(Note: The following commentary appears as the Executive Vice President’s Message in the Spring 2008 issue of "Impact," the Mackinac Center’s newsletter.)
I believe it was divine providence that led my orbit to intersect with Larry Reed’s just over 20 years ago. Larry was returning to Michigan to become the Mackinac Center’s first president. My friend, Joe Overton, soon met Larry, introduced us, and the seeds of a partnership were planted.
The Mackinac Center’s founders had a simple vision. Free-market ideas should have a respected, influential voice in Michigan public policy.
Lawmakers needed intellectual ammunition if they were ever going to limit the cost and scope of government. Journalists needed credible experts to explain alternatives to government expansion if they were ever going to write balanced news stories. Michigan residents needed to be reminded of America’s interlocking principles of individual liberty and limited government if they were ever going to hold elected officials accountable.
Inspired by Washington-based institutes and a couple of brand-new state think tanks, the founders created the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. As president, Larry would organize free-market scholars to produce research and conduct the educational programs to fill the gaping void in Michigan’s public policy discourse.
Yes, it’s still tough to advance free-market public policy in 2008. But don’t forget what 1988 was like. Communism held sway around the globe and the Great Lake State had its problems too.
Michigan had a death tax and an "intangibles" tax. Income tax rates were higher. Property taxes were higher, and increases were not capped by law. Government assigned kids to schools by ZIP code alone. Schools were funded more on the basis of nearby land prices, not the number of students enrolled. Teacher strikes were legal and frequent. Unions needed no one’s permission to take political contributions right out of workers’ paychecks.
Governments could legally take property from one owner and transfer it to another for "economic development." Lawmakers whose greatest skill was pleasing powerful special interests could enjoy uninterrupted decades entrenched in the Legislature. The terms "free market" and "privatization" were in the dictionary, but rarely the news.
Twenty years of Mackinac Center research and education influenced significant improvement in every single one of the policies mentioned above, and many more.
Over two decades we’ve been sued, picketed, threatened, banned, boycotted and compared to worms in the gutter. Governors have denounced us. But we’ve also been cheered, honored, respected and thanked. Courts have vindicated us. Some of our literature has become "required reading" in classrooms and legislative committees. We’ve attracted financial support from thousands. We’ve become the largest state-based policy institute. We’ve trained hundreds of think tank executives around the nation and world. And governors have signed our ideas into law.
Joe Overton, now deceased, and I never regretted joining Larry Reed and our other Mackinac Center colleagues to accomplish the vision of a free society. I’m thankful for all we’ve achieved with your support. We still face formidable challenges. But if it’s true that there has never been a golden age of liberty, then it’s also true that defending liberty is always the right thing to do.
Joseph G. Lehman is executive vice 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.