June 17, 2015
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
As public policy, politics, and elections slowly degenerate into a circus aimed at playing a game, calling names, and merely attacking another person, let me offer you Steve Forbes as an example for today of what the political world ought to be about and too often isn’t. Though Forbes ran for office himself, he was and continues to be an antidote to the superficiality gradually infecting the body politic and instead works not to achieve power but to “encourage and full and reasoned discussion of the issues.”
My organization, the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, is honoring Steve Forbes tonight with our Libertas Award. The award was named after the Roman goddess of liberty. Jefferson used the word when he wrote to Madison and said he preferred the “tumult of liberty to the quiet of servitude.”
A constant theme in our Libertas Awards is that ideas matter more than personalities. We intended to establish a theme when we underscored the first award to Gov. John Sununu as “an example of the kind of public service that focuses not on winning the right office but on achieving the right policy.”
Steve Forbes personifies this ideal better than almost any national figure of our time. He talks about ideas, insists that criticisms be based on policy not personality, and is one of the foremost defenders of the system we might call capitalism or free market economics.
He ran for office but in a way that seems strange today. His advertising and speeches were not about life stories, log cabins, or personal achievements. Instead, he launched a blitzkrieg of ideas that caught all the typical politicians flat footed. In their feeble minds, elections were meant to be about larger than life personalities not the battle for ideas.
But for Forbes, politics was not a synonym for elections but a battle of ideas. It is his example not the example of the superficial egotist that we should follow today. The great economist Friedrich Hayek, whose portrait watches over my every work day, encouraged us to “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.”
Hayek’s phrase, written fifty years ago, might as well have been written about Steve Forbes directly. This is a man who responded to the late fiscal crisis (narcissistically called the Great Recession by people with no sense of history) by issuing a spirited, articulate, and readable book called How Capitalism Will Save Us: Why Free People and Free Markets Are the Best Answer in Today’s Economy. That short phrase could well be a summary for my organization, its philosophy, and our mission. It is certainly a call to all of us to remember first principles.
As world leaders and professional pontificators on the right and left were busily equivocating and feeling ashamed of market support, Forbes issued a full-throated defense of the sort to make Adam Smith proud.
His commitment has always been to ideas and the strength of policy not personal aggrandizement. It was years after his runs for president that he wrote The Flat Tax, the insightful and very accessible study written “to get beyond the sound bites, the political agendas that so often color day-to-day reporting and, instead, encourage a full and reasoned discussion of the issues.” That phrase again is a guide for all of us and explains why Steve Forbes might be considered the patron saint of the power of ideas.
When politics is about the person and the office, the power and the fame, it is inevitable that battles become personal, politics becomes vapid and violent. It is no longer imperative to win a debate, it becomes necessary to destroy a person because the personal is all that matters.
But the Steve Forbes vision is very different. Moving beyond sound bites and attack phrases — the gotcha politics of today — he envisions “a full and reasoned discussion of the issues.” Today’s blown-dry politician has an insipid book ghost written for him before he runs for office. Forbes has written five books on ideas since he ran for office, the most recent on monetary policy.
Forbes’s belief in the power of ideas should remind all of us not just to read his books as spectators but to join his fight for the foundations of a free society.