Several years ago, President Ford's economic advisor, Alan Greenspan, was scheduled to address a gathering of the Bank Administration Institute in Hawaii. The day before the event, he called the National Speakers Bureau to cancel because of illness.
Faced with the potential disaster, the president of the bureau sent a replacement to the Honolulu meeting. The bankers in attendance had expected Greenspan, so the first disappointment of their day was news that he was not coming. Then they learned that an economics professor from Boise State University in Idaho was taking his place. That one elicited real groans.
Given the situation, the unknown Barry Asmus would have been fortunate to leave the gathering with even a shred of his dignity intact. But that was not the way the day turned out. Asmus began to talk about the American tradition of free enterprise and individual responsibility—but he did not give the group a simple pep talk. He told them that bankers supported capitalism except when it came to regulations that protected their own industry. Asmus said America is full of people who claim, "I am a capitalist, but…"—and we are drowning in a sea of buts.
Asmus took chances that day. As his speech came to a close, he was unsure about his reception. The standing ovation that shook the room at the close of his address surprised him. And the standing ovations have not ended.
Asmus's reputation as a dynamic defender of capitalism who is unafraid to declaim against his audience's own contribution to capitalism's erosion has spread. Today, he is the most-requested speaker with the National Speakers Bureau, an organization that handles political and journalistic celebrities like David Brinkley, George Will, Charles Kuralt, Norman Vincent Peale, and Arthur Laffer.
Asmus is, without a doubt, an extraordinary spokesperson for the market system. His enthusiasm for the American tradition of individual liberty is absolutely infectious. He loves America and its heritage of economic and civil freedom. But he does not simply stir up patriotism. His analysis of the situation today is honest, perhaps even brutal.
He has lectured dairy farmers about the evils of milk-price supports. Tobacco growers have listened to him condemn the government protections they enjoy, and teachers have heard him tear apart teachers' unions.
Asmus turns down many more engagements than he accepts for reasons that include his son's baseball games and his daughter's birthday. Last year, he moved to Phoenix and gave up teaching in the university to concentrate on teaching the professional groups that call on his services. But Asmus is still an educator. He still gives reading assignments and homework to those he lectures. And surprisingly, Asmus criticizes organizations for their own policies, yet he makes friends in the process.
A growing number of organizations are attempting to defend the free market, but without Asmus's evident popularity. Asmus thinks it may have something to do with the nonprofit status adopted by most free-market advocacy organizations. "Capitalism," he says, "is about providing a product that people are willing to pay for." In keeping with that view, his own organization, the three year-old American Studies Institute, is a profit-making entity that sells tapes and books and provides lectures for a fee.
Asmus has written and cowritten a number of books, including To Slay a Giant with former Idaho official Jerry Hill. The book, a combination of poems and economic analysis, was published by Caxton Press. Another book was Supermyths, a collection of "x-rated" popular misconceptions about the way the economy works. He has also helped script World Research, Inc.'s "Chickenomics" series of free-market films that star the San Diego Padres' chicken mascot. He hopes that his most recent and ambitious book, Crossroads: The Great American Experiment—The Rise, Decline, and Restoration of Freedom and the Market Economy, written with economist Donald Billings and published last year by University Press of America, will sell well.
Asmus is 42, but he seems to be much younger. He studied economics at Colorado State University and finished his Ph.D. at Montana State University. In those days, he was a utopian socialist who came home to tell his father that "if he had any compassion, he would sell his farm and his car to help the poor." His father's response was, "Get your butt out of here."
In 1972, Asmus went to teach at Boise State University (BSU). By then he had changed from a "knee-jerk liberal" to what he now calls a "broken-hearted liberal," one who knows that big government welfare can't work but is unwilling to give up on it for the sake of principle.
In the summer of '74, Asmus read his first moral defense of capitalism in Henry Hazlitt's The Foundations of Morality and was forced to do the full about-face he had resisted. Asmus said it was a slow intellectual trip he made from being a liberal to neoconservatism to where he is today, "somewhere between the supply-siders and the libertarians."
People are paying for Asmus's services, but he still seems surprised by it all. Brian Palmer of the National Speakers Bureau laughs at Asmus's surprise. He says, "Barry is having a tremendous impact on his audiences. It's not uncommon for those who hear him to say that he has changed the way they look at the world. But when Asmus looks around at his success, he usually says, 'Gosh!'"
Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Speaker for the Market".