(Editor's note: The following are the edited opening remarks by President Joseph G. Lehman at “An Evening With the Mackinac Center,” held Nov. 14, 2011 at the Lansing Center. You can watch a recording of the event, which featured a keynote speech from Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and an introduction by Gov. Rick Snyder, here.)

Good evening. You thought you were going to hear from two governors tonight. But you’re really part of an experiment we’re conducting at the request of the Department of Natural Resources. They want to know how many people in Michigan are not at deer camp the night before opening day of rifle season.

It turns out it’s about 600. But we can brag that we got our deer before the hunters will get theirs! My compliments to Executive Chef Jeff Langer who made sure of that by creating the wonderful venison hors d’oeuvres we enjoyed at the reception.

We also had special help tonight from Karla Spaeth and 50 students of Northwood University’s Hotel, Restaurant & Resort Management program.

Deer camp is a fine thing and I’ll be going there myself, but we are doing something even better here tonight. First, we are honoring outstanding individuals who risked much and toiled greatly to advance freedom.

Second, we are hearing from two governors who, each in his own way, are beginning to replace poor public policies with better ones that foster prosperity, virtue, and liberty.

Other elected officials are joining us too. We’re sometimes accused of being tough on politicians, but the ones with us tonight are something special. We didn’t offer to subsidize the tickets for these guys and gals, and they came anyway!

No Mackinac Center donations were harmed in the inclusion of these elected officials.

In addition to Governor Daniels and Governor Snyder, we have Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court Bob Young and his colleague on the bench Stephen Markman. Would other judges please stand?

We have the Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives Jase Bolger … and his fellow representatives … They are joined by members of the state senate …..

We also have a regret tonight I wanted to share with you from Attorney General Bill Schuette, who writes: “I am sorry that Cynthia and I are not able to be with you and so many friends of the Mackinac Center this evening. With our own outstanding Governor Rick Snyder and old friend Governor Mitch Daniels headlining the program, you will have a tremendous dinner.

I regret that a conference of Republican attorneys general prevents me from being in attendance."

Over the years the Mackinac Center has developed a national reputation — well earned, I might add — for clear thinking and real reform, both of which are sorely needed in government. Your philosophy of free markets for free people is vitally important for Michigan. So my charge to you tonight is this: keep up the good work!”

Those are some of the people who make public policy in this state. Although they are the ones who actually sign the bills, cast the votes in the Legislature, and interpret the laws, they are not the only ones who influence what ideas finally become law.

Elected officials cannot pick and choose which laws to pass as if they are ordering dessert from a menu. Their options are usually constrained by what is politically possible.

But the range of what is politically possible can be changed. The window of political possibility can shift in the right direction, or the wrong one. Think tanks like the Mackinac Center actually shift that window in the right direction, opening up new options for lawmakers.

Think tanks at their best make better policy more likely by analyzing the probable effects of new policies, and telling the unvarnished truth about current policies. Sure, every government policy probably helps somebody. But it’s not right to focus just on who gets helped and ignore who gets hurt.

We don’t operate in a moral vacuum, as if public policy means tinkering with government to find some undiscovered efficiencies. No, public policy is about people, and how they are to be treated.

We don’t act as if there’s nothing to learn from history, either. That is why we take a decidedly free-market approach. After a few thousand years of recorded history, we think the verdict is in. Freedom is better than tyranny. Free enterprise is better than socialism and its bashful cousin, welfare statism. We advance free-market ideas without apology because they are better for all people. We stay loyal to those principles, not to political parties and not to political personalities.

We don’t expect politicians to always lead the way, either. We understand it’s usually legislators’ job to ratify freedom, not to create it. That’s why we’re not afraid to make the case for better policies even before they are politically possible. We are happy to recommend free-market ideas today, even if it takes a while for lawmakers to be persuaded.

The Mackinac Center doesn’t succeed all by itself. In addition to a few freedom-loving friends within the government, we work with allies around the state and nation, many of whom are represented here tonight, such as the Acton Institute and Heritage Foundation. The Mackinac Center’s collective work would not be possible without the individual efforts of many.

I’d like to recognize three members of our founder’s committee, board Chairman Joe Olson, Secretary Richard McLellan, and Kimball Smith … I’d like to recognize the rest of our directors and past directors as well…

The Mackinac Center staff is second to none in their commitment and talent… And also please stand any members of our boards of advisors and board scholars…

And then there are the finest people on earth, Mackinac Center supporters. More than 4,000 strong this year and counting. I wish you could know them the way I do as I travel about. When I can, I meet them at their dining room tables and offices. Mostly, they are successful people who feel blessed by what they have. But they want to make sure the opportunities they have don’t end with this generation. They want their children and grandchildren to live in a free society.

