Remarks at the State Policy Network Annual Meeting
October 19, 2002
Thank you very much for this opportunity. Let me say at the outset that I rarely have the opportunity to speak to an audience of heroes, but that’s what we have here tonight – heroes of the movement, every one of you. I am thrilled and honored simply to be in the same room with you!
I would like to begin with what has been passed around over the years as a true story, based upon testimony to a congressional committee from a Louisiana developer. It speaks to a spirit that fits both this audience and my remarks tonight.
This developer was planning a new construction project. He learned that he had to secure the approval first of no less than 23 local, parish (county), and state agencies before he could begin.
Just when he thought everything was ready to go, he learned that he had to apply for approval from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Washington. He and his attorney filled out the required forms and sent them off to HUD, whereupon the agency sent the following reply:
“We received today your letter enclosing application for your client in support of abstract of title. We have observed, however, that you have not traced the title to the property previous to 1803. Before final approval can be granted, you must trace the title previous to that year.”
Needless to say, the developer and his attorney were outraged at this instance of bureaucratic foot-dragging and paperwork. They fired off to HUD the following reply, which has become somewhat of a classic:
Your letter regarding title has been received. I noted that you wished title to be traced back further than I have done. I was unaware that any educated man failed to know that Louisiana was purchased from France in 1803.
The title to that land was acquired by France by right of conquest from Spain. The land came into the possession of Spain by right of discovery in 1492 by an Italian sailor named Christopher Columbus. The good Queen Isabella had taken the precaution of securing the blessing of the Pope of Rome upon Columbus’ voyage before she sold her jewels to help him.
The Pope is the emissary of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God. God made the world. I think it is safe to assume that God created that part of the world known as the United States and that part of the United States known as Louisiana, and I hope the Hell you’re satisfied!”
Now there’s a guy we can all relate to!
You’ve all seen or heard the phrase I’ve chosen as the title for this talk, “Winners Never Quit, and Quitters Never Win.” It’s been immortalized in little fifty dollar chunks of rock by that company, Successories, that puts out all those prints, photographs and mementos with motivational messages on them. I first heard it from my father at least 40 years ago. I chose it as my title tonight because it speaks volumes about something our movement needs more of these days – optimism.
Now, to be upfront with you, I freely admit that I’m a pathological optimist. Just the opposite of the incurable pessimist who not only sees the glass half-empty, he sees the water spots too, I naturally see more than a glass half-full. I see Niagara Falls. At times, my optimism has actually been a little frightening. Some of you have heard me tell the true story of the time, in February 1980, when I totalled my car on the way to work on an icy morning. I recall as if it were yesterday the way I felt and what I thought as the car was literally rolling over a couple times and plunging down a ravine. I was cool, calm and collected and my one thought to myself as I was upside down was, “I’m going to get a new car out of this.” And I did! I’m not saying you need to be a nut like me, but if this talk leaves you feeling better and more pumped up about our movement’s prospects, I’ll consider it well worth the effort.
Why do I say we’re in need of some optimism right now? Well, we almost always need more of it. Optimism is a healthy thing, especially on behalf of a worthy cause. Even in the best of times, a typical gathering of conservatives or libertarians produces too much complaining about the way things are going, losses incurred and gains not made, legislation or elections that didn’t go the way we had hoped.
I don’t have to tell this audience that these are hardly the best of times. Probably every organization represented in this room has faced significantly financial challenges in recent months as the economy, stock market, and philanthropy have all suffered slumps.
Politically, the eight years since control of the Congress changed hands have yielded numerous disappointments. In some states, there seems at times to be little difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. I was talking recently to Dave Tuerck, who heads up the Beacon Hill Institute in Massachusetts (and which has done great work in providing its innovative econometric model to the rest of us). What a tough place his state is! Switching from one party to the other there is like leaving a spoiled diaper on a baby and just changing the safety pin. But Dave not only hangs in there, he manages to reach out and help many of the rest of us with his organization’s innovative work.
