Gregory Rehmke: Memories of Bernie Baltic

Published March 30, 2008

Bernie Baltic was an entrepreneur as well as supporter of market organizations. Perhaps because he gave to so many groups, and spent time actually reading their publications and reports, he often made valuable suggestions.

Eight or nine years ago Bernie supported an experimental economics seminar for students at George Mason University, and then attended it as an observer. I was at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) then, and he called to let me know he had met a homeschool student at the seminar who competed in homeschool debate. I don’t think I knew at the time that there was a homeschool debate league, but Bernie knew I had long worked with high school debate students.

(from left) Bernie Baltic, Greg Rehmke, Gabriella Megyesi, and June Arunga, with homeschool debate students in the background, ateending a seminar in Hudson, Ohio in October 2002.

I contacted the student, who was headed off to Oxford, and it turned out that his father helped organize our first FEE debate workshop for homeschool debaters in Vienna, Virginia. Don Boudreaux, Doug Bandow, June Arunga and I were the speakers, and June and I stayed with this student’s family during the seminar. Since then over 400 homeschool debaters have attended FEE and Economic Thinking workshops for debaters in Northern Virginia.

Next I discovered a homeschool family in Hudson, OH, near Bernie in Cleveland. Soon after, June Arunga, Gabriella Megyesi and I were at Bernie’s home for dinner, the day before our homeschool workshop in Hudson. Bernie attended this and later Hudson workshops and continued to offer advice as well as financial support. I learned from area homeschool families that he continued to forward to them free-market books and articles over the years.

Bernie insisted I not reveal he was a donor to Economic Thinking (he never said whether it would be okay to mention this after he was no longer around). Bernie was the major supporter of Economic Thinking programs, and without his support I would probably have discontinued my economic education work and gone on to something else. (Bernie stepped in to support my work after I was abruptly let go from FEE, and their programs for high school and homeschool speech and debate were discontinued.)

I mention all this to the FME list to emphasize the importance of “smart money” donations. Monique Maddy in her great book “Learning to Love Africa” discusses how her young African telecommunications company was undercut by an early quasi-government investment from England. This investor would not participate in a key round of funding, and that torpedoed the whole enterprise.

Though none of are likely to be unbiased in judging the effectiveness of our own programs, most of us have seen vast sums donated to projects that seem unlikely to be effective advancing liberty (or anything else). Major donations that go to ineffective programs draw scarce free-market resources away from less well funded operations that may well have much more potential. (Max Eastman in his “Reflections on the Failure of Socialism” notes that in his early days as a communist–before he was influenced by Hayek)–he raised money by actually selling copies of their newspaper, “The Masses”. Conservative groups had business funding for producing their publications, so they didn’t have to bother with the messy work of convincing everyday people to actually purchase and read copies.)

Bernie gained his wealth through investing, and through detailed investigation of companies. Bernie’s longtime friends in France told me stories of his persistent calls to companies to gather the information he wanted–rather than the information they wanted him to have. Through his investment career, Bernie irritated a lot of people in the private sector with his phone calls. I suspect he irritated many more in the political and nonprofit world with similar calls asking detailed and often unwelcome questions.

Not many wealthy people will be willing to invest so much of their time as well as their money to advance freedom. But those of us who benefited from Bernie’s entrepreneurial venture-capital freedom funding, very much appreciate his dedication over the years.

Gregory Rehmke is program director of Economic Thinking, A Program of E Pluribus Unum Films,