A Lasting Legacy

(Editor's note: This is the foreword to the second edition of "Striking the Root," issued last December. June 30 will mark the seventh anniversary of the passing of Joseph P. Overton, former senior vice president of the Mackinac Center and to whom the book is dedicated. Joe's tireless efforts on behalf of liberty and free-market ideals produced a theory known as the "Overton Window of Political Possibilities."His theory has recently gained national prominence in the form of a book title borrowed by a national best-selling author.)

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I prominently display this collection of essays, "Striking the Root," in my office. It's a memento of the thousands of hours I labored alongside two men who did more than any others to shape my understanding of political liberty. One of them is Larry Reed, the author of the volume. The other is Joe Overton, to whom Larry dedicated the book.

My partnership with them began when I met Joe in 1986. We were engineers working at the same firm, and we were both interested in the ideas of liberty. Joe soon met Larry, whose orbit intersected with ours when he opened the doors of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in 1988. Larry would eventually convince Joe to leave engineering and work for the Mackinac Center. Joe later persuaded me to do the same, so I quit a perfectly good job and joined him, Larry and a small staff in saving the world.

Headquarters for saving the world was a Byzantine warren of nonadjoining, rented offices behind a pizza parlor. The accommodations weren't as impressive as our output and growing influence. We were proud when a speechwriter for then-Gov. John Engler called the Mackinac Center "Michigan's cockpit of freedom."

In between writing and speaking duties, Larry would invite reporters to tour the "cockpit of freedom," where I suppose he thought they wouldn't notice that everything smelled like pepperoni. When I wasn't busy editing and pitching our ideas to those reporters, I worked to dissuade them from accepting Larry's invitations. I wanted journalists to remember the quality of our work, not the quality of our work space. One scribe, upon arriving for Larry's tour, memorably blurted out, "Is this it?"

Joe Overton ignored the office-tour controversy. He focused instead on designing a new Mackinac Center headquarters big enough to accommodate our growing staff and pleasant enough to host policymakers, reporters and supporters with pride.

Larry's enthusiasm and Joe's vision culminated in a new $2.4 million headquarters that we fashioned from an old Woolworth's department store with the help of generous local foundations and longtime supporters. This was in 1998, after the Mackinac Center had emerged as the country's largest state-focused think tank. The new building laid a foundation for even greater growth and impact.

That brick-and-mortar project showcased a wonderfully complementary mix of skills and temperaments. Over years of working with Larry and Joe on countless projects, I saw time and again a certain division of labor. If I may exaggerate to make a point, Larry had a million good ideas, but we would have to drop everything we were doing, because all his ideas had to be implemented in the next five minutes. Joe also had a million good ideas, but all of his would take at least 10 years to accomplish. My role, if I may exaggerate again, was to be the chief killjoy and figure out how to wrestle their plans to earth.

We would end up agreeing on a mix of policy research and educational material that was relevant to current political debates, but that also laid the groundwork for long-term change toward free-market policies.

After 15 years of professional partnership, I no longer work day-by-day alongside either Larry or Joe. Larry left the Mackinac Center last year after 20 years as its president and took the helm of the venerable Foundation for Economic Education. And in God's unfathomable Providence, we lost Joe in a light-plane crash in 2003. Larry and I and many others will always bear emotional scars from that tragedy.

While I wish everyone could have experienced working with these two men, the next best thing might be what you hold in your hands right now. Larry's essays on liberty are formed from his own genius and influenced by Joe's insight. They are as powerful as this volume is compact. I was challenged by them, even as I edited some of them, and people who have labored in the freedom movement for years have told me this book changed their understanding of freedom and the nature of government.

Karl Marx said: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is to change it." Those who read "Striking the Root" will not only better understand the world, but also be inspired to transform it.


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.