Joseph P. Overton: Character for a Free Society

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A person's character is nothing more and nothing less than the sum of his choices. You can't choose your height or race or many other physical traits, but you fine-tune your character every time you distinguish right from wrong and act accordingly. Your character is further defined by how you choose to interact with others and the standards of speech and conduct you uphold.

Ravaged by conflict and corruption, the world is starving these days for people of high character. Indeed, as much as anything, it is on this issue that the fate of individual liberty has always depended. A free society flourishes when people seek to be models of honor, honesty, and propriety. It descends into barbarism when they abandon what's right in favor of self-gratification at the expense of others, when lying, cheating, or stealing are winked at instead of shunned. Those who favor the steady advance of liberty must assign top priority to raising the caliber of their own character and learning from those who already have it in spades.

So it is good news for liberty when anyone, anywhere, commits his life to the loftiest standards of personal and professional behavior. It's bad news when we lose such models, and it is with profound sadness that I share some bad news with readers of this journal. The world's sum of good character suffered an incalculable subtraction with the untimely death on June 30 of a friend and colleague, Joseph P. Overton. Killed in a tragic plane crash at the age of 43, barely three months after making his vows to the woman of his dreams at a picture-perfect wedding, he will be remembered by many lovers of liberty around the world as a man who displayed the highest character in every way.

Since his college days Joe believed that liberty and character were mutually dependent and he felt an irresistible calling to work for the advancement of both. He reached the zenith of his contributions as senior vice president at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, whose staff he joined in January 1992. You cannot walk an inch in our 23,000-square-foot headquarters without seeing his imprint-in the output of our organization to the very building itself, whose construction he supervised in 1997.

Talk to any one of our nearly 30 employees and you'll hear the same: Through his example, his mere presence in a room would raise everyone's standards of speech and conduct. As a consummate administrator he taught us the importance of continuous organizational improvement through Total Quality Management. He was able to do that effectively not just because he knew the nuts and bolts of the subject, but because he practiced it in his personal life as well. I heard him say many times, "You cannot impart what you don't possess."

Joe Overton was the straightest straight shooter I've ever known. Not a speck of deception, guile, conceit, or hidden agenda in him. He said what he meant and meant what he said, always. You never, ever had to wonder if he was telling you the truth. He kept his word as if it was an indispensable and inseparable physical appendage like an arm or a leg. Like so many others, I came to place total, unqualified trust in him. So did others who came to know him. Never underestimate the importance of truth and trust to a free society; if we cannot deal with each other on those terms, we will resort to the ugliness of brute force and political power. …