Celebration of Donald Smith's life

Thoughts by Tom G. Palmer, Atlas Network Executive Vice President for International Programs and George M. Yeager Chair for Advancing Liberty. Delivered at Atlas Network’s Freedom Dinner, November 2019—Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Tom G Palmer

Tom G. Palmer | Executive Vice President for International Programs

My responsibility tonight is to celebrate the achievements of an important person who is our host this evening. We are all here as guests of the Smith Family Foundation, but the host who made it possible is not seated among us tonight. Donald G. Smith, a personal friend to so many of us here and a true friend to the principles we all share—liberty, justice, peace, and dignity—wanted to be here with us, just as he hosted and took part in these Freedom Dinners for more than a decade, but I must report that on the evening of Wednesday, October 30, he drew his last breath.

Our mutual friend Scott Barbee mentioned to me last week some of the ways in which Don’s life exemplifies the virtues of the Stoics. Over the past week I’ve spent time with Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius and Don’s life shines through. One thought from Marcus’s meditations summed up Don Smith’s life: “Don’t live as though you were going to live a myriad lives. Fate is hanging over your head; while you have life, become good.”

It’s difficult to use the past tense in referring to our friend—it catches in the throat to say that he was a good man, so I won’t use the past tense. This is an occasion to celebrate the goodness and the kindness and the generosity and the integrity of a friend, and those virtues continue to be active in the world through the many projects he launched and the many people he helped. His mind continues to be active in the millions of people who were introduced to the ideas of freedom because of his vision. His goodness lives on through the millions and millions of lives he saved from tyranny, or even from death.

Our friend is a modest and unpretentious person, so he would be blushing and pshawing if he were to hear what I will say tonight, but it is all true. Very, very few of his beneficiaries will ever know to whom they should be grateful for the generosity that defended their liberty or—in at least two notable cases, forestalled civil wars that would have killed many thousands, but we who know have a duty to acknowledge publicly the positive impact this one human being— Donald Smith—has had on the world, which is a much better place because of him. His life enriches those who know him—his family, his colleagues, his friends—and also the many more who never had that privilege.

Donald Smith earned a degree in business and accounting from the University of Illinois, an MBA from Harvard University, and a law degree from UCLA. He worked for several investment firms before forming his own firm, Donald Smith & Company. Donald’s knowledge of accounting, finance, and business informs his approach to cost-cutting. Investing capital in overlooked and underappreciated enterprises adds value to the world, a philosophy that also guides the Smith Family Foundation’s philanthropy.

Donald Smith seeks to achieve his ends at the lowest cost, so that resources can be freed up to add yet more value to the world. One can simultaneously strive for excellence and quality and seek to do so economically. Unlike the portrayal in popular media, cost-cutters are not evil. Don and his team understand that cutting costs frees up scarce resources to satisfy more human needs.

That insight informs his investing and his own life. As a Director of the Cato Institute, Don would take, neither a private jet, nor a commercial air flight, nor the Acela train, but the Chinatown bus from Manhattan to Washington, DC. When we flew together to visit our mutual friend George M. Yeager, both of us flew on discounted coach economy tickets. I had an aisle seat and Don was seated between a couple, both of whom were big people who had clearly hoped that the seat between them would remain empty. I quietly offered to Don to trade places and he declined. I asked him later why he didn’t fly business class, which he could afford. I got a lesson in Donald Smith’s philosophy: “I save my money so I can spend it on the things that are important to me: liberty, free markets, that stuff!”

Don attended a Cato University summer seminar I organized, where he met Robin Sitoula of the Samriddhi Prosperity Foundation in Nepal. Robin convinced Don to invest in their work, which as it turned out saved millions from a nightmare, as the Samriddhi team neutralized through very active public education campaigns the appeal and the destructive proposals of Nepal’s extreme Communist movements, which acquired the reins of government. The Samriddhi team had the courage and the determination and Donald Smith and his colleagues provided the capital. I shudder to think of what would have happened without that partnership. The Smith Family Foundation also supported the libertarians in Kyrgyzstan whose initiative and courage prevented the civil war that was being deliberately stirred up between ethnic groups. The Central Asian Free Market Institute mobilized volunteers to distribute food to villages that had been attacked, used cell phone networks and GPS to guide people around ambushes, and campaigned on radio for peace in every language, urging people not to fall for deliberate and coordinated acts of provocation. A civil war that could have taken 100,000 lives or more did not happen. And Donald Smith provided the capital that stopped it.

Two men, Palmer and Smith, wearing tuxedo's at an awards banquet.
Atlas Network's Dr. Tom G. Palmer with Don Smith at one of the many Freedom Dinners the Smith Family Foundation has generously sponsored.

Don and his team members suggested that I vet and nominate opportunities for the Foundation to invest in places where modest investments would have high ROIs, and as I spend a lot of time in quite poor places with truly terrible governance—hence the poverty, I knew about places with both potential for freeing creative energy and brave people who are willing to advance good ideas and policies in difficult places. Millions have experienced measurable increases in their freedom and their well-being as a result of those investments—vetted, administered, monitored, measured, and documented by my colleagues at Atlas Network.