They believe our government must live within its means, recognize its own limitations, and respect and protect our rights. And they support the Mackinac Center to help make that happen.

I’d like to thank some special supporters, and those are the sponsors who made tonight’s event possible, most especially our lead sponsor, Meijer. Our program lists all the sponsors and I hope you will take the opportunity to thank each one you see tonight.

We don’t sit on a big endowment, so we raise all of our support every year. We don’t take a dime of government money (not that much has ever been offered). If you’re not a supporter yet, and you like what you hear tonight, please consider helping. You’ll find more information at mackinac.org.

More than five times as many supporters are with us now than we had just four years ago. That’s one reason we are able to shift the window of political possibility in more powerful ways today. Let me tell you about a crazy lady named Sherry and one policy we helped her change.

Sherry called our office one day and we knew she was crazy because she told us something on the phone that made no sense at all. Sherry said she ran a small day care in her home in Petoskey, but now she was being forced into a union.

We get strange calls from people every now and then, and this seemed like another one. After all, how could someone who works for herself, in her own home, be forced into a union? She said she would send us some documents.

In the meantime, we heard from others who told us pretty much the same story. But how could it be true? As Sherry said, “How can I belong to a union? In my home, I’m labor AND management?”

It took our analysts weeks of digging to figure out what was happening to Sherry and tens of thousands of others. The UAW and the government union AFSCME had teamed up to siphon off millions of tax dollars intended to subsidize the care of children of low-income parents. These funds flowed to day care owners like Sherry and the unions wanted to grab a chunk of it. Not too much, or people might fight back. Not too little, either — about $3.7 million a year must have seemed just right.

But the problem is unions can’t just grab a chunk of government money without help from the government.

So they found willing accomplices in our state government who agreed to pretend that those private day care owners were actually government employees for purposes of unionization, and presto! Now the state could deduct $3.7 million from the child care money, call it union dues, and deposit it in union bank accounts.

It didn’t cost Sherry very much money, but she wasn’t motivated by the money. It was the principle of the thing. Why should she have to provide less care to the kids just because a union was brazen enough to figuratively barge into her home and grab the kids’ money?

The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation sued the state on behalf of Sherry, and two other women: Michelle Berry of Flint and Paulette Silverson of Livingston County.  Before our lawsuit ran its course, the new Snyder administration pulled the plug on the whole scheme, setting them free along with tens of thousands more.

These three women exemplify the spirit memorialized in the climax of our Declaration of Independence: “… [W]ith a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.”

I heard from Sherry yesterday — she was injured yesterday and cannot receive her award tonight. She assured us it had nothing to do with the union. 

Michelle and Paulette, would you please join me on stage to receive this award?

“Sherry Loar, Michelle Berry and Paulette Silverson have earned the Lives, Fortunes and Sacred Honor Award for their tenacious and principled stand in the face of a government-sanctioned conspiracy to shanghai tens of thousands of private-sector business owners into a government-employee union for the sole purpose of collecting millions of dollars in “dues.”

“With the odds stacked against them, and regardless of the risk to their reputations and businesses, they persevered, making their case in both the courts and the media. They prevailed, defeating a cynical policy and restoring liberty for thousands.

I’ve introduced our final honoree so many times over the years that I hope he will forgive me for repeating myself.

Larry Reed is a good man, but he’s also a great man. He’s been my friend and professional mentor for 17 years. His resume is stuffed with great achievements that you don’t hear him blowing his own horn about.

Larry has degrees and honorary degrees as you might expect. He was head of the economics department at Northwood University where he made the “dismal science” exciting to hundreds of students for the first time. But he has a passion to change the world that the classroom could not contain.

He tried politics in 1982. But getting elected to Congress may be the best thing that never happened to Larry.

By the way, Larry enjoys reminding Attorney General Bill Schuette that Larry softened up Congressman Don Albosta so Bill could pick him off in the very next election in 1984!

So instead of academia or politics, Larry would draw from the roots he sank as a teenager when the world watched Soviet tanks roll into Prague and brutally crush citizen demonstrations. Later, as an economist and historian, Larry came to believe that personal political freedom and economic freedom were inseparable. He decided to use his academic training to advance freedom wherever, and however, he could.