Some on our side are glum, and wondering aloud, “Are we ever going to win this thing, or are we just spinning our wheels on the long road to losing the war.”
Before I answer that, let me say a word about what’s wrong with pessimism: It’s a crippling, contagious, mental handicap. It’s a self-fulfilling, surefire prescription for losing. If you think the cause is lost, that’s the way you’ll behave and you’ll drag yourself and others down with you. Pessimists don’t change the world; they only react to it. And when it comes to the cause that unites all of us in this room – individual liberty, a free and civil and moral society – pessimism is just not justified anyway. More on that in a moment.
In some cases, people on our side become pessimistic because they have a distorted view of what victory looks like. They think that winning means the end of the struggle, but that never was and never will be the case. The fight for liberty is never-ending. Even if we convinced everybody alive of its merits, which we really don’t have to do in any event, we’d still have to work to educate the next generation.
If winning the day for liberty was simple, we’d have won overwhelmingly – and permanently – long ago. It takes work. It takes time. It takes commitment, followed by renewed commitment, followed by still more commitment. It entails setbacks along the way. I’ve always believed that in spite of all that it has to offer, liberty enters the intellectual fray with a distinct and substantial disadvantage that its advocates must labor to overcome: Liberty demands self-discipline, restraint, and personal initiative. Socialism and the endless interventionist schemes which push society in that direction appeal far more to thoughtless but immediate self-gratification.
Think about it. Mere slogans and bumper stickers (“People Before Profits” is a good example) carry instant weight with the large numbers of people who want something now and think they should have it. Our side has to take the time to explain, to invoke reason, logic, history, and economics.
Anybody can be a socialist. All it requires is a desire to wield power or get something that doesn’t belong to you, no matter what the consequences. Everyone can see and feel the present moment, but it takes thought and discipline to contemplate and lay a firm foundation for the future. The “quick fix” of government intervention is tempting but short-sighted, and we have to encourage people to use their brains to resist it. We will always have to work harder to achieve and protect liberty than the other side has to work to achieve the redistributive state. Liberty demands that we live like mature adults who respect one another. Socialism says we never really have to grow up because some wise guys somewhere will take care of us.
So working for liberty is tough. But that’s nothing new, and therefore no new reason to be any less fired up for it than we’ve been before.
Whenever I sense a whiff of pessimism in my thinking, I shake it in a hurry by recalling the lives and contributions of great individuals who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to eventually prevail. I can hardly recommend a more fitting example to make my point here than William Wilberforce, the man from Yorkshire who more than any other single individual was responsible for ending slavery throughout the British empire.
Born in 1759, Wilberforce never had the physical presence one would hope to possess in a fight. Boswell called him a “shrimp.” Thin and short, Wilberforce compensated with a powerful vision, an appealing eloquence, and an indomitable will.
Elected to Parliament in 1780 at the age of 21, Wilberforce spoke out against the war with America in no uncertain terms, labeling it “cruel, bloody and impractical.” But he drifted from issue to issue without a central focus until a conversion to Christianity sparked what would be a lifelong calling. Revolted by the hideous barbarity of the slave trade then prevalent in the world, he determined in October 1787 to work for its abolition.
Abolitionism was a tall order in the late 1700s. Viewed widely at the time as integral to British naval and commercial success, slavery was big business. It enjoyed broad political support, as well as widespread (through essentially racist) intellectual justification. For 75 years before Wilberforce set about to end the trade in slaves, and ultimately slavery itself, Britain enjoyed the sole right by treaty to supply Spanish colonies with captured Africans. It was lucrative for slavers but savagely merciless for its millions of victims.
Wilberforce labored relentlessly for his cause, forming and assisting organizations to spread the word about the inhumanity of one man owning another. “Our motto must continue to be perseverance,” he once told followers. And what a model of perseverance he was! He endured and overcame just about every obstacle imaginable, including ill health, derision from his colleagues, and defeats almost too numerous to count.
