Thirty Years Promoting Freedom

Published January 29, 2015

Very few organizations survive 30 years, and very few people work for the same organization for that long. That makes The Heartland Institute an exceptional organization, and it makes me a very lucky guy.

Ideas Matter

The Heartland Institute was founded in 1984 on the premise that ideas matter. In the history of nations, ideas have mattered a lot.

For thousands of years the condition of mankind was almost universally characterized by poverty, war, slavery, and tyranny. That some people could use force against others wsas accepted by the philosophers and religious leaders of the day. Slavery was “politically correct” in its day. So was monarchy and killing witches.

The idea that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, was revolutionary in 1776. It changed human history. It made possible the democracy, peace, freedom, and prosperity we all too often take for granted today. 

The War of Ideas 

This essay is based on remarks delivered at The Heartland Institute’s 30th anniversary benefit dinner on September 12, 2014. It originally appeared on the cover of the fourth quarter 2014 issue of QPR.

But even great ideas need champions able to defend them from competing ideas. The idea that some people are “more equal than others,” as George Orwell put it so well in 1984, is an ancient one.

It finds advocates among tyrants, obviously, but also among bureaucrats and elected officials, among academics who long to impose their vision of a better world on the rest of us, in industry among businessmen and -women who find it easier to please a government overseer than compete for customers in the marketplace, and among liberals and socialists who fear and misunderstand how a truly free society would look and operate.

While tyranny has many natural allies, freedom often wants for defenders. Its greatest defenders often end up martyrs, unpopular during their lifetimes and recognized for their achievements only after they have died. Many politicians give lip service to freedom but when it comes time to vote, they support legislation that restricts freedoms, redistributes wealth, or piles debt onto future generations.

Plenty of people say “freedom is good except for [fill in the blank].” Sometimes those exceptions are merited: Your freedom to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose. But often those alleged exceptions to freedom are not warranted, and while each might seem to be small and minor, together they add up to big holes in freedom’s foundation. Freedom needs heros, not fair-weather friends.

Freedom also suffers from what economists call the “free rider problem.” People benefit from freedom even if they don’t invest in its preservation. Many of our neighbors are politically asleep, they don’t follow the issues, they don’t vote, they just don’t care. Because of our hard work, their freedoms are secure.

So the defenders of freedom are always and everywhere outnumbered by its foes.

The Heartland Institute

The Heartland Institute and scores of organizations like it were created to level the odds between the forces of freedom and tyranny, and to free as many people as possible from the tyranny of others. It’s a noble cause, perhaps the most noble cause anyone can pursue.

The Heartland Institute was started by Dave Padden and a group of small business owners in Chicago in 1984. They hired me, a young kid still in college with little experience but a lot of enthusiasm, to be its first executive director.

It grew slowly but steadily to become one of the country’s most influential think tanks. Today, it has 230 academics and economists serving on its board of policy advisors,160 elected officials serving on its legislative advisory board, a full-time staff of 31, more than 5,000 donors, and an annual budget of about $6 million.

In the overall scheme of things, we’re a small organization, but we’ve accomplished big things. We are the reason 26 states refused to create Obamacare state insurance exchanges, and why 24 states have declined to expand Medicaid.

We are why 21 states have voucher and tax-credit programs that allow 212,000 students to enroll in private schools. And why seven states have parent trigger laws that require schools be reorganized, turned into charters, or shut down if a majority of parents sign petitions demanding this.

We are why there is no carbon tax or carbon cap-and-trade program in the U.S., why the Kyoto Protocol was allowed to expire, and why no climate treaty with binding national targets will emerge from Paris in 2015.

Along the way, we have saved taxpayers billions of dollars a year by effectively opposing tax hikes, subsidies of all kinds, and unnecessary regulations.

Logic and Passion

We defend our vision of a free society with logic and passion, because neither one alone is sufficient to win the battles. We study social problems and discover solutions that rely on more freedom and less government. We show how these solutions are more efficient than relying on the government, and efficiency is important: without it, there is no prosperity. But we also appeal to fairness and morality, because they are what drive passion.

There is no justice without the rule of law. There is no morality without the freedom to act, wisely or unwisely, and bear the consequences. There is no meaning to life if we are not free to choose our own paths and to do it our own way.

We will continue to defend our vision of a free society no matter how politically incorrect it might be, and no matter what tactics our opponents use against us, because we were chosen by fate to defend freedom. It’s our privilege and duty to perform this important task.

Tonight, we recommit ourselves to this mission. If you are a donor to The Heartland Institute, thank you for your generosity, your concern for your country’s future, and your courage to stand up and be counted.

If you are not yet a donor, I hope you will join us. Become part of the solution; don’t let others carry your weight as well as their own. Make promoting freedom your favorite charity, because increased freedom will lift every other cause that might be important to you.

You can make freedom your legacy, something your children and grandchildren will remember and thank you for. Now is the right time to start. The Heartland Institute welcomes your support.