Dr. Nikolai G. Wenzel has taught at a number of TFAS International programs spanning the globe including Croatia, Hong Kong, Guatemala and Chile. Currently, he is an economics professor at Universidad de las Hesperides in Spain. He was previously a professor at Flagler College and Florida Gulf Coast University, and he was the former Wallace and Marion Reemelin Chair in Free-Market Economics at Hillsdale College. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and graduated cum laude from Georgetown University with a bachelor’s in international affairs.
In this week’s episode of the Liberty and Leadership Podcast, TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 and Nikolai discuss how he has been able to combine his passion for travel with his joy of teaching economics in multiple countries, his time in Chile, the heartbreak he feels towards China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, the powerful attraction socialism holds on younger generations, and the how his students continue to inspire him.
The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.
Roger Ream [00:00:00] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty and Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni, supporters, faculty and friends who are making a real impact in public policy, business, philanthropy, law and journalism. Today I’m joined by Nikolai Wenzel, a member of the TFAS faculty. We’re recording this while Nikolai is in Santiago, Chile, having just finished teaching at the TFAS International program there. Nikolai has also taught for TFAS in Hong Kong, Guatemala and Croatia. We will discuss his teaching around the world for TFAS. Nikolai has had a very interesting career that has included work in the Foreign Service, teaching on the faculties of Hillsdale College, Flagler University in Florida, and UNC Fayetteville in North Carolina. He recently joined the faculty of the Universidad de las Hesperides, which I also want to talk to him about. It’s an interesting new project there. Nikolai is an exceptional professor dedicated to the success of students. He also conducts research and writes on various aspects of political economy, which we will be talking about today. Thanks so much for joining me from Santiago, Chile.
Nikolai Wenzel [00:01:25] It’s a pleasure to be here, Roger. Thank you. It’s been an energizing week, and I apologize if I come across as an overenthusiastic, hyped up Labrador because the students have been so great.
Roger Ream [00:01:37] Well, I appreciate that. I know our faculty that go to the international programs to teach come back with having a great experience there. I have jokingly sometimes said they should pay us for the opportunity to teach. We shouldn’t be paying them. But I’m just joking because we rely on great professors like you, Nikolai, to go to these campuses around the world and not only reach students from those regions, but also for the Americans who participate, who also get a great deal out of the program. So let’s start right off the bat talking about your experience teaching in Santiago, Chile. I’m interested in hearing your impressions of the students and of the situation in Chile today. But let’s start with you talking a little bit about what it is you taught there, the curriculum and the lectures that you gave.
Nikolai Wenzel [00:02:27] Sure. Thanks, Roger. So there are about 41 students from 17 different countries across the Americas. We have one polyglot student who is Lithuanian but currently lives in the Netherlands and speaks English and Spanish fluently. And I’m not in a position to assess her Dutch or her Lithuanian, but it’s mostly students from the Americas. This is the ninth program I’ve taught for TFAS and I hate to say it because I said it last year, but this is the best group of students that I’ve had. They’re extraordinary.
Roger Ream [00:03:00] Wonderful to hear.
Nikolai Wenzel [00:03:01] There were a few times where I was not able to get through my lecture notes in an hour and a half. And that’s my fault because the conversations were just simply so good with polite disagreement amongst the students on some of the limits of constitutions and the classical liberal project. So every year there’s been an introduction to political economy with an international focus, and we started shifting things around a little bit with the Dubrovnik program in Croatia, two years ago now. I think it was the emergence from COVID and we decided that it would be nice to talk about pandemics. And that fits in nicely because I started with my talk about constitutions and empowering the state to do the good things that we want, but also limiting the state and the pandemics a perfect example of limiting the state before there’s a problem. And incidentally, one of my research projects that I haven’t started quite yet is to look at whether any states in the U.S. have passed legislative provisions that limits the powers of governors to put on emergency powers or extend emergency situations after a certain level of review by the legislature. So I’ll be looking at that. Last year in Guatemala, we talk specifically about immigration, had debates about immigration and how that fits into freedom. And this year, because of the situation in Chile, we talked about the constitutions primarily, and that’s my home discipline. I wrote under Dick Wagner at George Mason University. My dissertation was on Argentina’s failed constitutions. And so this has been an intellectual treat for me, doubly, not just because of the quality of the students, but also because I get to revisit constitutional questions. And I dabbled a little bit in Chile 15 years ago when I wrote my dissertation, Roger, But I never really went into depth. And you better believe over the next three or four months I’ll be writing one or two papers about the Chilean constitution, and I already have eager students lined up to be research assistants or coauthors.
Roger Ream [00:04:58] Let me ask you to talk a little bit more about that, because many of the listeners of this podcast may not be aware of the situation in Chile. They have a constitution I know that was put in place when Pinochet was in charge of things, and it has gone a long way toward explaining, I think, the Chilean success because it protected private property. It set up a system of private savings, pensions for people, and it protected the private ownership of mines and set up, you know, a rule of law in that area and many other things. But they seem to have soured on it despite the fact that we saw prosperity in Chile unparalleled in any other part of South America. What’s going on there and what can we expect?
