(Note:The following essay appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of "Mackinac Center Impact.")
Many politicians make their time in office needlessly difficult for everybody. In a quest to "keep an open mind," they fill their heads with a litany of notions and proposals that conflict with each other. Adrift without a rudder in the stormy sea of politics, they waste time and resources foundering in waters they should have avoided in the first place.
A few principles go a long way in fixing this problem. That means standing for something more than what the voters will fall for. It means having a core set of beliefs that act as a compass — making it easier to stay on course and escape shipwreck.
Republicans won control of Congress in 1994 because they ran on a platform of ideas that clarified the distinctions between the parties. Proving that politics is a meat grinder when it comes to principles, it’s increasingly hard to find anything the GOP really believes in other than spending whatever it takes to stay in power.
A recent Michigan case also shows where principles could have prevented trouble. In 2001, Gov. John Engler unveiled a plan to create a new state agency to spur the expansion of broadband (high-speed) Internet access in the state. His bill for that purpose passed by nearly unanimous votes in both houses of the Legislature in the following year.
At the time, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy was practically alone in warning what would happen if another state bureaucracy were cranked up. Those warnings, written by Diane S. Katz, Michael D. LaFaive and Dr. Donald L. Alexander, can still be retrieved on our Web site. When asked about our objections, the governor said, "If it were up to the Mackinac Center, there wouldn’t be roads between Midland and Lansing."
Well, a funny thing happened on the road to government-sponsored Internet access. Barely three years into the program, the state’s broadband authority has been declared "one of the biggest flops in state government" by Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, who was one of those original enthusiastic "yes" votes. Millions of dollars later, House Speaker Craig DeRoche says, "Out of the gate, this was a wrong-headed scheme." They cite fat salaries for an ineffective and overstaffed bureaucracy that simply gets in the way.
Both men are now saying that the expansion of broadband should be driven by the marketplace, not government, and they have moved to abolish the agency. Meanwhile, the market has done a pretty good job, thank you, of making broadband accessible in 99 percent of all Michigan zip codes.
Whatever made legislators think that government should be in the broadband business in the first place? It certainly wasn’t any principles about the role of government that Republicans usually claim to support.
Standing for principle is one of the things you can count on from the Mackinac Center. We may be criticized, but policymakers need something to steer by as they sail their ship of state.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.