1984 was an Enlightening Year

This year marks a quarter century since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. And that got me to thinking about how the world has changed over the last three decades. For this year also marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which I am now privileged to lead.

The year CEI was born, 1984, was an enlightening one, for CEI’s founder, Fred Smith, on one continent, and for me, on another. And what I learned then still matters today.

Back then, I lived briefly with a family in northern Germany. One day, we drove to the countryside to see where Helga, the family matriarch, had been raised. She had grown up in a beautiful town that fell under Soviet occupation after the war.

We stopped at a field. Across a heavily guarded fence with tank traps, landmines, and guard towers, we could just make out an old church steeple. Helga told me it was the church where she had been baptized and married. But it was now impossible to visit. The most tragic part is that her mother had died there the year before, never having met her grandchildren.

And, it was in that moment that I became a libertarian.

No institution—public or private—has the authority to control the human conscience. And no economic system is as averse to human flourishing as that which destroys our innate sense of worth and stifles our incentive to experiment and grow.

But there are other, less visible barriers to human progress. One of the biggest is the stifling, ever-growing regulatory state.

We know why regulations attract little attention: They’re boring! People don’t care – until directly affected.

Regulatory agencies don’t face the same scrutiny as Congress. And lawmakers hide unpleasant or unpopular policies by delegating their authority to those agencies.

Last year, Congress passed 72 laws, while federal agencies issued 3,659 regulations. That is 50 times more regulations than laws, as my colleague Wayne Crews points out. And this from the “most transparent administration” in American history!

That’s why we at CEI are redoubling our efforts. We are focused on confronting those in power who rain down regulations, sapping the nation’s entrepreneurial energy. We will continue to hold the government accountable, especially in this era of rogue regulators and Imperial Presidencies.

We are currently involved in two legal challenges to Obamacare, specifically its illegal exchange program. And just last week, CEI filed a law suit against the National Security Agency—asking it to snitch on the Environmental Protection Agency. When EPA officials informed us they didn’t have records of their communications with their environmentalist buddies, we decided to try to get them from the agency that probably does have them—thank you, Edward Snowden.

I have been referred to as an opportunistic pessimist. There may be some truth there, at least in the current political climate. Republicans could make big gains in this year’s midterm elections, which means … well, not much, frankly. The deadlock in D.C. will probably tighten. Congress will continue to battle this president, and he will continue to ignore them using his infamous “pen and phone.”

And CEI will continue to push back.

That’s why celebrations and anniversaries are not just to commemorate past achievements. Rather, they point joyfully to what lies in store. The late economist Julian Simon was the greatest reminder of this. At CEI’s anniversary dinner last week, over 800 of us were privileged to hear Viscount Matt Ridley and our 2014 Julian Simon Award winner, John Tierney, speak eloquently about the simple truth that we are healthier, wealthier, and happier because of human ingenuity. Far from being Pollyannaish, that counterintuitive insight is the perfect antidote to the prevailing “woe-is-me-sky-is-falling” mantra of today’s media and political elites.

That day in that German forest, I did not imagine I would later make defending and promoting economic liberty my calling and mission. Nor could I have conceived that border fence would now lie in ruins.

We’ve come a long way. But that does not mean we should ever accept the status quo, especially when it comes to the government’s involvement in our lives and its ability to throw a wrench in our dreams.

The work of advancing opportunity and innovation is a trying task, but a rewarding one as well. In our 30 years in Washington, CEI has witnessed government overreach up close and fought back in the trenches. We have survived five presidents and three wars. And we’re about to outlast Henry Waxman!

But we’re far from done. There are still plenty of capitalists to save and central planners to shame.

Let’s get to it.