Nikolai Wenzel [00:05:47] So indeed, under the Pinochet regime that started in 1973, there was a constitution passed in 1980, which is still in vigor now. They have been in place now, there have been a few constitutional amendments. But fortunately, the complete crazy revamp of the constitution that was proposed failed. So the irony of the 1980 constitution is twofold, because it really was a textbook case of a good constitution that allowed for economic development and progress. Chile started out under the Marxist years before the coup, somewhere in the bottom quartile of the economic Freedom of the World index and gradually made its way up through the seventies and eighties to the second quartile and by 1990 and for the past 30 or so years, the country has been in the first quartile of economically free countries in the world, thanks in large part to a constitution that respects property rights and constrains the state. So the two ironies on this are one, that a military dictatorship passed a good constitution. And of course, we know the stories about Milton Friedman in the Chicago Boys visiting Pinochet and advising him on economic freedom and scolding him in terms of returning to democracy and respecting human rights. But there’s a deeper story there, because the Chicago boys were already influential in the 1950s and 60s in teaching economics in Chile and teaching the importance of economic freedom. So we have a good constitution that was passed under a military dictatorship. So it was passed under a cloud, even though it’s a good constitution. And then the second thing is, I’m still trying to figure out what caused the boiling point in October 2019. So this was before the COVID lockdowns. A lot of countries had social unrest because of COVID. This was well before the COVID lockdowns. Chile was doing extremely well. It was high on the economic freedom rankings. It was high in middle class. It was high in basic indicators of human index and a small spark in the form of a really trivial subway fare increase led to social unrest and 1.2 million people in the streets. And it’s ironic because the country was doing well and certainly on an international scale, was doing well on a regional scale, also was doing much better than its neighbors. And yet there was social unrest. And one of the explanations for that is that there was a very effective marketing campaign by the left and hard left and Chile, which took this opportunity to push for a radical change. And the social unrest was such that the government agreed to a constitutional convention. Now, this is the fun part, I think. The left overplayed its hand and was able to get a very strong representation. In addition to, it’s not just the American Academy that suffers from identity politics, the Chilean Constitutional Convention did also, instead of looking at people as individuals, it looked at people as members of groups. But the left overplayed its hand and produced a constitution that was, if I can get geeky for a second. Far to the left of the median Chilean voter. So the median Chilean voter rejected the constitution and rejected the constitutional project. And it sounds like one element was that the left overplayed its hand and produced a convention that was over representative of the left and therefore a constitution that was over representative of the left, but also that the left outmaneuvered the forces of freedom in the Constitutional Convention and proposed a radically leftist collectivist constitution for a fundamentally centrist or reflexively conservative country. And fortunately, the Constitution failed. Now the bad news is the legislature is up to no good and again proposed a constitutional convention. And the president is a pretty hard leftist who would be pretty happy with that. But it looks like there are countervailing forces in both society and the legislature that are going to prevent that.
Roger Ream [00:09:58] Yeah, I know one of our guest speakers this past week was Jose Pinero, who was involved as an architect of some of the economic reforms. And I’ve seen his presentation, which some of which I’m sure he gave to our students about. I loved his phrase, how in Chile they were defeating poverty with liberty.
Nikolai Wenzel [00:10:20] Yes.
Roger Ream [00:10:20] And if you look at those studies, the statistics, World Bank studies, etc. and it showed that people were coming out of poverty. The country was getting richer, the poorest were getting richer. Maybe equality was not decreasing, maybe it was. But the important thing is that the poor were being lifted up. And poverty, and especially compared to the rest of the region. That’s great you were down there to be able to look into that issue. And I hope you do write about it. Going back to something you said about, you know, your focus on constitutions in Argentina. I remember a remark by a previous professor of ours, the late Walter Burns from Georgetown, mentioned going down to Argentina to lecture once about constitutions. And afterwards, he said someone came after him in the Q&A to say, how can you, an American, come down here and lecture us on constitutions when you’ve only had one and we’ve had dozens?
Nikolai Wenzel [00:11:20] Yep.
Roger Ream [00:11:21] Now, Chile’s a little bit different matter. But why do you think it is that we’re constantly seeing rewrites of constitutions in South America? Is it a swing of the pendulum from the populist left to the maybe corrupt crony right? That is taking place right now. We see turmoil in Brazil and Peru and issues you’ve just talked about in Chile. And of course, we all know the situation in Venezuela. Why can’t more countries in South America get things right and come to understand that the secret to prosperity isn’t that complicated? It involves the rule of law and respect for private property. Is it envy and greed at work by forces in society that they want everything to be equal rather than everyone to be enjoying better, more prosperity?
