Creating the Future for 30 Years

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s founding. Consider what the world was like in 1987: The Berlin Wall was standing, three networks dominated the news business and the Dow Jones closed above 2,500 for the first time. Extreme poverty stood at 37 percent of the world’s population. (Now, it’s below 10 percent.)

Since then, the Mackinac Center has shaped history in Michigan and beyond. Our research has contributed to the passage of much useful legislation, including one of the nation’s first public charter school programs, right-to-work laws, tuition tax credits, privatization programs, major tax relief and education reform. Mackinac Center ideas now live on in the Michigan Constitution, state statutes and public opinion. We have given tens of thousands of employees the freedom to choose their union affiliation. Our experts trained more than 600 think tank executives from 47 countries; nearly 11,000 high school students participated in our debate workshops. Men and women who interned with us have gone on to careers in public service, writing, academia and think tank leadership.  

Along the way, the Mackinac Center has reinvented itself repeatedly so that it continues to expand the opportunities for people to pursue happy lives. 

The people of Michigan can thank the foresight of Mackinac Center founders — people like Richard McLellan, Joseph Olson and John Engler. These men understood a profound truth — ideas matter — and decided to establish a research institute that could argue for constitutional liberty and free markets. 

Michigan’s leaders in those days had a long-range vision; they understood that for the state to thrive, it would need strong institutions and a court system that embraced the rule of law. They knew the engine of prosperity in Michigan would be a strong market economy. Every successful endeavor requires the right people, and these leaders worked hard to find them.

This prescient vision has had profound results. Walk around Lansing today and you’ll find that scores of lawmakers, judges, agency heads, lawyers and advocates got their start during the Engler administration. Today’s reality is the legacy of men and women who thought big thoughts 30 years ago. 

The question is, who will do that today? 

In politics, it is natural to consider the short term. We focus on the next task, the next bill, the next election. Legislative terms and political cycles produce nearsighted vision. Term limits, for all the good they do, erode some institutional memory and political wisdom. An ever-younger and ever-more-depleted news corps is less equipped to put the controversies of the day into historical context.  

The Mackinac Center’s role is to take the long view, pointing True North regardless of the undulations of political cycles.

Looking out at the next 30 years, if Michigan is a freer, more prosperous state, what will have happened?

Michigan will have created an environment to maximize human capital; this takes more than merely spending more on K-12 or higher education. The state also can eliminate obstacles to attracting talented people and entrepreneurs. The state’s business environment will encourage innovation by leveling barriers to work and regulatory drags on productivity.

Additionally, state and local governments will have eliminated the long-term liabilities of unfunded pensions and retiree health costs. Political leaders will have abandoned the presumption that they can pick winning companies or industries to received targeted favors. Compassionate safety nets will depend on civil society more than government programs. Education will look less like a factory assembly line and more like Pandora, Uber or Netflix — customized for the individual user.

The next 30 years will require vision, talent, new communications channels and courage. The Mackinac Center is well-prepared for the task.