(Editor's note: This is an edited version of a commentary written by Mackinac Center President Joseph G. Lehman in the Fall 2010 issue of Impact, the quarterly newsletter of the Mackinac Center.)
People sometimes ask if the Mackinac Center gets busier around election time. My answer is: "Not really. The real work is keeping the rascals accountable after they get elected."
The Mackinac Center has two main functions. First, we analyze public policy and recommend new policies consistent with free-market principles. We do this because overwhelming evidence indicates such policies are the most likely to foster a free, virtuous and prosperous society.
Second, we get the word out. We do this because the world's best studies and reports would be worthless sitting on a shelf collecting dust. We educate and inform as many of the most influential people we can, including lawmakers, journalists and tens of thousands of residents who are the most civically engaged and interested in free-market ideas.
Both functions fill gaping voids. We can't rely on our public universities or government itself to recommend much in the way of limiting government's size and power, so we do it. Since the legacy news media has a proclivity to promote policy ideas that require ever more government, we have essentially become our own media outlet by publishing journals, newspapers and video reports; conducting seminars for students, teachers and policymakers; and creating unique databases of public documents, including legislative voting records, school spending, school performance data and public employee union contracts.
We even find real-life stories that illustrate the government failures our studies predict, just like the investigative reporters newspapers once had on staff.
There is no shortage of candidates' rhetorical fealty to free-market principles before elections, but there is a scarcity of free-market action after elections. Even liberal President Barack Obama sold his massive takeover of health care by claiming it would reduce health costs and not force anyone to leave a health plan they liked. Neither claim is true. Conservatives are likewise guilty of overpromising and under-delivering when they campaign as free-marketers but then won't restrain spending or stand up to unions and other big-government promoters.
Keeping promises isn't automatic for most lawmakers. They need to be kept in line by their constituents - and that's where the Mackinac Center's information and educational outreach comes in.
One legislator complained that when we published his voting record alongside our analysis of the policy he supported, constituents demanded he explain his vote. I replied that we were doing him a favor - how else would he have the opportunity to explain if no one told the folks back home how he voted?
A lawmaker's chief of staff lamented that we could cost his boss re-election by publishing his voting record. I replied that getting his boss re-elected wasn't our job, but it was our job to provide the free-market perspective along with a record of legislative actions.
When I ran into two Republican legislators recently, I asked what they liked best about the Mackinac Center. They told me we "keep them honest" and provide "accountability." One added that sometimes Republicans don't even introduce "bad bills," because they know the Mackinac Center will "come down on them."
Of course, it isn't so much the Mackinac Center who "comes down on them," it's engaged residents armed with our policy research, MichiganVotes.org voting records and Michigan Capitol Confidential news and investigative reports. Whether your candidates won or lost on Nov. 2, remember it won't much matter if you don't keep them accountable to their promises.