Nikolai Wenzel [00:12:13] Well, there certainly are elements of that. But I think underlying that is a fundamental problem of what a constitution means. And so in the U.S., we got lucky. There’s no doubt about it. We got lucky in terms of culture and in terms of background. So at the time of the American founding, I’m a great fan of the U.S. Constitution and I read and reread it. And the greatest weakness of the Constitution is the American people who have not always followed it, but the documents good. But the wisdom of the founders was to respect existing traditions, respect local self-government, respect individual self-government, respect the separation of powers, and respect the British tradition of rule of law. To which I understand this I’m not a lawyer, but I understand the Supreme Court still refers to English law as a precedent. Latin America, unfortunately, instead of having the British constitutional and legal and cultural tradition, came from the tradition of the Spanish crown, which unfortunately was not as conducive to liberty because it was much more based on central power. So you had central power, but then you had local blocks of power which ignored the central power or fought with it or fought with each other. A strong man tradition, not the same tradition of divided government and checks and balances, and certainly not the same tradition of rule of law. So there’s a sense that even 200 some odd years later in the case, 250 years later in the U.S. and a little bit less in Argentina, we’re still conditioned by the cultural values that we inherited over time. And it’s a challenge for Latin America because of that cultural inheritance. So a constitution, instead of being a a statement of principles within which politics takes place, a constitution becomes itself a political game with multiple constitutions. And when I’m the president and I don’t want to be bound by a term limit, I will simply have a constitutional convention and rewrite it or rewrite it for a friend of mine. And I do have to say that I’m worried that the U.S. is starting to lapse into that direction. Also with politics, by all means, rather than constitutional thinking. But that certainly has been a Latin American problem since the beginning and trying to figure out what kind of constitution to adopt.
Roger Ream [00:14:37] Well, at some point I may ask you whether teaching at our TFAS programs has made you an optimist or pessimist about the future. But first, I think it’s important to go through some of the other places you’ve been with TFAS, most particularly you taught a few years ago for multiple years in Hong Kong at our program at the University of Hong Kong. You were there the final year of our program as the Communist Party in Beijing was clamping down on things in that wonderful place, clamping down on dissent and democracy and the rule of law, all in violation of a treaty they’d signed involving the handover. What was that experience like teaching for TFAS in Hong Kong overall, as well as things were changing rapidly?
Nikolai Wenzel [00:15:28] Well, in this one, Roger, I may be an economist and governed by reason rather than passion, but this one’s personal. I fell in love with Hong Kong and I had some of the best students I’ve had there. You know, I keep saying that, but this was completely different. Just one little tidbit that I found interesting. I have had amazing students in the U.S. and not so great students in the U.S. And I’ve taught at Hillsdale College where students often ask for more work. And I’ve taught at state schools where we had a two thirds failure rate or withdrawal rate in intro classes. Out of 60 students, I would typically have about 25 students who would walk out of every classroom after the class for the break and who would acknowledge me and say, thank you for teaching us, professor. And it was a wonderful opportunity to see students who did not take higher education for granted, who were hungry for knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but also because they knew that it was their key to social mobility. And certainly their parents were very supportive of the efforts. And it was an opportunity for me to meet students from Hong Kong, from a half dozen Southeast Asian countries, talk about the challenges that they faced, meet some students from mainland China and learn some of the things that they were taught. So the reverence for Mao, who put China back on the world map, yes, he did, but killed about 40 million people in the process. And when talking about the Tiananmen Square massacre, a lot of the Chinese students were uncomfortable and would say things like, well, we still don’t have all the facts about about Tiananmen Square. Well, I think they were right. They didn’t have the facts. We certainly know what happened there. And in terms of Hong Kong, we had watched over the years the Umbrella Revolution, which was basically a revolution about local not even a revolution, but local economy. And when we arrived there in the summer of 2019 to teach the last TFAS Hong Kong program there, the protests were stepping up about the national security law and were happening every week. And the final weekend there, I had the opportunity to attend a protest. And I have to admit to you, my first thought was if I get arrested, I might not be able to come to class on the next day. But if I’m going to get up in class and talk about the American founding and the founders who pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honors and talk about Hayek and talk about the importance of rule of law against tyranny, I thought I could go out and protest and somebody would cover for me, for my class if I was detained. And so I learned a lot in that process of talking to some of the student protesters. And in fact, as we were with the other program organizers having dinner the night after the protests, our hotel was about a block away from what I call the Chinese embassy to Hong Kong, which is formerly the Chinese liaison office. And some students were there spray painting graffiti on the walls and having a peaceful protest. So we went out to look and talk to them. They told us to go back in as the riot police arrived. So we went back into our hotel and fortunately that was peacefully defuzed. But by that point, the Chinese communists had made life difficult enough for the territory in Hong Kong that we really could not return. I wrote an article about it. One of my colleagues, a former staff member, wrote an article about it, and it would not be wise for us to return to Hong Kong because we could technically be arrested under the national security law. The sadness of Hong Kong is personal. I had a lot of deep friendships that I forced there. I had a lot of some of the best hikes that I’ve had and vistas over the city in the South China Sea, some of the best restaurants and the buzz and energy of a free city, a city of commerce, a city of rule of law, a city with the British tradition of rule of law. But the good news is, since I’m an inherent optimist, is that I got to meet students from Eastern Europe and now from the Americas, and the process of teaching in Croatia, teaching in Guatemala, and teaching in Chile. It’s been another amazing page, just as I grieve for the people of Hong Kong.
