R&L: In addition to managing one of the most successful investment firms in the nation, you are also a vigorous philanthropist, regularly funding such things as Christian outreach to the inner city. How is this related to your Christian commitment?
Friess: People will sometimes ask, “Why should I get involved in trying to solve society’s problems? Why don’t I just go to my Bible study and enjoy the ‘holy huddle’? It’s safe and secure there; why venture out where I’m going to get beat up?” As a kid I remember going to church and saying in the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” After I asked Jesus to become the “chairman of my board” when I was thirty-eight years old, I knew that I could not just pray that prayer and not make myself available to Him and to do the work of his Kingdom. Paul tells us in Galatians 6:2 that we fulfill the law of Christ when we serve others.
I am reminded of a statue in an English church that was bombed in World War II. It was a statue of Jesus with his hands outreached and with the inscription, “Come unto me.” When they were restoring this statue, they could not find the hands. Instead of making new hands, they simply changed the inscription to read, “Be my hands.” I think this is a beautiful picture of what we are called to be in this world.
R&L: In the past you have been very vocal about the importance of private initiatives in responding to the needs of the poor. What do you see as the greatest challenge ahead in the reform of our government welfare system?
Friess: One of the reasons that the government went into the business of trying to help the poor was that the private sector had turned its back on these problems and created a vacuum. Now the government is failing, and there is another vacuum. It is a great opportunity for the private sector to come back in and demonstrate what it can do.
We will never move government programs into the private sector if the private sector does not step up to fill the need first. This is a challenge to the church, which, frankly, has been asleep at the wheel. A lot of our churches have become hymn-singing country clubs. Churches need to be asking, “Hey, where’s a family that’s hurting?” and go out and mentor them, take them to ball games, make sure their kids have a ball glove and a musical instrument.
Jesus said to his followers in Matthew 25:35—40, “You fed me when I was hungry, clothed me when I was naked, and visited me when I was in prison.” And his followers scratched their heads and said, “Gee, we don’t remember doing that.” And Jesus responded, “Whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers, you did for me.” So if we are going to remain true to Jesus’ commands, we need to help people free themselves from the prison of poverty and of the welfare system that all too often perpetuates it. We need to be effective witnesses and change hearts.
R&L: A recent profile of you in the Investor’s Business Daily explains that you try to approach your business dealings from a biblical perspective. Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?
Friess: As I mentioned before, accepting Jesus Christ as the chairman of my board changed my life profoundly. It is critically important to realize that as we strive to be better people and better witnesses, we must be very careful to make a distinction between perfectionism and excellence.
I am a recovering perfectionist. The problem is that perfectionism abhors error. It tries to eradicate it and destroy it. Excellence, on the other hand, embraces error, builds on it and transforms it. How do we grow as people, through our good experiences or our less positive ones? When we fail, we learn how to deal with failure, how to advance beyond it. We can be better people, but let’s strive for excellence, not perfectionism.
As sinners, we will make mistakes and even make the same ones twice; expect this. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Don’t worry too much about your weaknesses; let God use your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. At Friess Associates we accept people for who they are: imperfect but capable of being used by God to move the ball down the field.
R&L: How do your values affect how you do business? For example, do they affect how you treat your employees?
Friess: Family is very important to me. My father modeled for me what it is to work hard and to go the extra mile. He would rise at 4:30 a.m. every morning, drive the countryside buying cattle, and return well after dark. And my mother taught me frugality and how the little things can count. But more powerful than all these role models combined has been the influence of Jesus Christ in my life.
We have tried to work those values into the way we deal with our teammates. If there is ever a conflict between a ninth-grader’s school play and our annual firm banquet, there should never be any doubt that the school play comes first. Remember Barbara Bush’s great speech at that girl’s school where she said that what is important is not the investment deals you close and the big real estate deals you transact, but, at the end of the day, it is the family, the time you spent with them, and enjoyed with them. How many men do you know who are seventy-six years old, sitting in the rocking chair in retirement saying, “Gee, if only I would have spent more time at the office”? Not many!
R&L: Speaking more generally, in what way do biblical principles apply to the free-market system?
Friess: I think that one of the most important ways that the Judeo-Christian tradition can help clarify free-market processes is with the principle of sin.
R&L: How so?
Friess: You see, just as there are physical consequences of sin, there are also economic consequences of sin. Too often, these costs are just passed along to the consumer and taxpayer. Unfortunately, sin is too often overlooked when trying to reduce these costs and improve society. Just as millions of consumer decisions every hour affect the overall picture of the United States–for example, in determining whether we are in a recession or expansion–the millions of moral decisions citizens make will determine whether we live in a noble society or a degenerate one.
I propose that a morally bankrupt society cannot maintain a strong economic balance sheet. Consider the sin of greed. One way that greed manifests itself is when city dwellers decide they are paying too much rent. Instead of moving somewhere else, they get city governments to pass rent control laws. Rent controls, however, invite landlords to protect their investment by converting to condominiums and, even worse, discourage developers from building any more rental housing. Under the guise of protecting the poor, rent control ends up as a subsidy for the middle and upper classes while driving poor people out of cheap housing.
