Reflections on Hans F. Sennholz

Dr. Hans F. Sennholz, economist par excellence, prolific author, dynamic lecturer, legendary Grove City College professor for 37 years, passed away on June 23 at age 85. How does one encapsulate such a long, productive, remarkable life? You may read details of his extraordinary life on his website, Those of us who sat in his classroom remember his energy, his uncompromising defense of free markets, his accent, his humor, and his insistence on propriety (no hats on heads in the classroom!). Those who knew him more intimately had the privilege of getting to know the private side of Hans. What he taught us by the way he lived his life was as valuable as the profound economic wisdom he shared with us. Hans Sennholz was not only a towering intellect and an entertaining companion, but a man of special spiritual gifts. It is his character and moral fiber that we, his friends, will most remember about Hans. Let me share with you a few of those gifts.

Hans had an indomitable spirit. Having lost his parents and only sibling, his brother, in World War II, and having his youthful dreams shattered by the harshness of war, he could have lapsed into bitterness or self-pity. Instead, unbowed and undaunted, he resolved to live his life with joy, gusto, and enthusiasm. Having seen up close the horrible destructiveness that results when government power subverts individual rights, he had an unquenchable, indefatigable drive to wage the battle of ideas on behalf of liberty against every form of tyranny. Hans carried on his self-appointed mission by continuing to write articles even as his body failed him. He remained spirited in the face of grave illness. When I last saw him about seven weeks ago, thin and frail, I asked him how things were going; he looked at me directly, eyes gleaming with a smile and a strong voice, and announced, “Hanging in there!” He knew his body was dying, but he would never be a beaten man!

Another of Hans’ gifts was courage. Waging the battle on behalf of individual liberty and the private property order (Hans’ favorite term for “the free market” or “capitalism”) took immense courage in the 1950s and ’60s, when almost the entire intellectual class was infatuated with government planning and utterly opposed to free markets. If it weren’t for the courage of Hans and a few other economists who valued truth above popularity so much that they willingly endured vilification and ostracism to keep alive the understanding of free markets, the world would be a poorer, grimmer place today. In a brutal display of bigotry and ignorance, leftists would call Hans a “fascist.” This ugly epithet was both ironic and revealing—ironic, because Hans was the quintessential antifascist, having lived under a fascist regime, seen its errors, and come to America to remind us of our own heritage of individual liberty; revealing, in that it exposed the intellectual left in this country as the true fascists, eager to suppress any position that dissented from their oppressive orthodoxy. Today, those of us who make the case for free markets have it much easier. We are part of a large movement, and we receive frequent vindication as, one by one, governments around the world unleash the creative energies of markets to propel their countries out of stagnation and onto paths of rapid economic development.

Hans had integrity. He embraced lofty principles, and he lived by them. Having taught generations of students the vital role that thrift plays in economic prosperity, he always saved at least 20 percent of his own income. A tireless preacher about the moral rot and economic destructiveness of government redistribution of wealth, in his personal life he never registered to receive Social Security benefits. He didn’t even want to recover the Social Security “contributions” that had been taken from him over the decades. He understood that those dollars had not been set aside in some mythical “lockbox” with his name on it, but had been spent on other government programs; thus, any payments he received from Social Security would be funds taken from his fellow taxpayers, and that he regarded as an unacceptable infringement on the rights of his fellow man. The American taxpayer never had a better friend and a more consistent advocate than Hans Sennholz.

Finally, Hans had the spiritual gift of love. Toward his son, grandsons, and students, we might call it “tough love,” because he always pressed us to strive harder, produce more, and give the extra effort needed to rise above mediocrity. In his relationship with his wife, Mary, though, we saw great tenderness, genuine humility, and selfless devotion. Over a half-century ago, this man of principle took a vow to “love, cherish, and obey” his wife, and he lived up to that vow as few others have. Some may think that Hans was a workaholic, but this perception isn’t quite accurate. He always kept his priorities straight. Yes, Hans was extremely organized, dedicated, self-motivated, and immensely productive, but he always allowed time for family. Hans and Mary have shown that a lasting partnership is formed when a couple is well matched, and when they both give of themselves. Hans Sennholz was a good and great man, and Mary is a good and great woman, and they loved each other. Their marriage was a model for us all.

Hans Sennholz inspired us during his life on earth, and he will continue to inspire us now that he has gone on to receive the heavenly benediction, “well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Godspeed, Hans, and thank you for all you shared with us.