(Editor’s note: The following is an edited version of the text from remarks delivered by Mackinac Center President Joseph G. Lehman at the Center’s 25th anniversary gala held Oct. 7, in East Lansing.)
Twenty-five years ago the idea that the Mackinac Center might still be around today probably seemed about as far-fetched as predicting that the birthplace of the UAW, the cradle of organized labor and the stronghold of its national power would be a right-to-work state today.
In four minutes I want to show you how our allies came together to make that victory possible. A video by Correy Burres helps tell this story.
We are here in part to celebrate that success, but not as a stopping point. It’s only a milestone on the way to freedom across the board.
No one who pays the least attention can fail to conclude this country has problems bigger than a right-to-work law can solve. I have to say the biggest problem is that too many people want a government that’s big enough to give them everything they want, from free tuition, to guaranteed income, to subsidized loans and houses, to business bailouts, to trendy movie and windmill subsidies, to worry-free retirement and free health care.
And if there’s any money left over, they’d like to have basic roads, schools, police, courts, and an army, too.
The only problem is, a government that’s big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take away everything you’ve got.
And that can get discouraging because it seems like Washington has been controlled by the "everything you want" and "everything you've got" crowd for a long time.
We can fix Washington, but not by beating our heads against the castle walls along the Potomac. Reform doesn't start in Washington, it ends there. The reform we need now starts in the states, and that's a fact we often don't appreciate.
Ronald Reagan was fond of saying the states created the federal government, not the other way around. The Founders gave us a system whereby the states themselves were not only laboratories of democracy — proving grounds for new ideas — the states also have the power to check federal overreach.
That power has weakened and atrophied over the years from disuse and misuse.
But that power isn't gone and it can be strengthened. If Michigan can achieve freedom to work — if Washington state can expand school choice over the heads of powerful unions, which it just did; if California citizens can vote to fix some of their broken city pension systems, which they just did; if Texas can become the jobs engine of the country by pursuing pretty much the opposite policies of Washington — then we start to see what's possible in the states.
I have to mention something the Mackinac Center has taken some heat for lately to help underscore this point. We like to say that whenever we have to choose between our friends in government and the taxpayers, we go with the taxpayers.
Well, some of our friends recently enacted the biggest expansion of state government I can recall by adopting the Medicaid expansion tied to the president's health law, and the $3 billion in "free" federal cash that comes with it every year. The Mackinac Center ideas lost that one in the end.
But let me tell you what we won. We achieved something that I don't think has happened in the lifetime of anyone here: It took about three months to lose that vote, but during that time the state had a full-throated conversation on whether or not to accept "free" federal money.
The state's taken the money before for other purposes, but it's never had a knock-down, drag-out for three months about whether it was a good idea for Michigan, or for the country.
Michigan's taking the money, and we're all going deeper into debt. But 21 other states had the same conversation and decided against taking the money. If we're going to turn the country around, if we're going to fix Washington, if we're going to start reform that ends in Washington, we have to be working, studying, explaining and advocating why free enterprise is the best possible policy for everyone. Just like we did for two decades with right-to-work, when nobody thought we had a chance.
I'm very intentionally not criticizing our friends tonight. That's not how you win. That's not how the Mackinac Center won battles for freedom over the last quarter century. Your printed program summarizes 25 of the best in everything from more freedom to send you child to the safest and best school, to keeping more of what you earn, to protecting your property from government seizures, to a tax system that comes closer to treating everyone the same, to more open and transparent government, and to more freedom from compulsory unionism.
We can advance freedom more by working together on the things we all want. To my friends in the tea party movement, I'd say to be careful not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. I'd say put any of the governor's and Legislature's disappointing actions in context with their overall record.
To my friends in the GOP establishment, I'd say you're unlikely to achieve any kind of durable policy accomplishment — say as durable and sweeping as the New Deal has been — if you fail to appreciate the necessity of a bona-fide, grass-roots social movement for limited government. If that movement isn't the tea party, then it's something like it, and it should be encouraged, nurtured, and refined.
Elections matter, and they always will. But they're the result of ideas, not the cause of them. That's why the Mackinac Center's primary focus is on ideas over the long term, not political parties or personalities or pecuniary interests.
Five years ago in this room I invited you to imagine the future world 94 years from that day, through the eyes of my little daughter, who will be 100-year-old Grandma Deborah in the year 2102.
I asked you to imagine a tear in her eye as she told her grandchildren and great grandchildren about that night in the big room at the Kellogg Center with all the people in their fancy clothes.
Will the tear glistening in Grandma Deborah's eye be a tear of gratitude, for the blessings of a rebirth of the freedom that seemed to be slipping away that night?
Or will it be a tear of bitter loss, for the fact that her great grandchildren no longer even know the myth, of the echo, of the memory, of a people who once loved, cherished and fought for freedom?
I believe in a Providential God who calls us to work as if the answer depends on us. Two weeks ago I challenged my fellow think tankers in words attributed to Winston Churchill: "Sometimes it's not enough to do your best. Sometimes you must do what’s required."
If we want to save the country, I believe it's simply required that we look at the problem we're trying to solve, and not look within ourselves and ask how much is enough to say we're doing our best. Our problems can't always be measured by the yardstick of our own proven abilities.
And so now, more than 25 years after Joe Olson and Richard McLellan and others got the Mackinac Center going, I'm declaring that we're not settling for what some might say is our best effort for the next 25 years. We're not trying to win another think tank contest.
We're trying to establish, and re-establish, the greatest earthly principles a government was ever organized around, in the greatest country in the world. Starting in Michigan.
With God's blessing, and with your help, we'll do it. Thank you.
Joseph G. Lehman 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.