you do a grave disservice to the cause. Because the opposite of “liberty” is not “financial insecurity” but “slavery,” and we should not be afraid to say so.
Lower taxes, less regulation and a fair judiciary are not our goals simply because they work – but because freedom is a gift from generations past, who fought and died so we could live free.
I’ll end with this….
Where are the Buckleys, the Reagans, the Thatchers – the Jeffersons, the Madisons and the Washingtons? In this room. Today. But only if you are willing to embrace three simple truths.
The first: We believe that ordinary Americans, armed with a worthy calling, are heroes who can change the world. And that starts – here; today – with you pledging to find your calling. Are you brave enough to take that first step? If so, there’s a handout on your table with our school’s website. We’d love to help.
The second truth: We know how to turn good ideas into action, and action into results, in a way that makes the pie bigger for all.
Will you leave here dedicated to putting your ideas into action? To finding a specific wrong that you will right, in a way that expands liberty and makes the pie bigger for all?
The third and final truth: Freedom and free markets are right because liberty trumps slavery. In a world where taking a stand based on eternal truth is no longer in fashion, do you have the courage to defend liberty for liberty’s sake? To say that freedom matters because man was created to be free, and that our forefathers were right that freedom is worth fighting and dying for?
You are the best and brightest and most committed freedom fighters on this planet. Far removed from the cesspool of Washington, D.C. If you aren’t going to leave here committed to finding a calling, to finding a specific wrong you will right, to seeking a cause that will roll back the power of government and set an example for others to follow, while having the courage to say that freedom matters because ordinary Americans have the right to become entrepreneurial heroes – if not you, then who?
And if you are not going to start now, then when?
Thank you and God bless you.”
Jeff Sandefer is the co-founder of the Acton School of Business, which believes in economic, political, and religious liberty. They are dedicated to graduating Acton Scholars who have a strong sense of individual responsibility and a willingness to invest in a healthy civil society.
If you liked this speech, you might also enjoy this post on power and corruption.
 Quoted and paraphrased from a talk given by De Mille.
For more information about SPN, please visit their Web site.
Photo courtesy of ONE/MILLION
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