He rose in the House of Commons to give his first abolition speech in 1789, not knowing that it would take another 18 years before the slave trade would be ended by law. Every year he would introduce an abolition measure and every year it would go nowhere. At least once, some of his own allies deserted him because the opposition gave them free tickets to attend the theatre during a crucial vote. The war with France that began in the 1790s often put the slavery issue on the back burner. A bloody slave rebellion in the Caribbean seemed to give ammunition to the other side. He was often ridiculed and condemned as a traitorous rabblerouser. He had reason to fear for his life. He could easily have allowed pessimism to slow him down, but he never did.
Once, in 1805, after yet another defeat in Parliament, Wilberforce was advised by a clerk of the Commons to give up the fight. He replied with the air of undying optimism that had come to characterize his stance on the issue: “Sir, I do expect to carry it.”
Indeed, what seemed once to be an impossible dream became reality on February 23, 1807. Abolition of the slave trade won Parliament’s overwhelming approval. Biographer David J. Vaughan reports that “as the attorney general, Sir Samuel Romilly, stood and praised the perseverance of Wilberforce, the House rose to its feet and broke out in cheers. Wilberforce was so overcome with emotion that he sat head in hand, tears streaming down his face.” Boswell’s shrimp had become a whale.
The trade in slaves was officially over, but ending slavery itself remained the ultimate prize. To bring it about, Wilberforce worked for another 26 years, even after he left behind nearly a half-century of service in Parliament in 1825. The great day finally came on July 26, 1833, when Britain enacted a peaceful, compensated emancipation and became the world’s first major nation to unshackle an entire race within its jurisdiction. Hailed as the hero who made it possible, Wilberforce died three days later.
The lessons of Wilberforce’s life reduce to this: A worthy goal should always inspire. Don’t let any setback slow you up. Find ways to learn from them and turn them to your ultimate advantage. Maintain an optimism worthy of the goal itself, and do all within your character and power to rally others to the cause. How on earth could men and women of good conscience ever do otherwise?
Wilberforce knew that his cause was right, and that was enough. And so it should be with us. Because the cause is right, fighting for it is right, which means that we’re winning even when we think we’re not. Fighting for the right thing is its own reward because it’s an absolute prerequisite to the more tangible outcomes of our efforts, like liberating kids from failing schools or workers from corrupt and coercive unions or taxpayers from wasteful government.
But to make the case for optimism really stick with you tonight, I realize I have to offer some real evidence that something in the world is moving in the right direction. If you think not of today or of yesterday, or of the most recent election or turn of events in the legislative process, but think more long-term, of how far we’ve come in the past 30 or 50 years, it’s not hard to see remarkable progress. We live in a world that has been fundamentally altered because of us and the efforts of many other people who think or thought as we do.
In May 1981, that eternal optimist Ronald Reagan said, “The West will not contain communism, it will transcend it. . . . We’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”
That was a bold and supremely optimistic statement. The Left proclaimed Reagan a nut. How many Americans would have believed then within a decade, communism would crumble and the Soviet Union would literally cease to exist? Not many, but Reagan believed it would happen someday and he was not discouraged by the powerful forces which opposed him.
In his soon-to-be-released book, Reagan’s War, Peter Schweizer writes about Reagan’s optimism and how it inspired so many. Here was a president who spoke of a promising future to people who had known only tyranny. He told them, hang on. Freedom is on the way. For saying that, he was roundly criticized by the Kremlin and elites in the West. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times captured the mood of most in Washington and Europe when he referred to Reagan’s defiant confidence as “simplistic…sectarian…terribly dangerous….primitive.” But to the people that Reagan really wanted to reach, as Schweizer says, the speech was “pure music.” Former dissident Natan Sharansky recalls how in lonely cells across the Soviet gulag, political prisoners tapped on walls and talked through toilets to share what Reagan had said with fellow inmates. Reagan’s words energized and emboldened them and offered hope.
