CEI Annual Dinner 2019: Kent Lassman


All of the media content from the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s 35th Anniversary Dinner and Reception last month is now available, including remarks from Master of Ceremonies Katherine Mangu-Ward, and CEI President Kent Lassman, whose speech you can view below (followed by a transcript). Kent encourages everyone to save the date for next year’s dinner on June 17, 2020.


After that introduction, I have to throw away my best jokes. Thank you, Katherine. I’m also going to throw away my introduction because I learned in the last hour, two facts.

And the first one is just so surprising to me that I want to remedy the situation immediately. And that is there’s a lovely, warm brilliant lady who has joined us this evening, and this is her first CEI dinner after being a generous supporter of so many causes, so much good work that has been done. Someone who I’ve had the chance to get to know, so much better over the last three years at CEI, and I’d ask you, if you see Ethelmae Humphreys this evening, thank Ethelmae for her generous support of the work that we’re doing and of the party that you’ll see later tonight.

And secondly, over here, I can’t see through the lights. I want to welcome Congresswoman Foxx. Virginia is someone I’ve known more than 15 years, dating her working doing education policy and she’s a regular at this dinner. It’s a treat to have her, and I hope you’ll help me keep her out of the front pages because no good comes after 10 pm.

The two observations, I want to start with two observations. First, it’s always the right time to spend an evening with your friends, the people who make your passion possible. I want you to look around, look at your table. This is an amazing collection of people. There’s talent, there’s good cheer, devotion to the well-being of others. And the degree to which it’s found right here is simply staggering.

This is the first time we’ve ever sold out the annual CEI dinner. We did that with your help. We did that on the way to a record-breaking tally of nearly 1.3 million dollars. So to our board of directors, the exceptional staff, and especially to our sponsors, you have my heartfelt thanks.

And second, it is always the right time to be introduced by a friend, and doubly so when she says nice things about you in front of large audiences. So Katherine, thank you for all the work that you’re doing to helm Reason Magazine and to keep ideas at the center of our national discussion.

So every year I get up here and I give a little talk. I want you to understand the vital work that is being done by my colleagues. A couple of highlights, victories in court, critical legislation that our experts shape, the deregulatory process built around the ideas and scholarship done at CEI. And it’s true, the past year has been remarkable for CEI.

From intimate involvement in executive orders, shaping how regulation is made and evaluated, to watching our recommendations get written right into legislation. We’ve been at it now for 35 years, and to borrow from our theme, CEI’s bannermen are advancing against an unconstrained regulatory state.

However, tonight, I would rather focus on the “why.” Why is it that we believe in the indomitable spirit of individuals to exercise their own will? To explore the limits of their own ingenuity? And to organize their lives or livelihoods according to their own preferences? And to do so, I want to focus on the stories of two men.

And the first begins with a haircut I got when CEI went to Savannah. We were there to host a policy summit a few months ago, and I can tell you a few days in a wonderful city exploring how to advance a policy agenda is not a bad way to close out winter and welcome spring. I hope you’ll join us next February when we’re in New Orleans.

But I had arrived early in the morning through several travel delays and an overnight drive. I’m sure I was looking shaggy. I felt a lot worse. So, I found a barber shop online and took a walk across the historic city to a place called Boys to Men. True story. It’s a low-slung building, and it straddles the historic postcard neighborhoods that you might associate with Savannah and the rest of the city where tourism isn’t the core industry. There was a sign near the door advertising free Wi-Fi, and as I entered, the first barber I saw took one look at me and pointed down the row at the last guy.

So I march down and I thrust my hand out and say, “Hi, I’m Kent.”

With a warm smile, he said, “I’m the Deacon.”

I sat down, “Good to meet you Deacon.”

And he replied, “The Deacon.”

We had a wonderful discussion, and he took what little hair I have left and made me presentable for the guests we were hosting that evening. So, I had found a neighborhood shop, and if you’re lucky, you might know one like it. We talked about how Boys to Men had expanded. In an adjoining room, they had another half dozen chairs that independent or part-time barbers could rent. The Deacon has a daughter doing a medical residency in Atlanta and a son finishing at the local high school. We joked about the syndicated sitcoms that were playing in the corner on an elevated television.

And the Deacon asked about me too. Why was I in town? What do I do for a living? Do I have kids, and will I insist that they go to college in the way that he does? So we talked about regulation and the agencies that make it. We talked about the seen and the unseen. We talked about our loved ones and our lives.

You see, the Deacon, he has Wi-Fi because they encourage the neighborhood kids to come into the shop after school. He said that some of them play games, but some of them do homework too. We talked about how we both volunteer at our kids’ schools. We spent a lot of time on the cost of higher education, occupational licensing, compulsory unionism and the practical effects it has on people who just want to work, provide value to others and bring home an honest paycheck.

