Twenty years ago I quit my perfectly good engineering job to join the save-the-world business. Two decades at anything prompts retrospection. Here are a few things I know now about public policy and the freedom movement that I did not know in January 1995.

  • It’s better to be for people than against things. I’ll admit to blatantly taking this language from the American Enterprise Institute’s president, Arthur Brooks. The Mackinac Center and our movement in general must reorient around this idea.
  • Good ideas are not inherently persuasive. Even brilliant ideas must be sold. Without persuasion, ideas are merely academic.
  • Persuasion in public policy must reach beyond logic. Effective persuasion engages the mind (logos), the heart (pathos), and the conscience (ethos).
  • Most lawmakers are not primarily interested in the details of public policy. They find other parts of the job more attractive. This reality creates obstacles and opportunities for us.
  • Finding a person to illustrate a policy point is more powerful than explaining it as a concept. Our research analyzes and predicts government failure, but our news and litigation divisions find people to tell the world how government-backed coercion and overreach have harmed them.
  • Electing the party that campaigns on free markets does not automatically produce free-market governance. Electing that party without changing its incentives will result in disappointment. That’s why we don’t shy away from naming names of political leaders who support legislation that’s at odds with their free-market rhetoric.
  • Lawmakers typically do not lead social change, even when passing landmark laws like the Civil Rights Act. Rather, lawmakers ratify what the public has already indicated it will demand or at least accept. This is the Overton Window in a nutshell. (Exceptions are called Overton’s Revenge. See Prohibition and possibly ObamaCare.)
  • The states themselves are largely untapped, incredibly powerful engines of change in Washington. Not only do they exert political influence, but the U. S. Constitution gives them legal influence as well, which may be in the process of being rediscovered. Change doesn’t begin in Washington, it ends there.
  • Economics is even less of a science than I once thought. Predicting the economic results of a law or program is at least as difficult as predicting anything else involving human behavior. That’s another reason not to have much faith in central planning.
  • Optimism is essential in the battle to save the republic. Temper it with reason; temper it with realism. But pessimism is demotivating — and self-fulfilling.
  • America is amazingly full of generous, civic-minded, principled, hard-working people committed to the basic ideas of this country’s founding. I knew they were there, I just didn’t know how many and how passionate they are.

People wiser than I am taught me most of these lessons. I figured out a few on my own. All of us at the Mackinac Center are better equipped to advance sound policy than we were 20 years ago.

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