In 2012 I sent a letter to colleagues whose work had benefited from investments from the Smith Family Foundation. I wrote not to chide them, as they were already very careful and cost conscious, but to remind them of our duty.

Dear Colleagues,

I’m writing about something that may seem obvious, but of which we must remind ourselves constantly.

Our donors make sacrifices to make our work possible. We should never think of our support as falling from the skies, or as just being there for us; it is earned by people who make conscious decisions to part with it in order to support our work.

One of our donors, Donald Smith, is a very successful businessman who lives and works in New York City. When he leaves events that he has paid for, other people wave for taxis, but Don walks across the street to take the bus. He just flew from New York to Tokyo and back on business and he flew both ways discounted coach airfare. When he travels to Washington, D.C., he takes the bus and saves $100 each way rather than taking the train. (The bus has wifi, too, and he takes his computer and works on the trip.) Then he writes substantial checks to support causes that are important to him, including our projects. He told me that he saves money so that he can spend it on what really matters to him.

I detailed ways that costs can and should be cut—competitive bidding, cost comparisons, repairing and recycling equipment, and so on—and noted that:

If you see a way to accomplish our ends less expensively, act on it. Cutting costs means adding more value to the world.

That was my attempt to distill and share some of the wisdom of Donald Smith.

Our friend has continued a long tradition in the liberty movement, a tradition of people who quietly and modestly create shared value by advancing libertarian principles and policies. Two great figures in the libertarian tradition come to mind when I think of Don and his impact. The Brazilian abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco lived from 1849 to 1910 and worked tirelessly for the liberation of the enslaved people of his country. Nabuco exhorted us to:

Educate your children, educate yourselves, in the love for the freedom of others, for only in this way will your own freedom not be a gratuitous gift from fate. You will be aware of its worth and will have the courage to defend it.

On Friday in São Paulo I gave a keynote address to over 1,050 members of the Brazilian Students for Liberty at their national conference. I talked about Nabuco’s example and that of their host, Donald Smith, for the event that brought students from all over Brazil was partly funded by an investment from the Smith Family Foundation through a grant from Atlas Network. The huge audience of young Brazilians—who were excited by the ideas of Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek, Frédéric Bastiat and Joaquim Nabuco, understood that Donald Smith loved their freedom. Many came up to ask that I convey to the Smith family and to all of Don’s friends their appreciation and love. Indeed, it was an investment of $17,500 in 2009 from the Smith Family Foundation in a liberty strategy conference in Porto Alegre in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul that reinvigorated the Brazilian libertarian movement and has resulted in many of our young friends being elected to state legislatures and to the federal Congress. Muito obrigado, Donald. Thank you so very much for your far-sightedness.

Donald Smith’s love for the freedom of others continues to burn brightly across the world and has inspired thousands and thousands and thousands of young people on every continent.

Donald Smith is also continuing the legacy of Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay, who lived from 1712 to 1759, who popularized the phrase “laissez faire et laissez passer, le mond va de lui même,” roughly: “leave us alone to do and come and go as we choose, the world runs itself”—and who invented the term “bureaucracy,” meaning government “by the desks.” De Gournay was a businessman and investor who devoted his resources to advancing the ideas and the policies of liberty.

In addition to organizing and financing the publication of books on libre échange—free exchange— de Gournay took under his wing young people whom he instructed in the principles of liberty, notably the young Ann-Robert-Jacques Turgot, who later became finance minister of France and in that role abolished barriers to trade, replaced the forced labor system known as the corvée with voluntary paid labor, introduced cost cutting in government and reduced public expenditures and debt, and eliminated prosperity-destroying mercantilistic interventions and monopolies. Turgot later advised that the Americans in their revolution should “reduce to the smallest number the kinds of affairs of which the government of each state should take charge.” In his eloge on Vincent de Gournay, Turgot pointed out that his mentor was “developing those principles which experience in business had taught him.” Vincent de Gournay was the Donald Smith of his day.

Both Vincent de Gournay and Donald Smith saw value where others did not, not only in business opportunities, but in the rule of law and the presumption of liberty that are the preconditions for widely shared prosperity. Vincent de Gournay and Donald Smith invested in the liberty movement, and those investments continue to improve the world. Their modesty led them to invest, not in monuments to vanity, but in the freedom of their fellow human beings.

Christopher Wren was the architect who rebuilt London after the great fire of 1666, including 52 churches. His body is interred in his masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral, marked by a humble stone that is inscribed: “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.” My friends, if you seek Donald Smith’s monument, look around you.

This is a celebration of a life well lived, so I conclude with a phrase that I heard many times from Donald Smith, after a thorough grilling on whether we were investing his funds effectively. I still hear his voice: “Now, go get ‘em!”

Thank you, Donald. Let’s go get ‘em!