(Editor's note: The following is an edited version of the text from the closing address given by Mackinac Center President Joseph G. Lehman at the Center's 20th anniversary gala held Nov. 11, 2008, in East Lansing.)
Thank you, John (Stossel). And I think everyone here appreciates the work you do at ABC and throughout the country. You're more than a breath of fresh air on the airwaves, you're an antidote to a lot of what's on the airwaves.
But friends, as good as John's talk was, this speech, from me, is truly the one you've been waiting for all evening! This is the last speech of the evening.
I'm going to get the most dangerous part of my speech out of the way first. And that's deciding which politicians to recognize from the podium!
We have some statewide officeholders here tonight. In addition to Chief Justice Taylor, we have his colleague on the Supreme Court, an outstanding jurist, Justice Robert Young. Would you stand, Bob?
And we also have Attorney General Mike Cox. Mike is publicly promoting legislation with a very laudable goal - total transparency of state government spending, which is also one of the Mackinac Center's top priorities through our "showmichiganthemoney.org" project. Would you please stand, Mike?
And we have a number of state legislators and municipal officials here this evening. But too many to recognize. Someone told me the best way to handle this is to just say if you're a really important person who wants to be recognized, you can stand up now.
Sometimes bad things happen. And sometimes bad things happen all at once. And that just begins to describe the shocks to our economy, our public policy and our politics over the last few weeks.
Not to mention the shocks to us personally. You wouldn't be at a Mackinac Center gala if you weren't personally committed to the sublime ideas embodied in the founding of this great nation, so blessed by God with individual liberty, economic freedom and soaring opportunity.
Tonight among friends it's OK to admit if you're a little gloomy - for the uncertainty of our financial security, for the fear that precious freedoms might be snatched away, for the injustice of campaign lies told about honorable candidates.
Such things should arouse emotion among people who love liberty as much as we do. And so I don't blame you if you've let a little gloom set in. Everything in its season, and let gloom have its season. But then gloom must give way to resolve.
How wonderful, then, that this very day, Nov. 11, is set aside to honor those who personified resolve in the defense of our freedoms from enemies abroad.
Today is Veteran's Day, and I ask all of our veterans here tonight to stand so the rest of us may thank you for your service and sacrifice.
Just as veterans have to fight in wars they don't start, we don't get to choose the conflicts that come our way in our times. But we can choose to do the right thing at all times.
Doing the right thing now starts with facing the brutal truth that we've suffered some setbacks, and resolving to never give up. To never give up working for liberty.
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.
There has never been a time when free people did not have to defend against deceivers and usurpers and thugs. If freedom could be easily gained, or easily held, America would not have become the one last, best hope for liberty in the world.
Working to advance human liberty is always the right thing to do. Just like voluntarily helping the poor is always the right thing to do, whether in times of plenty or in times of want.
But it is here that people are prone to make a crucial error. They sometimes think "working for liberty" means "supporting the right politicians." It is so very much more than that.
That's because when lawmakers change public policy to favor liberty, they are only taking the final step in a long march.
Watching what lawmakers accomplish in the legislature is like watching a football game through a hole in the fence that only lets you see the goal line. The possibility of scoring is usually determined by what already happened far up the field.
The guys who carry the ball across the goal line do get the glory and the best endorsement deals and photo ops and fan clubs.
But without the guys who set them up to make the big play, there wouldn't be much scoring going on.
Up the field and further away from the goal line glory is where ideas begin their march toward becoming public policy. 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.
John Miller is a writer for National Review. He described how think tanks impact policy like this: "Think tanks are perhaps best at creating conditions for success, as opposed to being directly responsible for the success itself.... It is nearly always impossible to draw a straight line from the product of a think tank to the enactment of a specific policy."
John also wrote: "The Mackinac Center isn't just one of the best state level think tanks in America - it's one of the best think tanks in America. Period."
Our specialty is not politics, it is ideas. Ideas of limited government like school choice, voluntary unionism, private property rights, government transparency, and the quaint notion that taxes should only be used to pay for essential government functions, not for so-called "economic development," not to "stimulate" anyone, and not to "spread the wealth."
Bad policy ideas don't come out of nowhere, either. The statists have think tanks, too. But they also have universities, the media, the unions, many businesses and the apparatus of the state itself, including its schools.
Nobody said the fight for liberty would be a fair fight.
But that's no reason to be discouraged, because anytime liberty has won, it has won against the odds.
Jefferson said, "The natural order of things is for government to gain ground and liberty to yield."
And our own experience tells us that even when liberty gains, it's often two steps forward and one step back.
It may be hard to believe, but Michigan public policy was actually worse when the Mackinac Center opened its doors than it is now.
As I wrote for our newsletter, 20 years ago we had a death tax. Twenty years ago Michigan taxed so many tangible things they even invented something called an "intangibles tax" to get the rest. Income tax rates were higher. Property tax rates were higher, and property tax hikes were not capped by law.
Twenty years ago government assigned kids to schools by ZIP code alone. Government funded those schools based on nearby land prices, not by the number of students they served. Teacher strikes were legal, and frequent. Unions didn't need anybody's permission to take political contributions right out of workers' paychecks.
