Policy Documents

Twenty-Five Years in the War of Ideas

Joseph L. Bast –
September 1, 2009

Twenty-five years ago I was recruited as a foot soldier in the war for individual liberty and limited government. Like most new enlistees, I had no idea what I had signed up for.

The Recruiter

I was recruited by Dave Padden, a 57-year-old municipal bond dealer with an office – then as now – on the seventh floor of an office building at the corner of Clark and Monroe in downtown Chicago. Dave was serving on the boards of the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), all respected libertarian think tanks or advocacy groups.

Dave was founding chairman and CEO of The Heartland Institute and he named me executive director and chief bottle washer. For 10 years, from 1984 to 1994, we had lunch once a week. Dave coached me on the freedom philosophy, we read and discussed Ludwig von Mises’s Human Action from cover to cover, and he taught me the basics of accounting and management.

In 1994, Heartland moved out of downtown Chicago to suburban Palatine and my weekly sessions with Dave ended. The next year I was named CEO, Herb Walberg was elected chairman, and Dave became chairman emeritus, titles the three of us still hold. Heartland returned to downtown Chicago four years later. Dave never stopped being my guide and mentor, and his commitment to classical liberal ideas is as absolute today as it was a quarter-century ago.

Winning or Losing?

Last week, Dave Padden and I talked for a long time about tactics. He followed up with an email that ended with these words: “We are winning some battles but losing the war.”

Is this true? Since I know nothing about military strategy, allow me to change the metaphor from the battle field to the football field. Have we gradually lost the battle for field position so we are now playing in the shadow of our own goal posts, rather than in midfield?

Freedom Waxes ...

In his autobiography titled An Arrow in the Blue, published in 1952 when he was 47 years old, Arthur Koestler reported that two-thirds of all the people he ever knew in his life were dead, killed on the battlefields of World War II or in Nazi or Russian concentration camps. From 1933 to 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt almost destroyed America’s capitalist system and massively expanded the state.

Are we less free than we were in the first half of the twentieth century? I don’t think so.

The freedom philosophy was practically invisible during the 1960s and 1970s. Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon had no appreciation for the power of free markets or free minds. Forced segregation in the South, a military draft, and, in 1971, price controls, all were intrusions on liberty that simply don’t have counterparts in America today.

Things got better for the freedom movement beginning around 1980. Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” series aired on PBS that year, and Ronald Reagan was elected president with a message he took straight from FEE’s little monthly newsletter, The Freeman. The Cato Institute and other free-market think tanks were making their mark.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In 1994, Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” pledging “the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money” helped the Republicans win a majority in the House for the first time in 40 years. They kept that majority in 1996, something they had last achieved in 1928.

It was a genuine political realignment, and it occurred when Republicans were re-branding themselves as the party of free enterprise and limited government. In 1996, a liberal Democratic president, Bill Clinton, forced to preside over a decline in the size of the federal government (relative to the economy), admitted “the era of big government is over.” He spoke too soon.

... and Wanes

The Republicans didn’t follow through on the promises made in the Contract with America. The freedom movement from 2000 to 2008, with George W. Bush in the White House, clearly fit Dave Padden’s criticism of “winning battles but losing the war.” We got some tax cuts, some free trade agreements, health savings accounts, and even some school choice (in Washington DC). But the losses were bigger.

Like his predecessors, Bush embroiled the nation in undeclared wars, this time financed without reducing domestic government spending. He allowed federal domestic spending to increase and traded new entitlements in health care and education for too little in return. His rhetoric about individual liberty and limited government was at odds with the reality of what Republicans were doing in Congress.

The election of Barrack Obama in 2008 was a moment of clarity. It was as if a fog was lifted from a football field and the players for the home team realized for the first time that they weren’t on the 50 yard line, as they had thought, but were backed up on their own 5. And the scoreboard, only now visible, showed they were losing the game and time was running out.

A Question of Tactics

Have our tactics been wrong? On one end of the tactical spectrum are FEE, the Institute for Humane Studies, and the Hoover Institution, dedicated to teaching the freedom philosophy through books, seminars, videos, and classroom materials. In my football analogy, they mostly play defense.

At the other end are the Club for Growth, Sam Adams Alliance, and other groups that say “we have won the battle of ideas but are losing the political debate.” They focus on putting ideas into action with lobbying, targeted campaign contributions, and other kinds of political organizing. They mostly play offense, though they seldom aim for the other side’s end zone.

In the middle are “think tanks” like The Heartland Institute, which apply the freedom philosophy to current political disputes, hoping to use education and persuasion to turn public policy in our direction. Think tanks try to play both defense and offense.

Heartland’s tactics distinguish it from other think tanks. It focuses on successfully marketing free-market ideas directly to 17,000 national, state, and local elected officials and 120,000 “influentials” – journalists, educators, scientists, college trustees, etc. We deliver the “best available research” regardless of who created it. As Ronald Reagan often said, “it’s amazing what can be accomplished, if you don’t care who gets the credit for it.”

Reaching these audiences required that we invent new communications tools. One of them, PolicyBot, is an online search engine and database that gives users instant and free access to more than 23,000 reports and essays by all the leading free-market think tanks.

Another tool is our monthly public policy newspapers – School Reform News, Health Care News, Budget & Tax News, Environment & Climate News, and InfoTech and Telecom News. By packaging free-market ideas as news, we can reach busy elected officials and other opinion leaders who won’t take the time to read a policy study or book.

A third tool is our Rapid Response System, a team of government relations specialists who proactively contact elected officials by phone or email to offer research, commentary, and access to policy experts on whatever topic they are most concerned about. With these tools, we are reaching more elected officials and other influentials, more often, than ever before.

A New Day, But the Same War

Think tanks like The Heartland Institute are more important now than at any other time in the past quarter-century. It is now, with our backs against our own goal posts, trailing in the fourth quarter, that freedom needs a good offense and a good defense.

Friedrich Hayek, writing half-a-century ago, said “unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.”

That’s what The Heartland Institute was created to do 25 years ago. It’s what we’re doing today. The war in fact is not lost, though we will have to fight harder than ever before to win it.

Joseph Bast (jbast@heartland.org) is president of The Heartland Institute.