Last year, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) began to search for a successor to president Fred Smith. Last fall I was fortunate enough to be selected, and I am honored to be working closely with him to ensure the success of this changeover.
After six months on the job, I am happy to report — nothing! This presidential transition has been devoid of guns, knives, killer drones, or the wiretapping of Fred’s phone.
While Fred is convinced that I’ve secretly installed a trap door underneath his desk, the truth is he deserves a great deal of credit for doing what too many D.C. leaders fail to do: voluntarily hand over to a successor. Although, as Fred has said before, “It was only after reading King Lear that I realized that I needed to do this transition right!”
Let me say that CEI is in a good place,– well-positioned to confront today’s acute and widespread challenges to free enterprise: the largest and most expensive government in history, a public that superficially seems to accept it and a president bent on making it even larger. Good times!
But I would not be here if I thought CEI was ill-prepared or unwilling to engage in this important fight.
OK, I also knew CEI would accept a hairy-kneed, skirt-wearing, knife-wielding president who keeps plenty of single malt Scotch in his office and haggis in the fridge. Don Draper isn’t the only guy with a drinks cart next to his desk.
CEI truly is “more than just a think tank.” We combine rigorous policy work with persistent advocacy. We don’’t just “think” but also project our findings and principles deep into the policy arena and out into the wider world.
We are bright and creative individuals who love analyzing and writing. Okay, so we’re wonks. But we’re good wonks — better yet — good activist wonks. We relish engaging and harassing and shaming and suing. We build coalitions, file FOIA requests, and without any thought to our personal safety or image, we broadcast our message far and near. We are a blend of the Ivory Tower and the Island of Misfit Toys.
Tonight we celebrate what CEI has truly become: a group that believes in liberty, loves liberty, and is one of liberty’s most committed and steadfast advocates.
CEI is sorely needed today. These are frustrating times for those of us who believe in free enterprise. In the midst of one of the worst economic crises in modern history, President Obama and his allies continue to argue that Washington, D.C. is a better steward of American’s life and liberty than are Americans themselves. And, unfortunately, that argument has prevailed.
That narrative may be fraying. For now, we have found that the IRS targets groups for ideological purposes, the House of Representatives actually voted down the farm bill, and the NSA monitors our telephone, email and social media activity.
Now to be fair, I suspect the NSA may have outsourced its eavesdropping because they finally got tired of listening in on Fred’’s phone calls. Seriously, have you ever been in on one of those?
Our job now is to channel dismay over these abuses into red-hot anger at the real monster along the Potomac: namely the overgrown and ever-expanding federal administrative state. In our recent publication, “10,000 Commandments,” we estimate its total cost at over $1.8 trillion dollars, much of it borne by families and small businesses.
It isn’t just a financial burden, though. It’s also the lost opportunity and compromised safety that these agencies and their regulations cause. It’s the new medicines that never get to patients. It’s the loss of consumer choices in the marketplace. It’s the innovative technologies that could make our world safer, healthier, and more productive – rejected by regulators simply because they’re new. The absence of restraint on the administrative behemoth means that nearly 4,000 of these rules are issues with minimal Congressional oversight — actually almost no oversight–evidence enough that efforts like the REINS Act, which Senator Rand Paul has played a key part in designing, are surely needed.
We know what to expect for the next three years. In the ‘80s, Ronald Reagan said “it’s morning in America.” Under President Obama, it’s midnight, or rather it’s a perpetual midnight regulation, as he has signaled in his willingness to bypass a gridlocked Congress and use the regulatory process to cement his vision of a pervasive nanny state.
Each of us here tonight needs to challenge this. Whether an individual contributor, business supporter, or think tank ally, each of us must intervene or this trend will continue and we will find ourselves so far down the path of paternalism and restricted liberty that any glance back will only be an act of nostalgia.
So, what is CEI’s contribution? Yes, we apply ideas and issue reports, but when some of our proposals are ignored well, we just sue the hell out of the government! Just ask the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or the Financial Stability Oversight Council, or our politicized friends at the IRS.
As we go forward, CEI is the link between the state we have and the liberty we deserve. That is why we will defend your constitutional right to eat not just one, but two doughnuts, one for you and one for liberty, and then to wash it down not with a 16, but a 17-ounce soda.
Thomas Jefferson said “if we can prevent the government from wasting the labours of the people, under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy.”
My vision for CEI is simple. Wasting the labors of the people is, to me, nothing less than wasting our freedom to prosper. CEI will defend that freedom every day.
Why? Because the freedom to prosper is everything. It defines our country and all of its possibilities.
For some, it means the freedom to pursue a hobby; for others, to accumulate wealth, whether by investing their savings or risking it all on a new venture. Or it may mean starting charities to fight human trafficking and cure AIDS.
Why do we do all that? Because material success is only a means to an end. The big question is, to what end? It’s because these pursuits allow us to realize our dreams. And in pursuing these dreams, we create jobs for thousands; soothe shattered souls, and open doors that commence a virtuous circle of prosperity and liberty.
CEI does what Jefferson hoped for: we thwart the waste of people’s labors and in doing so, we uphold the freedom to prosper, aspiring to a future of longer lives and cleaner air instead of major disease. We aspire to a future of sunset walks with loved ones instead of holding down two jobs to pay taxes. That’s a pretty good narrative. And it is our narrative.
So tonight, on behalf of CEI, I welcome you, and I’m grateful that you are here to celebrate free enterprise and economic liberty and the tough fight to preserve it.
To those in office who are against us, let me say: Be sure to use your actual email address, because we’re really good at finding out if you don’t. Just contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lawson Bader is president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
A version of this article was first delivered as a speech at the 2013 CEI dinner.