(Note: The following commentary appears as the President's Message in the Winter 2008 issue of "Impact," the Mackinac Center's newsletter.)
Seven days after last month's election, more than 600 friends gathered to celebrate the Mackinac Center's 20th anniversary. The election itself produced little that proponents of limited government might celebrate, but its aftermath provided the perfect backdrop to underscore the current that drives public policy as well as election results: ideas.
Economist Friedrich Hayek is credited with a vivid, if exaggerated, analogy. He compared politicians to corks bobbing in the ocean, with ideas and their champions acting as the invisible currents that sweep them along. I shared Hayek's analogy to the amused delight of our anniversary gala crowd, along with one of my own that drew a notable response.
I said watching the Legislature pass laws is like watching a football game through a hole in the fence that only lets you see the few yards nearest the goal line. You see players score as they carry the ball across that line, but you're missing a lot of the game. Someone, somewhere, somehow sets up those big plays.
Often outside the view of political observers are the people who champion ideas and the means by which to accomplish them, the Mackinac Center being the example at hand. Though they work farther up the field and away from the goal line, ideas determine the score as much as, or even more than, the government officials who bask in the goal-line glory.
That prompted a friend to later suggest that political leadership certainly deserves some credit for the very policy victories I touted that evening. Building on my analogy, he wrote that not every team scores from first and goal; good political leaders really matter.
How true! Some malign political leadership by calling it an oxymoron, but such people cannot be serious students of history. The American Revolution was fueled by sublime ideas of liberty and carried out by a historic confluence of individual political leaders and statesmen. In our time, the Reagan and Thatcher "revolutions" are eponymous reminders that ideas alone do not enact public policies friendly to liberty. As my gently chiding friend wrote, "It is a partnership."
No matter which way the political winds blow, you can count on the Mackinac Center to stand for time-honored ideas of limited government. Larry Reed, our president emeritus, told our anniversary celebrants what makes him most proud. "This organization's principles are the same today as they were 20 years go. No drift, no corners cut, no waffles, no ifs, ands or buts. How many parties or politicians can you say that about?"
A congressional chief of staff once joined the Mackinac Center team. After observing the public policy process from a think tank's perspective, he said politicians are the hammers and think tank ideas are nails. It's obvious that you can't build much of a house without both.
Note to political leaders and statesmen: We're ready when you are.