Every so often-perhaps once or twice in a century—ideas move the unmovable. The weight of information and experience becomes so overwhelming that entrenched ways of doing things give way. Paradigms shift. Patterns of thought change and align with a new reality.
In Eastern Europe, a political philosophy that shaped an empire evaporated almost overnight and brought down a dozen regimes with it. Here at home, new ideas gave rise to the Democratic Leadership Conference, which seeks to recast the perspective of one of America's two major political parties. And recently, the voters of this country spoke with uncommon clarity about their yearning for dramatic change. An awakening of major significance is unfolding before our eyes. Government is about to be wrenched from old and bad habits toward alignment with the trends and forces that are shaping every other aspect of our lives.
The marketplace is noted for a high degree of flexibility and responsiveness. There, the very survival of individual enterprises depends on their willingness to adapt to the ever-changing tastes of consumers. In the modern information age, where technology is rapidly transforming the nature of work, the quality of products, and the variety of service, change is occurring with consonant speed. Recent trends in the marketplace—indeed, in almost every aspect of our lives—are unmistakable. They are toward decentralization, de-monopolization, and the empowerment of individuals.
The realm of politics—how we govern ourselves—is not so flexible and responsive. As the trends in the marketplace noted above have accelerated, government has lagged behind. Big, lumbering, and incomprehensible, it behaves like a vacuum tube in the age of microprocessors. With only spotty and fleeting success, scholars have labored to bring the practice of governance in line with the more enlightened and exciting trends shaping the rest of our lives. Now, there is reason to believe that society is finally leaping up the learning curve. If subsequent events confirm this through far-reaching public policy changes, the 1994 elections will go down in history as a major confluence of ideas, trends, and events.
This is the context in which the recent elections are best understood. For our state it places a very special meaning on what the voters have done. It means that on November 8, 1994, John M. Engler won much more than a second term as Michigan’s chief executive. He won a second beginning.
On November 8, the people of Michigan led a national crusade against the anti-social, culturally-backward, and intellectually bankrupt notion that politicians and the stifling bureaucracies they spawn are wise planners of other people’s lives. They rejected the ides that compassion is what happens when politicians spend other people’s earnings. They told politicians who “bring home the bacon” that they can’t be so easily bought anymore. Better than at any time in half a century, the people understand that government has nothing to give anybody except what it first takes from everybody and the message they sent to government on November 8 was simply this: Get off our backs, get our of our pockets, and get our of our way!
No one in Michigan went to the polls on November 8 thinking that Governor Engler was unsure of himself, his policies, or his vision. In a state where conventional wisdom held for decades that fence-straddling moderation and non-confrontational, "feel-good" mush made the best politics, John Engler proved otherwise. He cut state spending and bureaucracy more than any governor in the 50 states. Challenging the power of the Michigan Education Association, he pushed hard for a sweeping overhaul of our ossified public school system. All across Michigan, he preached the virtues of free markets, competition, limited government, and personal responsibility—earning notable support and endorsements from constituencies that four years ago few expected would respond favorably to such things.
The afterglow of a massive victory and the comfort of Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature may tempt some advisors to urge that the administration rest on its laurels. There will be those who argue that the Governor should lower his voice, soften his message, and temper his program—govern, in effect, as if voters went shopping on November 8 for an accommodationist seeking some "big tent" consensus. That is most emphatically not the lesson of the Revolt of '94.
Make no mistake about it. This election was about the proper role of government. It was the most ideological election in decades. The verdict of the voters is profound in its meaning and massive in its dimension. It represents a sea change in public attitudes. The verdict is in: government cannot tax, spend, and regulate our way to progress and prosperity. The Berlin Wall of ignorance and fallacy about what government is and what it can do is at last coming down. A cultural renaissance is taking shape as people look more to themselves, their families and their communities for renewal, and less to the political process.
Consistency of principle and firmness of purpose are bedrock essentials of leadership that makes a difference. In his first term, Governor Engler demonstrated this truth in a way that shines as an example for other governors of softer spine and lesser note. Now, he must rise to the challenge of providing leadership that lasts.
Those who advise Governor Engler to cruise quietly through an uneventful second term will misread the people and squander an historic opportunity. The Governor was re-elected to be a risk taker, not a caretaker. If he wants to seize the moment and make a permanent mark, he must invigorate his vision for a freer and more progressive Michigan with an aggressive agenda. Like any worthy enterprise that hopes to succeed, state government under John Engler needs a mission statement drawn from vital principles.
These are the principles upon which a second Engler term should build and from which the administration's public statements and policies should not deviate:
Government is not a vehicle for the redistribution of wealth. It is not an instrument by which the politically well-connected gain benefits at the expense of everyone else. It is primarily concerned with securing the rights and safety of the people, and fostering an environment which allows the people maximum liberty to put their talents and industry to good use.
Barriers to initiative and enterprise are anti-social. Nothing about government could be more uncompassionate and anti-people than policies that repress the spirit of inventiveness, invade the privacy of personal lives, deprive workers of their earnings, or stifle the competition of free choices.
Dependency is no substitute for self-reliance. Policies which keep people shackled to the whims of the political process are demoralizing and destructive. A paycheck, in truth, offers an “entitlement” that no welfare check will ever offer. Private efforts to relieve distress should be encouraged because they usually solve problems for the unfortunate instead of perpetuating them.
Decentralization is a virtue and an imperative in an increasingly competitive world. Bureaucracy won’t get the job done. Technology is empowering individuals and unleashing their creativity at an astonishing pace in the marketplace. If government doesn’t “get with the program,” it will get in the way.
An agenda for lasting leadership, that will modernize and align government with the trends in place in the world around us, follows in the form of recommendations in three broad areas. In the coming weeks and months, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy will release a series of recommendations for the Governor and new legislature, elaborating on those made here and adding many new ones for consideration as well.