Freedom, Principles and Real Solutions
The seemingly ever-growing mountain of policy decisions facing Congress—particularly during these times of political, economic and international uncertainty—regularly reminds me how critically important think tanks like the R Street Institute (R Street) are, and how valuable our work is.
Our longstanding focus on building expertise, credibility and coalitions serves us well in the best of times, and remains especially important during periods of uncertainty and instability. This focus—all in service of our mission to pursue free markets and limited, effective government—was on full display last month during our inaugural Real Solutions Summit where we featured the work of our scholars and others on topics ranging from artificial intelligence to the future of philanthropy to the importance of adhering to democratic norms. In a similar spirit, one of the summit’s speakers joined me and many other friends and allies in signing a statement of principles on “Freedom Conservatism” over the summer.
For those who know R Street’s work, little in the statement should come as a surprise. It contends that “competitive markets” and “greater individual choice” create prosperity. It also asserts that “too many decisions are made for us by centralized authorities,” that racial discrimination in any form is wrong, and that the rule of law is vital. Understood properly, these principles and those in the other coalition letters we sign onto make collaborations much easier: they help us identify obvious allies and allow us to work effectively with organizations and experts who have different perspectives.
From the day we opened our doors, R Street has worked under the core operating principle of “Broad Collaborations.” It is painted on our office walls and is a key part of our influence and impact strategy in Washington, D.C. and states across the country. At times, it leads to “strange bedfellows” collaborations, but has also resulted in some of our most effective and creative work. Requiring all of our partners to agree with every word of this statement (or almost any other) would undermine a lot of what makes our experts and organization effective as a whole.
That said, the people who signed the Freedom Conservatism statement represent a good list of our frequent allies—and during my more than 20-year career in Washington, I have worked or engaged with almost all of them. R Street itself has active collaborations with at least a half dozen organizations on the list. Having a shared set of principles like this provides a good starting point for policy discussions and may help catalyze thoughtful, freedom-oriented public policy on a broad range of issues.
Similarly, a list of principles is also useful for people who may disagree with this perspective. Our own experience proves this. Our long-standing partnership with Friends of the Earth (FOE) on the Green Scissors campaign is just one example. FOE strongly favors a Green New Deal, while R Street certainly does not. People at both organizations are quite aware of this difference and this allows us to focus together on where we do agree: that the government wastes a lot of money on programs and subsidies that ultimately hurt the environment. My hope is that the “Freedom Conservatism” statement might help in a similar way with others on the right, particularly the growing number of groups that have taken an increasingly populist point-of-view. For example, such groups will understand that we’re just not going to agree on issues of international trade, but we might find agreement on fighting the excesses of the regulatory state or opposing policies which replace family structures with government regulations…Or something else that the statement jogs in their mind.
By making it clear where we stand, we can bolster our credibility, reduce friction and increase respect for contrasting views. This, in turn, can provide a basis for constructive collaborations with people across the political spectrum and, over time, build real solutions to the numerous public policy challenges facing policymakers.