The Powell Memo was good, actually

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This week the Competitive Enterprise Institute published my study (co-written with my colleague Iain Murray) on the 50-plus year history of the Powell Memo, an influential document written in 1971 by Richmond attorney and former American Bar Association president Lewis Powell, who would go on to become an associate justice of the US Supreme Court a year later. Powell titled his document “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System” and rung alarm bells about the cultural and political threats to property, speech, and association rights that he saw as serious and growing at the time. Anyone familiar with the era of radical politics in the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s will understand why a conservative defender of traditional American institutions would be alarmed by many of the developments at the time.

Despite being over half a century old, the Powell Memo is as talked about as much today as it ever has been. If anything, its status as an object of partisan and ideological debate has only grown over the decades. It didn’t originally gain any public attention because it was a private document that Powell, at first, only shared with his friends at the US Chamber of Commerce. But even when it was reported on by columnist Jack Anderson around the time of Powell’s judicial nomination the next year, it aroused little controversy and did not impede his confirmation.

In the years that followed, however, many left-of-center writers, activists, and historians have made quite a lot of its allegedly sinister influence. From John B. Judis’s The Paradox of American Democracy (2000) to Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science (2005) to Thomas O. McGarity’s Freedom to Harm (2013) to Steven Brill’s Tailspin (2018), to Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer’s Fault Lines (2019), many recent books about political history in the US have noted the role played by Powell’s warning about anti-capitalist activism and the response it inspired.

Just a few months back, there was an article inside Inside Higher Ed attempting to link the Powell Memo to attacks on academic independence at state universities. The website Black Agenda Report described it as “A Counteroffensive Against the Many” in April. Last year, former Clinton administration Secretary of Labor Robert Reich called it “The worst memo in American history” in a syndicated column and Counterpunch contributor Bill Wolfe gave Powell the ultimate reluctant compliment by insisting that “Progressives Need Their Own ‘Powell Memo.’

The new paper from Murray and myself is, in part, a response to this coverage. The Powell Memo’s many leftist critics have led some people to believe that it was, as Greenpeace’s website put it, “A Corporate Blueprint to Dominate Democracy.” But it was actually a virtuous effort to stop government control from suffocating economic freedom and the wealth-producing processes of the market economy. And the self-described radicals of Powell’s era were not merely fighting for increased welfare spending or ending hostilities in Vietnam. By the early 1970s, left-wing activist groups routinely used violent means of protesting and attracting public attention to their goals. According to Days of Rage author Ryan Burrough, by the early 1970s “bombs basically functioned as exploding press releases” for radical political groups.

Powell and his allies were clearly correct that a renewed movement in favor of free markets and limited government was needed, and the organizations and campaigns they inspired scored many wins in the years that followed. Thirteen years after the Powell Memo was written, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) was founded. While we didn’t have any direct connection to Powell himself, his commitment to defending free enterprise and property rights in the United States were parallel to the goals of CEI’s longtime founding president Fred L. Smith, Jr. We’ve been working to defend those same values ever since.

Read the whole thing here.