If this column were always about the crisis of the moment, I’d have plenty of topics to choose from now. A violent incursion into the U. S. Capitol. A historic second impeachment of a president. Thousands of armed National Guardsmen in downtown Washington. Reports of planned disturbances at state capitols on Inauguration Day. A fractured civic culture marked by soaring levels of contempt for one’s political counterparts. A raging, deadly pandemic. Ham-fisted lockdowns and cruel suppression of civil liberties and livelihoods. And more.
Optimism isn’t my first reaction to that catalog of catastrophes, but as president of the Mackinac Center, it’s my job to find a way to turn bad things around and advance the good.
What does that look like now? There is no research paper, no policy forum, no lawsuit, no model legislation to addresses all that ails us, and no silver bullet that eliminates even one of our pressing problems.
I spoke with a former corporate crisis communications expert last week. Her counsel to CEOs who are (fairly or not) on the hot seat was “go back to home base.” Tell the people what core values and competencies you can bring to bear on the crisis.
Our long-term readers know our bedrock commitment to free-market policies as a way to advance liberty and prosperity for all people. But our true leverage underlies even that.
We won’t persuade anyone of the efficacy of free-market policies without a more fundamental commitment to civic virtue. Brink Lindsey of the Niskanen Center says the “prime directive” of democratic civic virtue is, “Treat all your fellow citizens, regardless of their political views, as your civic and political equals.”
Brink and I were once colleagues at the libertarian Cato Institute. I especially like to quote Brink in this context since the Niskanen Center and I have not always agreed. (Niskanen’s president kindly asked me to step down from its advisory board over a policy disagreement.)
I believe the “prime directive,” if observed by everyone, would defuse nearly all the crises I named. This can’t be achieved by command or fiat. It has to be modeled. People must adopt it because they see it as the proper way to behave to restore constructive discourse instead of fuel corrosive conflict.
Our work normally involves challenging the status quo and the plans of others to expand government. But we don’t personally attack the defenders of the status quo or the proponents of expansive government.
We presume goodwill whenever possible, we acknowledge what our opponents get right, and we admit the limits of our own policy prescriptions. We don’t automatically ascribe evil motives to our opponents’ ideas and we don’t get personal. Even if we hit hard, we hit fair.
One think tank modeling civic virtue is no silver bullet. But we can’t expect others to do what we won’t do ourselves, and it’s hard to have hope that leads to optimism without a broad and renewed commitment to the basic dignity of all people, regardless of what views they hold.