Today, around the world, statists can no longer tout their big-government prescriptions, prosperity-crushing taxes, and class-warfare dogma as the ticket to utopia. They can no longer masquerade their bankrupt ideas as legitimate economic theory or sound public policy without serious challenge. Today, ideas that were hardly discussed just 20 years ago – like school choice, charter schools, and privatization – are widely-accepted public policies with lots of future potential. We’re making great progress on some very strategic issues. When we win the battle for school choice, or privatizing Social Security, we’ll start to see big changes and big victories across a broad front of issues. The other side knows that, and that’s why they’re nastier and more shrill than ever before – and therefore more prone to tactical mistakes. Who would ever think, for instance, that a teachers union would sue a think tank for accurately quoting their union president at one of his own news conferences? That’s a sign of desperation, not confidence. With the collaboration of our good friends at the prestigious Institute for Justice, we at the Mackinac Center are scoring lots of points in fighting that silly lawsuit. Somebody said to me the other day, “With enemies like the MEA, who needs friends?”!.
In any event, let’s not allow the challenges of these temporarily difficult times blind us to the victories we’re winning in our states. Forgive me for not citing every organization represented in this room, but I believe that I have something here from every group that responded to a recent solicitation, plus a few others. I’m sure I could easily find multiple successes for every one of you that may not be represented in this list. Take stock of these achievements:
The Allegheny Institute played a key role in the defeat of a “Living Wage” ordinance in Allegheny County and the retraction of a bill already passed in the City of Pittsburgh. In one of the most powerful union strongholds in the nation, that is a remarkable achievement.
Also in Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth Foundation under Matt Brouillette’s leadership just blistered the anti-reform, anti-choice teachers unions with hard-hitting work on the costs of public education – work that is framing the debate on education reform in that state. The Foundation’s research on the beneficial impact of tax cuts helped generate the legislative momentum needed to enact reductions in Pennsylvania’s capital stock and franchise tax and inheritance tax.
In Oregon, the Cascade Policy Institute’s analysis of Oregon’s Public Employee Retirement System in May 2001 set the stage for official admission of a multi-billion dollar unfunded liability just one year later. Reforming the system is now a top state priority, and Cascade’s Chairman and an Academic Advisor have been named by the Governor and Speaker of the House to key pension reform commissions.
In Minnesota, the Center of the American Experiment has sought to persuade state legislators that Minnesota’s K-12 education standards, known as the “Profile of Learning,” are among the worst in the nation. It appears likely that the Legislature will approve an overhaul of the Profile of Learning after the 2002 elections, following an effort to repeal the Profile earlier this year that overwhelmingly passed the House (109-22) and came within one vote of passing the Senate (33-33).
In the People’s Republic of Vermont, the Ethan Allen Institute played a key role in persuading the state House leadership to make school choice legislation a priority. The House eventually passed a full-scale public school choice bill in March 2002. Though that was defeated in the Senate, the outnumbered but indomitable force we know as John and Ann McClaughry assure us that the legislative action of 2002 laid valuable ground for a renewed effort in 2003.
Textbook reviews of environmental science and social studies books by the Texas Public Policy Foundation resulted in national publishers making almost 300 changes in science texts and what may prove to be as many as twice that number in social studies texts. That helps us all because Texas is the largest purchaser of textbooks in the U.S.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s Report Card for Parents directly influenced the establishment of standards-based accountability for all public schools in Georgia. The Report Card has also received national recognition for its interactive, parent-friendly capabilities.
The Goldwater Institute, a pioneer in making school choice a reality through tax credits and flexible charter school laws, continues to set an impressive pace in getting legislators to take its ideas and put them into legislation.
The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, where the rest of us plan to open branch offices some day, has been in operation less than two years but has already produced 9 events featuring major free-market proponents to audiences of legislators, students and business people.
Thanks largely to Independence Institute research and public events, Colorado has twice permanently cut income and sales tax rates.