And so he became a globe-trotting champion of free enterprise, or, as one newspaper called him, “the Indiana Jones of Michigan.” Traveling to every state and at least 69 countries — including several behind the Iron Curtain before it fell and later inside other totalitarian regimes — he has given more than 1,000 speeches, and written more than 1,000 articles and five books, published in multiple languages.

Over 20 years, Larry led the Mackinac Center to become the nation’s largest institute in a national network of state-focused think tanks.

Five years ago Larry was the central focus of a two-part feature in The New York Times. The Times documented the Mackinac Center’s influence on public policy, but also on Larry’s role in training hundreds of think tank leaders around the world.

Three years ago Larry took the helm of America’s oldest institute devoted to economics and freedom, the Foundation for Economic Education.

Our late friend and co-worker, Joe Overton, once told me “Larry doesn’t do anything that three men couldn’t do.”

Undergirding all this is Larry’s unquenchable optimism. Maybe I should say pathological optimism. Larry’s the only guy I know who said, at his birthday party: “It’s sobering to wake up at 50 years old and realize one-third of your life is already gone.”

The Mackinac Center confers its Champions of Freedom Award to honor individuals who have demonstrated a lifetime of accomplishment and faithful dedication to the principles of freedom and self-reliance.

Larry, the board of directors unanimously conferred this award upon you.

A portion of it reads: “Lawrence W. Reed has championed the virtuous circle of self-help and civil society, maintaining, as he once wrote concerning the dozens of oppressed nations he had risked visiting: “We need to take time to assist our brothers and sisters who are laboring in the same vineyards, on behalf of the same causes. When we strengthen others, we all grow stronger.”

Lawrence W. Reed’s Comments

Thank you, Joe.

Gov. Snyder, Gov. Daniels, members of the board and staff of the Mackinac Center, ladies and gentlemen:

It’s great to be back in Michigan and to see y’all (as I’ve learned to say in Georgia), and I’m deeply honored by this award. After all, about 15 years ago, I created it! I think I’ve long been over-estimated, so I can’t help but recall something the late comedian Milton Berle once said about the sportscaster Howard Cosell: “Why are we honoring this man? Have we run out of human beings?”

To be recognized in this way by the organization I devoted 21 years to is really a very special thing that I’ll always cherish. In many ways, my time at the Center was the centerpiece of my life. Working with great people like Joe Lehman, Kendra Shrode, our late colleague Joe Overton and the incredible people on the board and staff was both a privilege and a dream. It wasn’t easy around the time of our 15th anniversary to decide that passing the mantle to new leadership at 20 years would be a good thing to do. But we accomplished a picture-perfect, planned transition and the Center hasn’t skipped a beat, in keeping with its sterling reputation for good management, teamwork and professionalism.

The Mackinac Center is proof that ideas matter and that good people who never give up working for them can make a big difference. In an age characterized all too often by hypocrisy, evasion and expediency, it’s comforting to know that an organization that remains faithful to its founding principles is appreciated by ever-growing numbers of citizens. What Mackinac does is as important as ever. Advancing sound policy in a key state. Reminding us daily of the proper role of state and federal governments in our lives and the proper relationship between those levels of government in our system of federalism. Blowing the whistle on policies that stifle our opportunities, depress our economy and undermine our freedoms. Offering creative proposals to solve problems, not simply complaining about them. Speaking truth to power even if doing so isn’t popular at a particular moment or in certain high places.

I am immensely proud of the Mackinac Center team from top to bottom. When I departed in 2008 to take the helm of the nation’s oldest think tank, the Foundation for Economic Education, I had every confidence the Center would continue to set new records for support and influence, and it hasn’t disappointed me.

A big reason for that is the premium the Center has always put on one of the most important things in life — character. We hired for character, we rewarded character, and we advocated for policies consistent with the traits that define the best of strong character — honesty, integrity, transparency, responsibility, principle, patience; courage, and respect for life, property and contract. All of the Mackinac Center’s recommendations — and all of ours at the Foundation for Economic Education as well — reduce to this simple but profound and time-honored admonition: “Listen to your conscience and just do the right thing.” Is there a day that goes by when we don’t shake our heads and wonder why somebody in our lives or in the news failed to muster the character to do just that? What a far better world it would be if the Golden Rule was a standard on which none of us would compromise.

But that isn’t yet the world in which we live, so people of good character must work harder and smarter than ever before. We must ALL be champions of freedom if freedom is to prevail.

So again I thank the Center for this honor, for its principles and its work. I thank the distinguished governors of Michigan and Indiana for their leadership, which I’ve admired and appreciated from afar. And I thank all of you good friends here tonight for your support of the ideas that will ultimately strengthen this state and save our country.

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