Roger Ream [00:19:31] As you may know, in November, we had a dinner in New York City and we gave our Ken Tomlinson Award for Courage in Journalism to Jimmy Lai, who’s sitting in a prison in Hong Kong, now denied the right to his own lawyer of his choosing and being, you know, on trumped up charges, basically because he believes in holding China to its agreement to allow the rule of law and democracy in some form to remain in Hong Kong. So I admire him for his great courage. You mentioned Croatia. That was one of two programs you taught for us, perhaps on shorter notice, because we were scrambling due to COVID restrictions in Prague, first to hold a program in Croatia. And later, because we couldn’t go back to Chile last year, we went to Guatemala instead. So Croatia was, I think, your first time teaching at one of our programs in Europe. If I’m not mistaken.
Nikolai Wenzel [00:20:33] It was.
Roger Ream [00:20:35] Can you talk a little about that program in Croatia? I know it’s a beautiful, beautiful place where we were, but I would love to have you talk more about that experience.
Nikolai Wenzel [00:20:45] It is a beautiful place. It was also an opportunity to see students from different countries and different perspectives and already Central and Eastern Europeans living in the shadow of Russia. So they were too young to have grown up under communist tyranny, but they already knew that something was going on in Moscow and unfortunately that culminated in the war. I think the most interesting thing about that program or the different thing about that program was the ability to talk about pandemics and the limits of state action. The other professor Ibrahim Al-Marashi. I dont think I’m pronouncing that correctly. Sorry, Ibrahim.
Roger Ream [00:21:18] He’s been a guest recently on this podcast.
Nikolai Wenzel [00:21:20] I saw that. Yes. And he’s an expert historian and an expert on pandemics. So he was able to bring his perspective in from history and conflict resolution. I brought in my perspective from political economy. And I just want to point out, out of that program, I made several friendships with students, including one of them who has been roped into becoming my teaching assistant. He’s halfway across the world in the Republic of Georgia and eager for experience. So I’ve hired him and I already have at least a half dozen students in the current program who want to coauthor articles with me or want some mentoring. TFAS, really, for me is the gift that keeps on giving. I want to talk a little bit more about the importance of the program, if I may. But on a personal note, it’s about the development of friendships and ideas. I want to jump back to the Hong Kong program briefly. We had a little bit of overlap in the beginning and fortunately were able to settle for four of the six years I taught there with a philosophy professor, Charlie Thomas, out of Mercer University in Georgia. And we decided that it would be beneficial for the students instead of having a week of Wenzel and a week of Thomas to have an overlap. So Charlie would talk about the philosophical foundations of the U.S. Constitution for an hour and a half. And then I would talk about the institutional and economic effects of the U.S. Constitution. And we were able to go back and forth. And Charlie and I became friends in this process. And we’ve got a special issue coming out any week now, sometime over the next few weeks in a French journal that was started by our friend Frederick Bestia, the journal The Economist. And Charlie and I decided to have a little fun and put together a special issue with ten invited essays on the tradition of liberty in France. So France has a tradition of socialism, but it also has given us some of the greatest thinkers who were influential on the U.S. Constitution, Montesquieu and Montaigne. And certainly our friend Jean-Baptiste Say, who invented the concept of entrepreneurship. And some more modern thinkers, the Fazio crats who influenced, they were not perfect, but they influenced the idea of natural law and economics. And so this is the kind of intellectual friendships that develop out of TFAS programs. And the students themselves stay in touch. They’ve got I’m a little too old to understand the ins and outs of chat groups, but the students a year later still communicate with each other and help each other out with ideas and fellowships and research programs. And TFAS is creating not just an intellectual environment, but also a culture almost like the Republic of Letters, except it’s the Republic of Chats, perhaps we could call it.
Roger Ream [00:24:03] Well, I like that term, and I know the students have the technology today to stay so connected, so network, to keep in touch with each other in ways that were never possible. And at least when I was a college student and when I did a TFAS program many years ago. We had to write letters to each other if we were going to communicate and hope that the Pony Express would deliver them. So you mentioned you were in Guatemala last summer at the wonderful University of Francisco American UFM, which is one of my favorites, a great, great campus there in Guatemala City, doing wonderful work, dedicated to preparing leaders for Guatemala and the region who have a commitment to the rule of law and individual liberty. That program, I’m reminded that one outcome of that program and you can talk more broadly about the program was didn’t you work on coauthoring a piece with one of the students there or worked with one of the students who then got some recognition internationally?
Nikolai Wenzel [00:25:08] We’re still working on that piece because the student was distracted by two wonderful things. The first one is making it through his fourth year at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and I’m a less demanding taskmaster than a drill sergeant. He was a rational utility maximizer and focusing on getting out of his fourth year and getting commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. But he also was distracted by the successful preparation for a Rhodes Scholarship. So that was particularly pleasing.