The Mississippi Family Council, proving the strength of having state-based groups who know what works in their own states, not only drafted a charter school reform bill, but secured the endorsement for it of both the NEA and AFT affiliates in that state!
The most significant labor policy victory in twenty years happened just 13 months ago after the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs did most of the intellectual heavy-lifting that made Oklahoma America’s 22nd right-to-work state.
The Pacific Research Institute earned enormous statewide attention for its work on Internet taxes. Subsequently, Governor Gray Davis vetoed an Internet tax bill and PRI was cited by the San Francisco Examiner as the organization that provided the intellectual ammunition that led to the bill’s demise.
The Pioneer Institute turned the political tide on judicial patronage in Massachusetts by documenting the enormous cost and inequities created by the State Legislature’s practice of padding the Judiciary budget with patronage jobs to the tune of $20 million per year in added costs. Because of Pioneer’s work, judicial management reform is a leading issue in this year’s hotly-contested gubernatorial election.
In Iowa, the Public Interest Institute’s policy study on the death tax which formed the basis of Sen.Grassley’s speech to the Senate prior to passage of the bill that put the death tax on death row-admittedly, it’s scheduled to be resuscitated, but that’s a battle PII and many of the rest of us will fight again, with a very good chance of prevailing.
In New Mexico, the work of the relatively new Rio Grande Foundation is partly responsible for both gubernatorial candidates this year singing from the same tax cut hymnal, and one of them is Bill Richardson!
And we have other new think tanks up and running in important states – Betsy Chapman’s Maine Public Policy Institute and Gregg Edwards’ Center for Policy Research in New Jersey being among the most exciting examples. Helene Denney is doing wonders in Nevada with the revamped Nevada Policy Research Institute.
Thanks in great measure to the South Carolina Policy Council, a tobacco tax increase was defeated and study committees have been formed in the General Assembly to closely examine the Medicaid budget for the inefficiency and waste the Council has publicized.
In the Old Dominion, our two sister groups, the Virginia Institute for Public Policy and the Thomas Jefferson Institute have scored major victories for charter schools, spending reductions, coalition building. The Virginia Institute spearheaded what now includes a coalition of 64 organizations and 23 members of the General Assembly, focusing on taxation, property rights and education reform.
The Washington Policy Center and the Evergreen Freedom Foundation is launching washingtonvotes.org to shed the light of day on bills in the Washington state legislature, and of course, good old Bob Williams and his colleagues at Evergreen continue to inflict migraines on the WEA. Similar, effective work on teacher unions and education reforms is being done in many other shops, including the James Madison Institute in Florida and the Sutherland Institute in Utah.
In Ohio, the Buckeye Institute’s work led directly to passage this year of a budget bill which indexes all state income tax brackets for inflation beginning in 2005. The institute’s research on higher desegregation rates in voucher schools figured prominently in Justice O’Connor’s key fifth vote in the Supreme Court’s Cleveland voucher decision.
The Acton Institute is educating clergy in sound economics, all over the world. That’s a critically important constituency. Fifteen years ago, our movement didn’t even have an Acton Institute, or anybody doing anything like what it does.
At the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, we’ve helped craft and protect one of the nation’s best charter school laws and spurred others in many states to advance an innovative tax credit plan as a viable option for choice.
And thanks to our friends at the Heritage Foundation, which does so much to help us all and to assist Tracie Sharp at the State Policy Network, we come together often, at Resource Bank and other meetings, allowing us to create new synergies and strengthen our network. Same to the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, which is assisting groups like ours around the world.
These developments and achievements represent a very small fraction of the good that all of our groups are accomplishing, and we ought to be proud and pumped up about it. A scant 20 years ago, none of us at the state level even existed, and the policy debates in our respective states were largely uninformed by sound, market-oriented ideas.
