The Power of Words

Rebecca Hagelin
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Posted: Dec 20, 2007 12:01 AM
The Power of Words

Imagine a university where you could hear some of the best and brightest minds on a regular basis. Your faculty would include generals and attorneys general, public intellectuals and best-selling authors, dissidents and former political prisoners. In your classroom, you could question prime ministers and Nobel Laureates, members of Congress, cabinet secretaries and Supreme Court justices. Occasionally, the president and vice president would come by to make major policy statements.

And it wouldn’t cost you a penny.

Too good to be true, you scoff. I don’t blame you for being skeptical. But the “university” described above is real. I should know -- I work there. It’s The Heritage Foundation, and for my money, it trumps any Ivy League college for sheer intellectual firepower. As historian Lee Edwards recently noted, in 2006 alone Heritage produced 203 papers that delved deeply into the issues of the day, both foreign and domestic.

A sizable portion of these papers were lectures -- and they deserve special attention. Heritage recently passed a real milestone with the delivery of its 1,000th lecture.

It all began on June 4, 1980 when author Russell Kirk, one of the most notable intellectual heavyweights in conservatism’s history, came to The Heritage Foundation to speak on “The Conservative Movement: Then and Now.” Considering how large a role Heritage has played in conservatism, it was particularly apt. Dr. Kirk offered a cautiously optimistic vision. It takes about 30 years, he said, for ideas “to be expressed, discussed, and at last incorporated into public policy.” It had been about that long since F.A. Hayek and other leading lights of conservatism had produced their seminal works, so the nation was “entering upon a period of conservative policies.”

Bear in mind that at the time Dr. Kirk said this, Ronald Reagan had not yet been formally nominated to run as the Republican candidate for president, and his landslide election over President Carter -- hardly a sure thing -- was months away. Even if Reagan won, Lee Edwards notes, who knew how much he could move the nation’s policies to the right? Well, Dr. Kirk had a good idea how things were moving -- and so, as a result, did anyone who attended his lecture that day. Already, Heritage was establishing a reputation for being ahead of the curve.

On a more seasonal note, consider a key Heritage lecture delivered in December 1989. Years before Texas Gov. George W. Bush ran for president on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” Marvin Olasky, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, came to Heritage to give a talk titled “Reclaiming Compassion: A Christmas Meditation.” His point: It doesn’t take a welfare state or a “Great Society” to care for the poor. Americans did that all by themselves for the first 150 years of our history. According to Lee Edwards:

“In 17th century New England, for example, it was common for families to share the care of the destitute. Some would share their homes for parts of the year; others would pitch in for food costs; still others would provide clothing and medical care. Such charity demonstrated, Olasky said, ‘how thoroughly American society was impregnated with the idea of personal involvement.’”

But when government gets involved, citizens tend to withdraw, and what, then, do we wind up with? A permanent underclass that depends on handouts -- handouts funded not by caring friends and neighbors but by an impersonal bureaucracy. Fortunately, the welfare reform of 1996, which was fueled by Heritage research, went a long way toward reducing welfare dependence. Once again, The Heritage Foundation provided a real education for policymakers and the public.

And what of limited government, a key tenet of the conservative movement? Far too many lawmakers have forgotten that heroes such as Ronald Reagan won support by vowing to shrink government -- they spend money so freely that they clearly forget where it comes from: the taxpayers. Not Heritage. That’s why, for example, we brought Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, to speak on “Renewing Our Commitment to Limited Government” -- and the importance of standing on principle, even when it’s unpopular.

Take those lawmakers who voted against the 2003 Medicare drug benefit, which made the federal government’s already shaky financial situation even worse. As Pence said, “Sometimes a small group of people can take a stand, be defeated, and still make a difference.”

I could cite hundreds of other lectures (available at heritage.org/Research/index_hl.cfm), but I think it’s clear from these examples that Heritage offers a public policy curriculum that’s second to none. In fact, it and other think tanks have come to serve a function that actual colleges used to fill -- at least until the late 1960s, when academia took a hard left turn into political correctness and (as a result) irrelevance.

At Heritage, we’ve long appreciated “the power of words to change history,” as former Czech President Vaclav Havel put it. Thanks, in part, to the intellectual prowess of our speakers, we’ve been changing history for more than three decades. And as long as we provide a forum for challenging ideas, I believe, we’ll continue to do so for many more.