Roger Ream [00:25:37] Wonderful. Great. Nikolai, just to interrupt for a second. That speaks to the quality of the students our team is able to recruit. We’ve had this relationship with the Air Force Academy since the mid eighties, and they truly send some of the top cadets at the academy. I’ve been out a number of times for the commencement in Colorado Springs, and the students who did our program the previous summer are right at the top of the class, graduating with the highest honors from the academy. And it speaks to how they value our program as well. So speak more about Guatemala.
Nikolai Wenzel [00:26:18] I will and before I speak more about Guatemala, I don’t know how these Air Force cadets do it because I was able to get good grades in college. But that’s pretty much all I was doing aside from a job here and there and a few artistic pursuits. They have two jobs, as you know. So the first job is the academics, well probably the second job. And the first one is military science and training to be an officer in physical fitness. And these kids who are able to get 3.8, 3.9 GPAs and know I got some pretty challenging questions and we are going to write a public choice paper as soon as things quiet down a little bit for Jamie. Guatemala was also an experimental program and Universidad Francisco Marroquin was certainly helpful with that. They have a fantastic infrastructure for programs and they were very supportive on this. We decided to do a discussion of immigration and liberty. This is the wonderful thing about TFAS programs and the the tradition of liberty, the tradition of enlightenment. We can disagree. And if the goal is the preservation of the U.S. constitutional system, does that mean allowing free immigration? Because it’s a free country and we welcome anybody who is coming peacefully to work? Or does that mean restrictions on immigration because there’s a certain culture that sustains the U.S. Constitution? We didn’t answer that question completely, but nobody has over the span of 200 years. And that’s part of the richness of the tradition. But the students were deeply, deeply involved. And they also, for the last third of the program, engaged in a uniquely American project called a Co-creation, which is that the students broke down into groups of about ten. And after the heavy doses and heavy reading of theory that we had them do for the first ten days or two weeks or so over the span of four days, they proposed actual practical projects to advance some problem of immigration. And the winning one was a small scale but scalable integration project for immigrants who would be taken under their wing by existing businesses and learn about U.S. entrepreneurship and learn about U.S. culture. I’m still working. I make no promises, but I’m working with the students to see if that can’t be implemented. It would be a relatively cheap project, maybe five or $10,000 at most. It would be starting with a food fair with existing restaurants and new restaurants and provision of language services and teaching, basically integration of immigrants into the American dream. So I was particularly excited about that portion of the project.
Roger Ream [00:28:56] Now we’ve covered the four programs you’ve taught in over the years. As you said, you’ve taught at nine different programs in four different locations around the world. How do you find students today? Are they the students that we attract to our programs that you have in the classroom? Do these do ideas you teach, are they sticky? Do they resonate with the students or do they come hungry to learn more about how to create a prosperous society that maximizes human flourishing through the rule of law and and in a free market order? You know, what’s your overall reaction to the young people you teach in our programs?
Nikolai Wenzel [00:29:37] Well, Roger, I don’t know where you find these students or Michelle finds them, and I don’t know where you’re hiding them, but they’re fantastic. The first thing is they’re smart, they’re hardworking, they are grateful, and they are hungry. And I don’t hesitate to give them heavy doses of difficult reading. Sometimes I give them opposing readings and they digest them and they go with them so that we can have good discussions. So the first thing that amazes me is, again, I’ve seen all level of American students and I think there is a crisis in higher education in the U.S. I know there is a crisis in higher education in the U.S. today. Part of that having to do with the education bubble from wanting federal funding and a lot of students being in college when they don’t want to be there or aren’t ready for it because they don’t have the tools for it. And then in parallel to that, we get the neo-Marxist cancel culture, identity politics, woke nonsense that’s going on in universities. The students you are able to find are the exact opposite of that. Now they don’t all agree with me. That’s not the point. And I make a point of making things difficult for students in terms of presenting them with different viewpoints, asking them about the limits of the state, asking them about what a constitution of liberty, what a free market looks like. Are there any limits on it? I try not to tell them what I think about it because I want them to think their way into it. And I find that there are really two kinds of students at these programs. There are the ones who have already read Milton Friedman and the classics of free markets and probably read the Wall Street Journal every day, and the Economic Freedom of the World index when it comes out and they’re hungry for even more. And then there are the skeptics who are there because they want to find out why some countries are rich or some countries are poor. And I have every year at least a half dozen students or dozen students who come to me and say, I really disagreed with you at the beginning because I thought we needed more state intervention, more regulation. But now I’m skeptical and I’m starting to think that maybe the market does a better job at aggregating information. Maybe the market does create incentives to create prosperity and to exchange and to engage in entrepreneurship. So it’s always a heartening and exciting experience leading them. Of course, the basic philosophy that education is not about opening the mind and dumping ideas into it, but having them think about it. The evidence is clear from the world. Free markets lead the prosperity.