And this brings me to yesterday morning. I was over at the EPA for a policy announcement, an implementation of the Clean Air Act. While tonight, I won’t give a full-footed endorsement – after all, Administrator Andrew Wheeler is right here and I reserve the right to file suit – I will say it was a major step toward a legally compliant regulatory strategy for abundant, reliable and affordable energy.

Yesterday, there was an entire parade of Congressmen, each taking a turn at the microphone. There were representatives from another half dozen state and federal agencies including the White House, CEQ, the Department of Energy. And by chance, I sat next to a man from Pittsburgh. His name is John. He works in the mines that transform natural resources into the electricity that makes our modern life possible.

The particular mine where John works is vast. Underground, it is roughly the size of Manhattan. His job is in safety, and specifically, he works on underground air quality. So I asked him about a typical day. He starts each shift with a meeting to make sure they’re prepared for upcoming inspections and to follow through on any incident reports.

John told me that most of his time is devoted to compliance. He’s vigilant about the quality of sensors they use. And he added, “It’s easy to be strict about these things when your life is on the line.” True enough.

He boarded a bus at 3:30 am to come to Washington, literally hardhat in hand, to see what regulation was all about. And despite tens of thousands of pages in the Federal Registrar, we know that regulation is rarely clear. It’s often entirely divorced from the authorizing statute. Even major regulation lacks basic oversight from the legislative branch. Any changed regulation, even to adapt to new technology or changing market dynamics, is bitterly opposed by interests vested in the status quo.

So, of course, tonight I share these stories so you know where to get a haircut when you’re in Savannah. I want you to tell the Deacon that I sent you. It’s my hope that in these stories, you can share a glimpse of how normal Americans – people like the Deacon and John, the people who offer valuable services, the people who go out and dig, construct, manufacture, move and grow things, the people who finance our dreams – share the risks associated with every innovation regardless of whether it makes it to market.

I want you to know how these people understand and interact with a broken regulatory state. A regulatory state often beyond reach of reason or the rule of law. And these are the people who drive our work at CEI. They’re not famous except perhaps to their coworkers or their families. In their own way, each is a hero, investing in their communities, caring like the Deacon for neighborhood kids. Like John, they wake up early, work hard and they take part in our radical American experiment in republican democracy.

I find them heroes each and a compelling answer to the question “why.” Why do we do this? Why does CEI press forward with greater energy and urgency after three and a half decades? And why do we enlist your help?

In part we do these things, we tackle these big questions, these big economic issues because in the long-term, we all must keep improving and adapting. The world and all its naysayers, they won’t stand still, their voices won’t be quieted. Stasis will be our collective downfall, and dynamic enthusiasm our saving grace. And for that reason, we praise the visionaries, the institution-builders.

And among all of you tonight, this great assembled crowd, is one man above all. More than anyone who I want to say thank you. I want you to join me in congratulations for the founder, long-time president of CEI, an institution-builder who never lost sight of the human element, essential to the market and to law. Right back here, thank you, Fred Smith.

(Extended standing ovation for CEI’s Founder, Fred L. Smith, Jr.).

It was Winston Churchill who cleverly observed, “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings, and the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”

With all due respect to Churchill, I don’t think that’s quite the full picture. He left out the virtue of capitalism: the creation of unimaginable resources by taking the natural and renewable energy of self-interest and turning it, channeling it, toward the common good. This is what Adam Smith called the empathetic impulse. And likewise, a full picture of socialism must include – along with the equal sharing of the miseries – the destruction of value and the degradation of the human spirit.

And this brings me to Julian Simon, the namesake of CEI’s highest award presented each year at this dinner and established in 2001 to honor a remarkable man. Before Simon was an economist and professor, he was that rare form of public intellectual, who cared more about developing knowledge that would improve the lives of people than all the editorials at the New York Times and opinions of the Smart Set.

He was best known for his work refuting population doomsayers, and Simon adhered to an elegant model for organizing information about the scarcity we all must face. Time and again, he argued that substitutes, technological progress and most powerfully, human ingenuity would the evermore disastrous predictions dominating public debate.

It was 1980 when Julian Simon made a famous bet with professional pessimist, Paul Ehrlich. They agreed upon five metals: tin, nickel, tungsten, chromium and copper. And the wager was whether the collective prize would go up or down over a decade. It was Ehrlich who bet against ingenuity, but through a combination of substitution – aluminum for tin – and innovation – fiber-optic cables replacing copper wires in the telecommunications network – it was Julian Simon who won the bet as the prize of all five metals dropped.

Past winners of the award include several academics, journalists, an activist who now serves on CEI’s Board of Directors, and even – believe it or not, given this award – a politician. The list includes a few of my personal heroes. Like Johan Norberg, each of these amazing men and women share Simon’s confidence in humanity, they’re engaged in public debate, and more importantly, they’re making the world a more durable and resilient place.

Please help me welcome to the stage the winner of the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award, a fellow with the CATO Institute, a man who is an unrelenting optimist because evidence supports optimism, the author of Progress among other books and a superb documentarian of our age, Mr. Johan Norberg.