When more than 600 friends come together to help you celebrate a milestone, you know it’s going to be a memorable event.

That was the case on Nov. 11, 2008, when more than 625 supporters, guests and friends of liberty packed the Kellogg Center on the campus of Michigan State University to celebrate the Mackinac Center’s 20th anniversary.

Elected officials, reporters, business leaders, educators and people from all walks of life came from every corner of Michigan (and beyond) to celebrate two decades of free-market ideas and ideals. New friends were introduced to old acquaintances, and guests lined up for a book signing by keynote speaker John Stossel of ABC News.

With typical self-deprecating humor, Supreme Court Justice Cliff Taylor served as emcee, as he had at the Center’s fifth and 10th anniversary celebrations. Founding board members Joe Olson and Richard McLellan welcomed the assembled guests and recalled the Center’s formative years.

President Emeritus Lawrence W. Reed made several introductions, noting that while the Center’s success has always been because of ideas, “It’s people to whom we owe boundless gratitude because ideas can go nowhere without them.” Reed, the founding president of the Mackinac Center, recognized several Keystone Award winners — those who have donated to the Center for 15 or more consecutive years. He also presented Jim Barrett, retired CEO and president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, with the Mackinac Center’s Jefferson Award, and former board member Bruce Maguire with the Champions of Freedom Award.

Reed discussed his transition to president emeritus, where he would remain active with the Mackinac Center, while assuming the role of president of the Foundation for Economic Education. Reed said that in President Joseph Lehman the Center has a “superb new leader” with a “sterling reputation throughout the country.”

Reed said that he is proudest of one thing during his 20 years guiding the Center: “This organization’s principles are the same today as they were 20 years go. No drift, no corners cut, no waffles, no ifs, ands or buts. How many parties or politicians can you say that about? Under the leadership of Joe Lehman and this fine board of directors and staff, this will not change.”

Stossel, co-anchor of ABC’s “20/20” news magazine, began his remarks with a tongue-in-cheek poke at the audience. “What are you people doing here?” he asked. “You people of free markets. Don’t you know that’s over?”

Stossel bemoaned the current push for more government regulation and meddling in the markets when it was government involvement that produced the financial crisis in the first place. He also blamed the media for hyping economic crisis despite the fact that the unemployment, inflation and interests rates remain low. An atmosphere of crisis, he said, is “a friend of the state,” which leads to more government interference in markets.

“We’re told the bailout is absolutely necessary,” Stossel said. “If we didn’t, would there be another Great Depression? No. Assets would fall to their true value.”

Stossel recounted his early years as a consumer reporter, doing investigative journalism that lead to government regulatory bodies intended to help people. The result was large, do-nothing bureaucracies that ended up costing taxpayers more money.

“The more I started to watch market competition work, the more I saw it worked better,” he said.

Stossel thanked those in attendance for helping the Mackinac Center, which he said was the only state-based think tank “that’s really on the national map.”

In closing remarks, Lehman noted that “the shocks to our economy, our public policy and our politics over the last few weeks” might leave some feeling “gloomy.” While understandable, he added, such feelings must give way to resolve. He noted that Nov. 11 is Veterans Day, “a day set aside to honor those who personified resolve,” and asked for all veterans in the room to stand. Those who did were greeted with a thunderous standing ovation.

Lehman then pointed out that the fight for liberty never ends. “Individual liberty and the economic freedom that goes hand-in-hand with it, has never had a golden age, even in this nation best known for freedom and free markets,” he told the audience.

Some people, however, make a crucial error in thinking that supporting liberty means supporting the right politicians. “That’s because when lawmakers change public policy to favor liberty, they are only taking the final step in a long march,” Lehman added.

“Up the field and further away from the goal line glory is where ideas begin their march toward becoming public policy,” he said. “Those ideas are developed, and communicated, by think tanks like the Mackinac Center. When a politician gets his bill passed, he’s probably just completing what some political economist in a think tank began years before.”

Lehman reminded the crowd of the bleak circumstances and overwhelming obstacles facing the state when the Center was first founded. “It may be hard to believe,” he said, “but Michigan public policy was actually worse when the Mackinac Center opened its doors than it is now.”

He then noted a litany of successes the Mackinac Center contributed to over the past two decades, including advancements in school choice, the elimination or capping of a variety of taxes and enhanced protections for private property.

“Let us resolve that Michigan will be America’s brightest beacon of freedom and prosperity,” Lehman concluded. “Let us resolve that liberty will not finally yield on our watch. Carry on, friends.”

(Originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of Mackinac Center Impact.)

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