Roger Ream [00:32:06] In addition to the work you do for TFAS, you’ve recently accepted a new position that’s going to take you to Europe and to teach in a new virtual university that’s being established. Why don’t you tell us something about that and keeping in mind, of course, that we’ll still be calling on you to teach in our programs.
Nikolai Wenzel [00:32:28] Well, I certainly hope so. TFAS is my intellectual candi every year. This university is very exciting. It’s called, as you said, universidad. It is based in the Canary Islands, but it’s an innovative program that is going to be entirely virtual. So it will be able to attract students from around the world. And it is largely a free market, liberty oriented program having students examine the foundations of a free society. So I’m going to be a professor of economics in that program, teaching in the English language and Spanish language master’s program in economics. And I’m also going to be the director of the English Language Master’s program in economics. When that takes off, that university is just starting. I don’t know if they have any students quite registered yet, but classes start in mid-March and we’re ready to go. And it was founded by the former president of American University in Guatemala, who is a Spaniard himself. And after five years of doing exciting things at Francisco American University and developing it, he decided it was time for him to go home and go back to Spain, to his native Canary Islands. And he started this program with a team that he put together. And it was rather exciting for me because I already know the folks who are starting it. I already know more important, the philosophy behind it. And we’re on board and I’m excited for the kinds of students we’re going to have. I’ve given a fair bit of lectures, individual lectures in Spanish. I confess that I’m a little nervous about teaching my entire class in Spanish, including a master’s degree in economics microeconomics level class. I’ll get through it with help from my friends over the next few weeks, but I’m really excited to be able to talk about political economy in the Austrian school and public choice and the importance of institutions, and to have students from around the world primarily through asynchronous lectures that I record, but also through sessions with the entire class and also a number, I think it’s four individual meetings with the students over the semester, one on one tutorials. So I’m excited by the model and I’m also excited by the content.
Roger Ream [00:34:40] So the instruction will be in Spanish?
Nikolai Wenzel [00:34:44] Some classes in Spanish, others in English. Yes.
Roger Ream [00:34:46] Well, it sounds like an interesting venture. Are they hoping to have Americans enroll in the university as well?
Nikolai Wenzel [00:34:51] Certainly with the opportunity to get the English language master’s program and I have shamelessly been recruiting amongst the TFAS students here in Chile, and I’ll be writing to the Guatemala students to see if anybody’s interested in taking a chance on a startup master’s program.
Roger Ream [00:35:06] Well, I’ll have to have you back on one of these podcasts in a year or so and hear how it’s all going.
Nikolai Wenzel [00:35:11] I would love that. Thank you.
Roger Ream [00:35:12] I wish you much success at that. One thing you and I have talked about in more relaxed times, we’ve been together like, you know, after a long day of teaching at University of Hong Kong, sitting in the hotel executive room having a beer or something. Is the extensive travel you’ve done, you know, my count is about 40 countries around the world. I think you’ve said you’ve hit 70 now. You love to travel. You also started your career in the Foreign Service for the United States government. And I know are posted, at least in Mexico. Where did this interest in things international develop? Is there something you grew up with or you develop later as you went through your career?
Nikolai Wenzel [00:36:00] A little bit of both. My mother was French, my late mother was French and my father American, and they met when they were grad students at the University of Chicago. Not at all in economics. My father in chemistry, my mother in sociology. And they got married and started a family. And about every four or five years, one of them would get homesick and want to live closer to one set of parents or grandparents. And so I had the opportunity to move back and forth as a kid between Western Europe, primarily France, but also a little bit of England and briefly Denmark and the Eastern seaboard, primarily Maryland and New Jersey. So that started an international interest. And then it happened little by little. I wanted to represent the U.S. at foreign embassies through my diplomatic work. I also wanted to find out how U.S. foreign policy was crafted and I wanted to see foreign countries and try out international travel. So I applied to the Foreign Service. My competitive examination was commissioned as a foreign Service officer sent to Mexico City. And Mexico City was an amazing, fascinating, sometimes confusing rich cultural intellectual environment for two years. And I hated the Foreign Service. I hated the bureaucracy. I hated the inefficiency of it all. And I think the United States government for making me a classical liberal, a friend of liberty, because I started reading Thomas Sowell and other authors on bureaucracy and realizing that this was not the way to do things. And I confess I was Wilsonian institutionalist in college, and I thought everything the U.S. government could not do, the United Nations could. Two years in the Foreign Service cured me of that. And then I started working at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Now the Atlas Network for Leonard Leggio, who was a perfect first boss.
Roger Ream [00:37:45] Yeah, great mentor to many.
Nikolai Wenzel [00:37:48] And he turned me on to economics. So I decided I would take a 7:30 a.m. class at nearby George Mason University just because it was close. Some guy named Walter Williams, who turned out to be a giant of economics and the teacher who turned me on to the study of economics and I decided to pursue a Ph.D. And the joy of being a professor is that I can blend travel with the the work that I do. So I’ve gotten a number of fellowships to work in Paris. I’m a fellow of a research institute there. I was during my time in Chile, I was able to get a speaking engagement with Students for Liberty in La Paz, Bolivia. Unfortunately, the way the plane tickets worked out, I would have arrived at 4:00 in the morning on a Saturday, slept for a few hours, had a lunch with students, a talk in the afternoon, a dinner with students, and gotten up at 6:00 the next day to fly back to Chile. It just wasn’t right this time. But I like to jump on opportunities. Even if it’s 48 hours in a country. Hong Kong was great for that because I realized they could get four or five more fascinating countries ticked off my list for about a $200 airfare.
