Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin recently came under attack from left-wing activists for meeting with representatives of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nationwide association of conservative state legislators. This is but the latest salvo in a sustained attack on ALEC from the political left. The governor rightly has ignored the attacks, which really are efforts to stifle political speech.
ALEC’s critics paint it as a shadowy organization that pushes ready-made legislation to advance a corporate agenda. In reality, the attack on ALEC is part of a much broader attack by those seeking to drive all market voices from the marketplace of ideas. ALEC’s critics say they object to its tactics, but what they really seek to attack is its ideological principles: free markets and limited government.
ALEC has never denied that it promotes an agenda. That is why it was founded. Groups promoting an agenda are at the core of the political system envisioned by our nation’s founders. Indeed, such organizations are part of every democracy. Embracing this reality, the founders “set faction against faction” as a bulwark of freedom. Open political battle among opposing groups armed with equal rights to free speech and assembly would only benefits America.
However, as the attack on ALEC illustrates, in today’s highly politicized world, some factions are more equal than others. The campaign against ALEC is part of a greater concerted effort to drive productive economic voices from the policy debate. This campaign involves stigmatizing efforts by the entrepreneurial elements of the business community - and by extension, their policy allies - when they try to explain their side of an issue.
This effort to drive out pro-market voices is far more extensive than the attack on ALEC. Anti-business forces already have succeeded at excluding business experts from governmental policy advisory councils and imposing second-class status on them in academic journals. Any nonprofit political organization that receives business funding comes under constant attack - unless, that is, the funding is aimed at expanding the size and scope of government.
Businesses have every right and, in fact, a responsibility to push back against reckless job-destroying legislation. If the for-profit sector can’t participate in political debate, practical voices will be excluded in favor of those motivated only by ideology. History has provided lesson after lesson of the damage that those with the very best of intentions can do when they put ideology before reality.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with ideology, which informs politicians of principles to uphold. Organizations such as ALEC and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which I head, fight market-distorting policies, such as subsidies and regulations, based on a commitment to economic freedom. But public policy isn’t made in a vacuum. It needs to be informed by the real-world experiences of those affected by it. It is not enough to have good ideas. We also need to develop ways to apply them and communicate them - to make good policy, good politics.
For that reason, it is unfortunate that so many businesses see discretion as the better part of valor when their backing of pro-free-market groups such as ALEC comes under attack. Such a retreat simply reinforces the short-term approach that leads too many businesses to neglect the policy arena, allowing anti-business voices to rise unchallenged. America needs more CEOs willing to stand up for free enterprise itself. Support for groups like ALEC is a valuable way to make that stand.
ALEC plays a valuable role in ensuring that state policymakers consider how legislative and regulatory initiatives affect the main role of business - wealth creation. It advocates for pro-market policies through publications, conferences and model legislation - in other words, by presenting ideas. As for the value of those ideas, legislators and the public are free to make up their minds.
Our democratic republic runs on the fuel of open debate. If those who want to limit the free market have a powerful argument it should be easily able to overwhelm the ideas of those with a different view - without trying to stifle opposition with strong-arm tactics. ALEC’s opponents’ thuggery shows they have no such case and little respect for the tradition of open debate.
Fred Smith is president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.