Any businessman interested in building a healthy economy should see not only the moral but the economic value of discouraging sin and encouraging virtue. As Michael Novak has said, “Self-government depends on the capacity of citizens to govern their own passions, urges, habits, and expectations.” We should work to rebuild a virtuous economy. Ephesians 4:28 reads, “Let him who stole, steal no more–but take up honest work.” Through our sin, we steal from our economy. God wants us, instead, to be productive–to replace the costs of sin with the rewards of virtue.
R&L: You speak of the need for the people in free societies and free markets to be virtuous. What are some of the more important virtues that should be cultivated?
Friess: I think that there are two virtues–at least two–that are very important, especially for Americans: courage and hard work. America was built by men and women who came to this country in search of just one thing: freedom. Having experienced the horrors of totalitarian repression, stifled opportunity, and hierarchical societies, they saw America as a shining land of opportunity. They knew what it meant to work and they knew what it meant to be free. They embodied what Theodore Roosevelt talked about when he said, “Our country calls not for the life of ease but the life of strenuous endeavor.” They became captains of industry, architects of our material wealth, guides for our spiritual health, and leaders who called us to see things as they could be. They were also the anonymous millions who worked hard, raised families, passed values on from one generation to another–they were the threads of the fabric of America.
R&L: Many argue that these kinds of virtues–as well as freedom itself–are in short supply today. What happened to cause this shortage?
Friess: For some reason, in the past several generations, there have been those who have attempted to curtail the very freedom that made America possible–believing that the risks of freedom were too great or perhaps that the rewards of freedom were more than they could control. And so in this great nation we began a social experiment unprecedented in American history. Having been conceived in liberty and nurtured in freedom, we had these birthrights traded in for a system of elite governmental control–and we have reaped the whirlwind. No longer believing in the freedom of man, we have engaged in a crazy experiment that has had an incalculably high toll. Free men in a free State become, instead, objects of affection of an overbearing “Nanny State.”
R&L: Business, and the free-market economy in general, has come under fire recently for putting the desires of shareholders above the needs of “stakeholders” in society. How do you respond to these charges?
Friess: The unparalleled freedom of our markets is one of the main sources of our greatness. The United States has built the strongest economy known to man. Its scope is staggering. Yet amidst this awesome force, there are those who say that our economy needs fundamental change–it needs more management!
The elite from across the country, especially those in Washington, look at our markets and wring their hands in anguish. They see these numbers, and they feel like they do not have any control. They are constantly looking for an opportunity to say “A-ha! See, I told you this free-market thing doesn’t work.”
We saw this a while back in all the layoffs that were going on in big business–with at&t, ibm, and the like. Now, I do not want to make light of the pain such disruptions cause in the lives of those laid off, but it is really only part of the story. Why wasn’t it reported, for example, that Cisco Systems has grown from about four hundred to over seven thousand employees in just a few short years? Why didn’t people at that same time talk about how companies like Micron, Cyrix, and Intel were hiring people as fast as they could find them? And these are not old-era, dead-end jobs, but jobs with almost unlimited potential that offer people great opportunities and new challenges.
R&L: Are you proposing, then, a sort of unrestrained capitalism or unconstrained freedom?
Friess: I am proposing capitalism and freedom rightly understood. Novak has a fine definition of capitalism that sums up what I envision when I talk about capitalism. He defines it as, “an economic system, dependent on an appropriate political system and a supportive moral/cultural system, that unites a large variety of social institutions in the support of human creativity.”
That is capitalism properly understood, a complex interplay of myriad forces allowing people to reach the maximum of their God-given potential. And there is not a person or an organization or a government that can “manage” the system. Keeping our markets free is integral to keeping America free.
R&L: How do you view the relationship between religion and liberty? Are they mutually exclusive? Mutually reinforcing?
Friess: There is no freedom of man and there is no freedom of markets without the guidance of the One who has granted these freedoms. And I believe that much of the greatness of the West can be traced to its deep understanding of this fact. The West has been blessed economically, spiritually, and culturally because it has benefited from the Judeo-Christian tradition. The story of the West is really a story about the great tussle between paganism and Judeo-Christian monotheism.
R&L: And what is that story?
Friess: On the one hand is paganism; it is a fundamentally superstitious view of the world that sees nature as god with no higher power to rule it. Humanity is powerless before this brute and faceless power of nature. The role of government under this system was to appease this unpredictable nature-god by any means necessary, even to the point of human sacrifice. Judeo-Christian faith stands in stark opposition to this worldview. It teaches that nature is not God, that in fact it was created by God, and that God maintains sovereignty over it. The creation story in Genesis makes it very clear that a loving God spoke the world into being and created mankind with a distinct purpose–to “glorify God, and to enjoy him forever,” as the Westminster Catechism puts it. God then allowed His creative work to be shared by man. Man was endowed with the task of gaining dominion over the earth, of taming its resources, of managing its assets. This ethic of the majesty of creation and work helped create civilization.