Roger Ream [00:38:57] Yeah, I remember you’d duck out on the weekend and head down to Thailand, Vietnam or somewhere. Taiwan, perhaps. But that’s wonderful. And I imagine your experience in the Foreign Service brief, as it may have been, is something that is of interest to students because many of our students are interested in international careers and careers in the Foreign Service, and you can warn them about the bureaucracy and what they’re going to expect.
Nikolai Wenzel [00:39:26] I have a good friend who stayed 18 years in the Foreign Service and then left to go into the private sector. He had his frustrations. Any job will have frustrations, but he also absolutely loved and was able to go to multiple countries. My biggest advice for students is talk to multiple people because there are many pros to the Foreign Service. They’ll take care of you. They’ll handle your move, they’ll handle your housing. You’ll get a new job every two years. You get the royal treatment when you arrive because you have facilitators for your passports and visas. But there are also drawbacks. So it’s important to to learn from that and ask a lot of questions of a variety of different people.
Roger Ream [00:40:05] Paul seemed to suggest that an alarmingly large plurality of young people favor socialism over capitalism. Now, I take those polls with a grain of salt, because if you substitute the words and say socialism versus free enterprise, you get a result that isn’t quite as alarming. But, you know, why is it that young people find socialism attractive? Is it because the concepts you teach in a course in economics related to things like, you know, emergent orders, spontaneous orders that emerge in a society that it’s much simpler to think about imposing a plan to accomplish it and a goal than to think that things can emerge spontaneously and in a far better way through markets and through voluntary cooperation. How do you assess these, this attraction of socialism to young people?
Nikolai Wenzel [00:41:05] Oh, sure. It’s certainly much more attractive to have a fully developed plan itself. Unfortunately, unless one is studied economics, it sounds wishy washy to say, well, the market process is going to handle that as opposed to here’s my five point plan of regulation, etc.. It’s also a much easier sell to voters. And you can tell voters you’re suffering right now. And here’s why markets fail. And here are the five points, as opposed to painstakingly explaining to voters that, in fact, markets create prosperity. And it’s not a national program, but it’s the action of entrepreneurs who are moving resources, creating opportunities, responding to consumer demands. And there are two problems at hand, I think is by the time students arrive at college, they’ve had 13 years of government education, the quality of which is uneven at best, shall we say. Some students arrive in college very well-prepared, and others have difficulty lining up a sentence, a proper grammatical sentence in English, let alone thinking critically. They’ve also been bombarded by media for the 12 years, mainstream media being largely interventionist and largely socialist. So that’s one difficulty that we have. And I think another difficulty is that the ideas are right. So our side has a tendency to think, well, the ideas are right, they’re so obvious. And I’ve been tempted several times when somebody approaches me and says, I’m not sure interventionism works, I will respond. Here’s a copy of Human Action by Ludwig von Mises. It’s 880 pages long. It will explain everything you need. Now, I’m joking because I will do that for about one student per year because the students ready for it. But our side, the side of liberty, the side of free markets, I think has tended to be maybe a little too cerebral rather than appealing to emotions. And also, I think the story that we need to tell is not just the story of highfalutin principles and natural rights which do exist and not the story of economic growth and GDP and GDP per capita, but the individual stories. Markets cure poverty. Markets cure ignorance. Markets cure crime. These are the kinds of things with higher levels of liberty and constitutional constraints and less intervention by government. We’re going to get fewer of these social ills, and I think we need to appeal more to emotion, but also to those who have not had opportunities because they’re left behind, those who haven’t had opportunities, because they haven’t had education, those who are blocked from practicing an honest living by occupational licensing. That’s the kind of thing I think that we need to start looking at more. And it’s not easy.
Roger Ream [00:43:46] So better to start them with books like The Law by Bastiat, who you referenced earlier that not only, you know, make kind of the economic arguments, but also do it from a moral perspective. And you also, I know, have used in the classroom the index of economic freedom, which is very telling that the richest countries in the world happen to be the freest ones. And the ones with the least amount of freedom happen to be the poorest countries. And then we can get into arguing, as we always do, about Scandinavian countries, which, you know, people try to argue are socialist countries, which they aren’t. They have often lower tax rates and more of a commitment to free trade than the United States does and other countries that are viewed as capitalist. So we’re getting up on our limit in terms of time. And I know your time is precious because you’ll be leaving Santiago tonight.
Nikolai Wenzel [00:44:40] In just a few hours.
