Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Leader for Liberty in Latin America: Manuel Ayau (1925-2010) by Richard M. Ebeling

One of the outstanding leaders of individual liberty and economic freedom in Latin America, Dr. Manuel Ayau, passed away on August 4, 2010 at the age of 85.

Many Americans may not be familiar with his name or his contributions to the cause of liberty, but he was most assuredly one of the “movers and shakers” in defense of capitalism in the Spanish-speaking world.

His greatest and most lasting achievement was the founding in 1972 of Francisco Marroquin University (FMU) in Guatemala. He also served as its first president until 1988. Under his stewardship, FMU has developed into one of the most academically respected institutions of higher learning in Central and South America, not only offering undergraduate degrees but graduate programs in medicine and dentistry, as well.

But the true hallmark of FMU since its establishment by Manuel Ayau is its principled and uncompromising dedication to the ideals of classical liberalism and free market economics, and especially that free market tradition known as the “Austrian School” of economics. Indeed, no student can successfully graduate from Francisco Marroquin University without taking two mandatory courses: “The Social Philosophy of Ludwig von Mises” and “The Social Philosophy of F. A. Hayek,” the two leading figures of the Austrian School in the 20th century.

His courage in establishing FMU was not only due to the obvious entrepreneurial and financial risk in founding a private institution of higher learning. It was courageous because in the 1970s Guatemala was in the midst of a violent civil war, with collectivist and socialist fractions of several types battling and committing acts of terror against “enemies of the revolution.” His life was threatened more than once because of his public voice in support of the classical liberal ideals of constitutionally limited government, rule of law, private property, and freedom of enterprise -- and his building of Francisco Marroquin University.

Born on December 27, 1925, Dr. Ayau earned a B.A. degree in Mechanical Engineering from Louisiana State University in 1950, and was awarded two honorary doctoral degrees, one in Law from Hillsdale College in 1973, and one in Literature from Northwood University in 1994.

In the world of business Manuel Ayau founded a highly profitable enterprise making ceramic tiles that enabled him to earn the wealth to support the cause of freedom that became the philosophical focus of his life. In 1959, he established the Center for Economic and Social Studies, a think tank devoted to advancing the case for free enterprise in his native Guatemala, as well as Latin American in general.

He also served on the board of trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education in New York, and was a member of the board of trustees of the Liberty Fund of Indianapolis at the time of his death. He was also a long-time member of the Mont Pelerin Society, an association of friends of freedom organized by F. A. Hayek in the years immediately after the Second World War to push back the global rising tide of collectivism.

Dr. Ayau also actively participated in Guatemalan politics, serving as a member of his country’s Congress from 1970-1974, and ran as a candidate for the presidency of Guatemala in the 1990 elections.

He wrote widely in defense of economic and individual freedom in the Guatemalan press and in American newspapers, including in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. In 2007, he published Not a Zero-Sum Game, a short, extremely readable and outstanding book, explaining the workings of a free enterprise system, based on the benefits from mutual gains from trade arising from the creative productivity of a market-based and profit-guided system of division of labor.

An excellent public speaker -- in both Spanish and English -- Manuel Ayau became one of the most eloquent voices for free market capitalism throughout Latin America. He inspired the old and the young to have a new and deeper appreciation for a society of liberty, in which creative minds were set free, and government protected life and property rather than plundered them.

I had the privilege and honor of knowing “Muso” (as his friends called him) for almost twenty years. He epitomized the old-world Latin gentleman, always gracious, hospitable, and extremely generous with his time and knowledge. He had a sharp tongue in defense of capitalism, and did not always “suffer fools gladly.” But no matter how misguided and wrong-headed he may have considered a person’s argument, his response was always given with wit and charm, and a devastating sense of humor – but always against the ideas, and never the individual.

In 2003, my wife and I were invited to FMU to deliver a series of public lectures and presentations in a variety of classrooms over nearly two weeks. The university stands as an awe-inspiring legacy to Manuel Ayau, not only because of its academic excellence and voice for liberty in Latin America, but also because of the exquisite tastefulness of the architectural design of the school. Located not far from the center of Guatemala City, it gives the impression of idyllic tranquility in a forested valley with beautiful buildings containing state-of-the-art classrooms and technology, and an excellent library.

Our stay was made even more enjoyable due to Muso’s and his wife’s hosting of a delightful weekend at their home in the Guatemalan countryside. The sharp mind of the practical businessman came through when he gave us a tour of one of his large ceramic tile factories not too far from his home, explaining every detail of the manufacturing and market methods that had made him so successful in the world of commerce.

But his love for liberty came through, as well, when he took us up to his private study on the grounds of his country home and showed us his immense library of books, monographs and publications on the ideas of individual freedom and the free market. As he shared his knowledge about many of the great thinkers of liberty and their writings, you saw how deeply and sincerely he was devoted to the freedom and dignity of man, and the need to fight in the eternal struggle against tyranny’s oppression of the individual human being.

Manuel Ayau was truly one of the champions of freedom in our time. All those who were privileged to know him will miss him, but we are all better people for having had that opportunity.