Twenty years ago government could legally take property from one owner and transfer it to another for a political version of "economic development."
Lawmakers whose greatest skill was pleasing powerful interest groups could enjoy uninterrupted decades entrenched in the Legislature. The terms "free market" and "privatization" were in the dictionary, but not the news.
In the meantime, 20 years of Mackinac Center research and educational programs influenced the repeal or significant improvement of every single one of those policies and many more.
Over two decades the Mackinac Center has been sued, picketed, threatened, banned, boycotted and compared to worms in the gutter. Governors have denounced us.
But we've also been cheered, honored, respected and thanked by thousands. Unions have started their own think tanks to compete with us and union presidents have called news conferences where they told reporters they admired what we've done. Courts have vindicated us. Some of our literature is "required reading" in classrooms and legislative committees. We've attracted financial support from thousands.
We've become the largest state-based policy institute. We've trained hundreds of think tank executives around the nation and world. And governors have signed our ideas into law.
As if to define irony, tax-funded, tenured university professors have tried to slap us with the label "ivory tower." But, it was a Mackinac Center research project last summer that uncovered a partisan plot to hijack the state's constitution, known as the Reform Michigan Government Now! initiative.
This $5 million ballot measure was sold to the public as a cost-saving government reform. But when we analyzed the fine print buried in its 19,000 words, we found that it would deceptively tilt the courts and the Legislature in favor of the Democratic party. The ballot committee insisted it was a bipartisan effort. And they fooled the public.
Nearly a half-million people signed the petitions before a Mackinac Center summer intern discovered a secret, 34-page PowerPoint slideshow on a UAW Web site. That slideshow revealed the true purpose of Reform Michigan Government Now in plain language. The first slide read like this: "Changing the Rules of Politics in Michigan to Help Democrats."
We blew their bipartisan cover on WJR's Frank Beckmann Show and started a media firestorm. The UAW quickly pulled the slideshow from their Web site, but it was too late. Support for the ballot measure began to collapse.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce sued to stop it. The Chamber's senior vice president, Bob LaBrant, said our summer intern's discovery was "the turning point" in their successful campaign that ultimately kept it off the ballot.
So as bad as last week's election was for friends of liberty, it might have been much worse. Just ask yourself, how much would it cost us to lock in one-party control of state government?
We've seen what Republicans can do when they control all of Congress. Would Democrats in total control of Lansing be any better? It's not out of the question that the "ivory tower" Mackinac Center saved the people hundreds of million of dollars.
Now is the time to thank that Mackinac Center intern who knew what to do when he discovered that secret slideshow.
His name is Jim Vote. He's a graduate student at Wayne State University, and he is here tonight with his parents. Jim, would you please stand?
The same president who warned that government naturally gains ground while liberty yields it also told us the formula for securing our liberty. "The price," he said, "of freedom is eternal vigilance."
I would add that we must not misplace our confidence in politics or in those who seek political office. Our focus must be on ideas, because ideas determine politics. We must do everything in our power to animate our politics and our politicians with the ideals of liberty.
Friedrich Hayek said politicians are like corks bobbing in the ocean. We can be the current.
The Mackinac Center has produced a powerful current of free-market research and analysis for two decades. We'll always be the institute known for incisive studies and educational forums. But we've added new ways to communicate our ideas.
Online, searchable Web databases of everything from legislative votes to school performance statistics. Online government checkbook registers and union contracts. Videos. A newspaper for the legislative news the mainstream media misses. Journals for educators and their students.
A new college campus outreach. A property rights network of people, not just studies. And a new initiative to place our ideas squarely in the judicial branch, not just the legislative and executive.
But we need to do even more. We certainly won't win the battle of ideas without your help. We're never ashamed to ask people to support liberty by supporting the Mackinac Center. When you leave through the hallway this evening, we have two gifts for you on the tables outside. One of them is our latest book by President Emeritus Larry Reed, called "Striking the Root."
If you're ready to start gaining back some of the ground we've lost, just use the envelope inside that book to support the Mackinac Center. And if you think this time of economic crisis and political peril is precisely the time to amplify the Mackinac Center's voice, please support us, and ask your friends to do the same.
Since no victory for freedom is ever permanent, it will be hard to ever say that we've finally and conclusively won. But we will know that we've lost if no one remains who fights for freedom. Everyone who accepts a little soft tyranny today with a shrug or a whimper paves the way for a harsher tyranny tomorrow.
Not many of us can expect to be around 100 years from now to see what fruit today's resolve will produce. But I think I know the person in this audience who's most likely to still be here in 100 years. She's 6 years old and her name is Deborah and she's the prettiest little girl her daddy's ever seen. She's also probably too shy to stand up right now. But she's sitting right over there.
One day, Lord willing, old lady Deborah will be surrounded by her grandchildren and great grandchildren. And she may tell them she remembers a night in a big room with a lot people dressed up in fancy clothes. And listening to long speeches about freedom. And its enemies.
One of the little ones might ask her grandma what happened in America, and Michigan, after that night in the big room.
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 earthly men and women to heavenly tasks. Let us resolve that Michigan will be America's brightest beacon of freedom and prosperity. Let us resolve that liberty will not finally yield on our watch. Carry on, friends.
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.