The Visionary and the Reactionary

(The following article first appeared in the Winter 2005 edition of Impact.)

History offers powerful examples of officials who were unwilling or unable to think imaginatively. They resisted innovation and could not perceive what would later be obvious.

Consider the battle of ideas between U.S. Secretary of War Newton Baker and U.S. Army General Billy Mitchell. In 1921, Mitchell proposed to prove the effectiveness of airpower by sinking old battleships through aerial bombardment. Although it’s hard to imagine today, the early proponents of airpower were believed to be crackpots by many, and Baker thought Mitchell a nut. Baker even stated, “That idea is so damned nonsensical and impossible that I’m willing to stand on the bridge of a battleship while that nitwit tries to hit it from the air.”

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Mitchell, however, was confident in his vision and knew that a successful demonstration would firmly establish the effectiveness of airpower. His bombs found their mark on that historic day, and the ships sank quickly. Baker, who had reconsidered his boast and watched from a safe distance, suffered damage only to his reputation and his ego.

History honors Mitchell as a visionary. Baker, however, is remembered differently.

Now think about recent advances in public policy, and consider today’s “Newton Bakers.” They have disparaged reforms in welfare policy, vilified tax cuts and belittled school choice. They inexplicably remain the moribund proponents of big government.

The Mackinac Center has always pushed for innovations in public policy, and our opponents have often called our ideas “radical” or “risky.” But when they do, I encourage you to visualize the expression on Newton Baker’s face as Billy Mitchell’s airplanes sunk those battleships — and reflect on how Mitchell and his colleagues must have felt at that same moment.

Thousands of people have supported the Mackinac Center over the years. They, too, are visionaries, because they see the importance of persistently advocating good ideas — and of supporting our common cause in the face of criticism and opposition, until success has been won.