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Lawrence Reed Columnist

Published Thursday, February 14, 2013

The power of positive example

Close your eyes for just a few seconds and think of one or two people who have motivated you, encouraged you, spurred you on. Then ask yourself, was it because of what they said, or what they did? How they talked, or how they behaved?

What those people did and how they behaved probably had the more lasting impact. Certainly, no one is inspired in a positive way by the hypocrite or by the unprincipled. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, “What you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you’re saying.”

Each of us is inspired far more by the power of positive example than by command or threats. Doesn’t it mean so much more to us to earn the respect of others as opposed to commanding it? How much have we really won, if others pay attention not because they want to but because they have to?

I can think of so many things I wish more people would do. I wish they would value education more highly and read to their children. I wish they would show more concern for those around them in need and do something about it themselves instead of waiting for the government to do it (at 10 times the price). I wish they would work harder at being the very best at whatever they’ve chosen as their life’s work. I wish they would show more respect for the lives and property of others. I wish they would be better neighbors, more caring friends, more honest politicians, more responsible business associates.

We could pass laws that would force more people in these directions and that would penalize them if they failed to comply (Congress does it all the time). But that approach leaves me with a feeling of hollowness. I don’t want a society in which people do the right thing just because they have to, when they really don’t want to. And I believe strongly that the most effective but underappreciated teaching method is the power of positive example.

Forcing a person to go to church doesn’t make him religious any more than forcing him to stand in a garage makes him a car. You don’t make a person truly loyal by forbidding disagreement. You don’t make a person charitable by robbing him at gunpoint and spending his money on good things.

What we sometimes forget in our haste to reform the world is that we must first reform ourselves, one at a time, and none of us has yet done all we can in that regard. We chronically underestimate how much influence for good we can be by simply being better individuals — not pontificating about doing good, but actually being good — and doing it with our own resources, not someone else’s.

Being as good as we know in our hearts we should be — in our speech, conduct and relationships — is still the best advice any of us can either give or take.

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(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N.Y., and Atlanta.)

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