Three Decades On, The Fight For Economic Freedom Continues

Americans want honorable, thoughtful government but are no longer sure that result is possible. Government has now grown so gigantic, arrogant, powerful, and pervasive that it has lost coherence and legitimacy. The constitutional order envisioned by the Founders has given way to a world of competing ideological and economic interests. Faction blocks faction and the results please no one. Americans demand that government do more and more, but grant it less and less legitimacy. One risk history suggests is the citizenry seeking a “strong” leader—or one perceived as such. I’m from Louisiana and know well the populist power of “Every Man a King” rhetoric. The current presidential campaign illustrates the results.

The growth in government has many causes but a key factor has been the Traison de Clerics, the phenomenon of an intellectual class realizing its power potential, and exercising it to take control of the state and expand its reach. In America, this took the shape of the Progressive movement. When our best and brightest abandoned America’s constitutional and cultural restraints on centralization, they began on the path to socialism on the left and crony corporatism on the right.

I launched the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) 32 years ago to address this challenge, seeing promise in an activist approach to policy reform. Our goal was a vertically integrated approach to policy reform, to move beyond the traditional think tank model and aggressively market our ideas to the media, policy makers, and the general public; build alliances to gain support; and make our case in the appropriate arena, whether in Congress, the agencies, or the courts. And when appropriate, we add humor to make that case. We’ve implemented that plan well.

That required moving from the academic work of policy analysis to a more practical understanding of why, so often, bad policies have such strong support. On environmental issues, we took on Superfund, a major “green” pork barrel boondoggle, making the case that contracts are a more efficient and cost-effective means to satisfy concerns about waste sites. In the labor policy area, we took on “comparable worth” legislation, distributing thousands of “My Worth is Incomparable!” buttons at protest rallies.

We brought public attention to the perverse moral hazard associated with federal banking policy. My Daddy used to say that banks would loan you money if you could prove you didn’t need it. We noted that Fannie and Freddie would grant you a mortgage if you couldn’t repay it. We reframed the debate over federal auto fuel efficiency standards, showing that forcing smaller cars on the driving public led to more traffic deaths—in effect, death by regulation.

In brief, CEI became the go-to group for regulatory reform from antitrust to FDA regulation. Wayne Crews has brought public attention to the scale and costs of the regulatory administrative state through his publication, Ten Thousand Commandments, an annual survey of the federal regulatory state.

In effect, we’ve functioned as a Battered Business Bureau, reaching out to those in business suffering under unwise rules. For years, the left has been very effective at forming rent-seeking alliances that enhance their ability to advance interventionist policies, while their economic partners gain political privileges. Our business outreach sought to meet that challenge head-on.

I became a student of business in the political sphere, recognizing that many factors that led business leaders to seek to appease their critics. The challenge was clear: capitalism was unlikely to survive if capitalists weren’t enlisted in its defense. How might the competitive business sector be enlisted in the liberty struggle? In my 1989 CEI dinner talk, I made points that are now at the heart of the efforts of the Center for Advancing Capitalism, which I now lead.

“Business’s message may be good but it remains a suspect messenger. Business needs credible, independent allies—and the free market movement needs the economic and informational support that only business can provide,” I noted. “Convincing business that supporting our groups is in its long term interest remains a key tasks for CEI.”

CEI has grown greatly over the last three decades, fighting new battles as the scope and scale of government intervention in the economy has continued to increase. Much of the time, CEI plays a blocking role, which is valuable in itself. Yet, while government still grew steadily, we have remained hopeful, recalling the late Herbert Stein’s famous comment: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

Our current administrative state cannot go on forever. We can find our way back to a government limited in scope and scale. That was the dream of our Founders. It undergirds our Constitution, the great document that checked Leviathan for our first century. Twentieth century Progressives dismantled many of those constraints, in the hopes of achieving heaven on earth. Their utopian vision has become dystopic, but it still exercises great power in politics. CEI works continuously to restore legitimacy to limited government again. It’s a long and difficult struggle, but one that still motivates me and CEI’s staff.