And if we’re optimists, not pessimists, we’ll actually emerge from these difficult times stronger, smarter, more productive, and more attractive to donors than ever. We will have proven to everybody that we’re not a flash-in-the-pan. Whether friction wears you down or polishes you up depends on what you’re made of, and getting through these challenging times without losing any of our optimism for the future will show the world that our movement is vibrant and here-to-stay.
We’re making a difference, a difference that can be reckoned in terms of the broad sweep of ideas, but most importantly, in the lives of real people.
There’s an old story by a Loren Eiseley about a man who used to go to the ocean for inspiration to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.
One day, as he was walking along the shore after a terrible storm, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.
As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and
that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down
to the sand, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.
He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that
you are doing?”
The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the
“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the
To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If
I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”
Upon hearing this, the other man commented, “But don’t you not realize that
there are miles and miles of beach and there are tens of thousands of starfish
all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”
At this, the man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”
Just think of the parents and children, whatever the number so far may be, who have educational choices they didn’t have before, thanks in part to our work. What a reward it is to know that we helped make that happen!
Those of you who are CEOs of your organizations must eagerly embrace the responsibility of keeping your team upbeat and optimistic – of reminding them that winners never quit, and quitters never win. You have a special obligation in this regard, because your team looks to you for guidance and inspiration. No great general ever won a battle by telling his troops, “Well, we’re going to lose this, but let’s do it anyway.”
We all do what we do and we’re here at this meeting because, at bottom, we love this country. Why do we love it? Certainly not because of its scenery, its amber waves of grain and purple mountains majesty. We love it because of what its Founders intended it to stand for – liberty. If you love this country, you will never, ever, give up on it or let any difficulty allow you to falter in defending its founding principles.
Karl Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto that socialism was inevitable, that all of history was heading in that certain direction. Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the Worker’s Paradise. We now know, and most of the world does too, how silly it was for anyone to believe that socialism was somehow pre-ordained. The late Polish dissident, Stefan Kisielewski, once said, “Socialism is stupidism.” If anything is preordained and inevitable in human affairs it is certainly NOT the silly notion that a handful of elitists will rule nations. It is that the spirit to be free, to be what God intended each of us to be, will triumph.
Finally, I’d like to end with a personal experience from which I’ve drawn much inspiration over the years. It comes from a visit I made in 1986 to communist Poland, to learn firsthand what was happening among the many brave people in the Polish underground who were resisting oppression.
My escorts arranged for me to spend each night at a different home, and to meet many Polish dissidents throughout each day. I was taken one evening to meet an extraordinary couple, Zbigniew and Sophia Romaszewski. They had run underground radio for Solidarity during the first six months after martial law was declared in December 1981. They were arrested in mid-’82. He was given four years in prison, she was given three. They were kept in solitary confinement, apart from one another, for much of that time. At the time I visited them in their apartment in November 1986, they had not been out of incarceration for very long, but they were active once again on behalf of freedom because it meant so much to them. They knew that at any moment, the police could haul them off to jail again, but it didn’t matter. Freedom was what they were about, and the fact that they and others like them were up against the formidable forces of the Evil Empire did not deter them.
I asked many questions of the Romaszewskis that evening but one in particular prompted a reply I’ll never forget. I asked, “When you were broadcasting from that underground radio station, how did you know if people were listening?”
Sophia replied, “We wondered that too. We could only broadcast for about eight or ten minutes at a time and then we had to go off the air to avoid detection. But one night, we asked people over the airwaves, ‘If you’re listening, and if you believe in freedom for Poland, please blink your lights. Call your friends who believe the same way, and ask them to do so as well.’ We then went to the window and for hours, all of Warsaw was blinking!”
The optimism that formed the foundation of the perseverance of so many people like the Romaszewskis is one of the primary reasons why an Empire fell and a continent is free today.
Well, that’s what we are – blinking lights. Each and every one of us, as members of the family of organizations that makes up the State Policy Network. All we have to do is get more lights blinking. Let’s have at it!
(Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan – www.mackinac.org).