Farewell and Toast to CEI’s Future

When in the course of social discourse I am asked, “And why did you ever leave California?” the response I give is often not the one expected: “Because the weather drove me crazy!” You see, I like seasons. Seasons mirror life. They provide anticipation for what’s to come while showering us with the blessings and challenges of the here and now.

I write as the leaves are falling. In a few minutes, a charity’s tow truck will remove my 20-year-old car for greener (or rustier) pastures. My daughter has completed her college applications; a penultimate step signaling a house soon to be empty of our two children.

And I am out of time as leader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Something I did not anticipate happening, at least not now. But seasons come, and seasons go. In the opening of Dylan Thomas’s verbally illustrative play, “Under Milk Wood,” the First Voice repeats, “Time passes. Listen. Time passes.”

Time has passed indeed. Whiskey and kilt parties, uproarious annual dinners, redesigned logos and revamped mission statements, revolving staff doors (and EPA administrators!), mergers and acquisitions, U.S. Supreme Court replays and refrains, coast-to-coast radio broadcasts, White House denunciations, the Dodd-Frank energizer bunny lawsuit, 10,0000 Commandments becoming 15,000, and agency lawyers and FOIA processors realizing the Glenn Close intensity of CEI’s “We’re not going to be ignored…!” philosophy.

I was not the first and I will not be the last leader of this merry band of warriors. And to whomever is next, whether wearing pants or skirts (or both!) I say welcome and enjoy it. You inherit a genuinely unique group of thinker and doers. Listen to them. They know the soul of this organization, and you would be wise to learn its heartbeat before adding your own.  

Keep in mind that we are all inheritors, really. If you work in this larger liberty movement you hold something precious: implementing a legacy of centuries of ideas about how individual and economic liberty, when combined with limited public institutions, improves human dignity—from Adam Smith to the U.S. Founders to Lord Acton to F. A. Hayek and many others (even Schumpeter!).

To put ideas into action, CEI has always been more than “just a think tank.” We take a full-service approach to public policy—combining rigorous policy work with an activist’s ability to market, educate, and propagate our research findings and principles. We at CEI are always willing to explain, to anyone who will listen, why economic liberty make us all better off, but we do not stop there. We engage with policy makers, build coalitions, file Freedom of Information Act requests, broadcast our message near and far, and when necessary, sue to ensure our economic future remains grounded in these timeless principles.   

At a recent event, I was asked how I measured personal success as a think tank CEO. I thought for a moment. Then I recalled a seemingly innocuous jaunt to the CEI kitchen that morning. I passed clusters of people. Some were in the conference room planning next year’s annual dinner. Others were huddled in the kitchen strategizing how to disrupt (and contribute) to the upcoming COP-21 meeting in Paris. Still others were debating the proper “libertarian” perspective on public infrastructure policy. Fred Smith was chatting up the interns. Annie Dwyer was desperately trying to get a statement from the policy staff because the press wanted to know what CEI thought about an issue. Sam Kazman was conspiring with his newly minted colleague Ted Frank plotting the next round of lawsuits. And out of the corner of my eye, I might have seen Greg Conko, a dog lover, slowly walk to his office after dealing with the day’s challenges of herding CEI cats.  

It struck me that I wasn’t included in any of those meetings or conversations. More importantly, I no longer needed to be. That was the answer to that question. When capable, committed people understand why and how they do what they do; and when they comprehend and are excited about their contributions to the culture, life and mission of an advocacy organization; then getting out of the way is precisely what a successful leader does, even as he crosses his fingers and holds his breath. 

The past decades have seen the unique and powerful institution that is CEI grow into what the major policy player it is today. It has proved it can operate effectively, with limited resources, and punch above its weight. Now, to that institutional staying power is added capacity—greater depth to its research, more focused communications strategies, and triple the capacity to litigate for liberty.  

So keep on trucking, CEI. This too is just another season. Your next president will arrive already knowing what you are capable of.