Roger Ream [00:44:40] Returning to the United States. I’ll point out to our listeners, this is the 30th year, our 30th anniversary of doing international programs. We started the first program in Prague in 1993, just a few years after the Berlin Wall came down and had students coming from all over the former Soviet Union and Eastern and Central Europe to learn about our system of limited government in this country, our Constitution and our free market system. We’ve branched out and done those programs now in Greece, Guatemala, Croatia, Hong Kong, Santiago, Chile, perhaps Singapore. I will say that it’s been a challenge as an organization over those 30 years to find a tremendous amount of funding for these international programs. But we’ve stuck with them because we think they’re vital not only to reach students in those regions of the world, but also for Americans who go to those countries. You talked about the Air Force Academy. You know, I could share if we had more time testimony. There’s a member of Congress who did our program in Prague in 1994, and he attributes his decision to run for Congress to going to Prague in 1994. And it made him appreciate how precious freedom is and the freedoms we have in this country. When he spent three weeks with kids who grown up under communism. You know, we owe it to tremendous people like you, professor Nikolai Wenzel, for your commitment to go to these places around the world to teach these ideas to students and whether they’re Americans or whether they’re from other countries, it’s truly made a difference. We’ve truly made a mark. I don’t mean to go into a long closing remark here, and I have a question at the end of it, but currently, two of the ambassadors, the United Nations from Poland and the Czech Republic are TFSA alums. Leaders in these countries around the world who’ve gone through our programs have been inspired to pursue leadership and have a commitment to a free society because of these programs. But we owe it to you and other faculty members like you who go there and teach. So any parting words that could just reinforce the importance of these programs that we put on around the world?
Nikolai Wenzel [00:46:59] I’m so excited. So it’s exciting I think at of course, an individual level. I love sharing these ideas and I love showing students the importance of it all. But it’s not about my selfish joy in teaching. I think it was Henry Kissinger who said America doesn’t have permanent friends, only interests. And what The Fund for American Studies is doing really is moving foreign interest towards an understanding of liberty and towards an understanding of American institutions, but also creating friends, friends of the U.S., people who are going to understand what it is, creating friendships. And this is a classic example of soft power, of selling the ideas that made the U.S. wealthy and prosperous that can make other countries. And a lot of these students or future leaders, they put me to shame. They’re doing so much more by the age of 22, than I did by the age of 30, and having them understand the American system. I was thinking also there were a few students from China. And should things get problematic or more problematic or so with China and there’s a negotiation down the road, I would love to see a TFAS graduate from the Air Force Academy sitting across the table from a TFAS graduate from mainland China who will at least have that kind of main understanding. Now it’s small scale. It’s a very effective scale. You’re very good at choosing leaders. You’re great at choosing students who are going to become professors, are going to become legislators, are going to become movers and social entrepreneurs in their country. So I think it is very, very important that we continue to teach the American system, the system, the constitutional system, the system, free markets, the system of individual liberty, not just within the United States, but also creating allies and friends across the world who understand it and sharing the recipe for success that work for the U.S. while also creating friendships and allies who will understand the American system.
Roger Ream [00:48:53] Yeah, we have a limited number of scholarship programs now that have been established to bring these international students to our programs in Washington as well, which, you know, that’s a great experience when you come from Poland or Estonia or Santiago, Chile, and you can spend the summer in Washington, D.C., and in our American programs, that can be very telling. I remember a story from some years back of a young man from Colombia who came to our program in Washington, D.C., and I asked him for his impressions of the program after a few weeks. And he said, I called my father last week and told him I’d been reading Milton Friedman. He thought he died and gone to heaven because this young man said, I’d always consider myself a social Democrat or a socialist, but I’m here in Washington, D.C. And he said, it’s not the American students. It’s two friends, friendships I’ve developed with students from Francisco, American in Guatemala who are attending this program here. And they’re constantly challenging my views on issues. So it’s that interaction not just in the classroom with the professor in the front, with the students interacting socially that can make such a difference. So I know you see that in the programs you teach in.
Nikolai Wenzel [00:50:12] I sure do. And that’s a classic example right there of universalism and exceptionalism, the natural rights are universal, free markets are universal. But there’s also something exceptional about the U.S. experience and the U.S. experiment. And it’s a challenge for Americans to preserve that. But it’s also an opportunity to teach the exceptional set of recipes and rules and institutions that made the U.S. what it is.
Roger Ream [00:50:39] Well, thank you very much. Nikolai Wenzel has been my guest today. Thank you for teaching in Santiago, Chile, these last few weeks. Safe travels home, and I look forward to seeing you got another TFAS program soon.
Nikolai Wenzel [00:50:52] It’s been a pleasure. And thanks for running these exceptional and exciting programs, Roger. Thank you.
Roger Ream [00:50:57] Thank you for listening to the Liberty and Leadership Podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it. And if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org. The Liberty and Leadership Podcast is produced at kglobal Studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host Roger Ream and until next time, show courage in things large and small.
About the Podcast
TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.
Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.
If you have a comment or question for the show, please email podcast@TFAS.org.
View future episodes and subscribe at TFAS.org/podcast.