Paul Mero: The state of the freedom movement in Utah

Introspection is a virtue. During a recent interview, billionaire and freedom financier Charles Koch questioned aloud the impact he and his money have made to change law and politics over the past 50 years. That self-examination is humbling to hear.

Paul Mero: The state of the freedom movement in Utah
by Paul Mero, the CEO of Leadership Project for America.

Several years ago, when Allan Carlson and I were putting the final touches on our book The Natural Family: A Manifesto, we convened a small group of trusted and brilliant colleagues for a short retreat in Washington, D.C. to review the pre-publication manuscript. A chapter I wrote focused on the effectiveness of the pro-family movement. My conclusion then, as now, is that it has not been very effective for all of the time and money spent in the trenches of the culture war. I was a bit surprised when these wonderful, open-minded and intelligent colleagues slammed that chapter for being too hard on and overly critical of our pro-family friends.

Constant introspection is healthy and politics seem to find ways to systemically avoid it or, worse, always project the bright side (usually the obligatorily optimistic side) of things. So, I ask, for all of the time and money spent to protect the cause of freedom in Utah, what do we have to show for it?

Two points of clarification: First, when I refer to the freedom movement I speak organizationally, just like when most people refer to religion they mean organized religion. That’s not to say freedom, like spirituality, doesn’t live in the hearts of most Utahns. I’m talking about activists with a view of freedom they seek to promote publicly. These activists have agendas for which they raise money, rally troops and fight. Second, in evaluating our impact, it is reasonable to question what Utah would be like without all of our effort. It is possible that law, policy and culture in the state would have declined more precipitously had not Utah’s freedom movement been engaged at all.

My educated guess is that freedom in Utah would be about where it is today even if groups like Strata Policy, Libertas Institute, Utah Taxpayers, Americans for Prosperity, Eagle Forum, Parents for Choice in Education and Sutherland Institute never existed. That guess is not (completely) a knock on the people involved. It’s a knock on their lack of collective vision and effective strategies.

The Mormon Temple spires in Salt Lake City, next to the Utah Capitol building. Douglas C Pizac, AP
The Mormon Temple spires in Salt Lake City, next to the Utah Capitol building. Douglas C Pizac, AP

If we’re truthful, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the most effective coalition to protect freedom in Utah than any of our existing organizations. In other words, given the demographic domination of Mormons and the faithful’s fuller and richer understanding of freedom in the context of God’s plan for man, the state of freedom in Utah isn’t bad. Our groups have served on the margins (and many times the fringes) of influence. There are political issues and circumstances with which and in which the LDS Church cannot engage. For those issues and in those circumstances there have been various roles for our groups. But that is not much space to brag about.

Furthermore, unlike the LDS Church, Utah’s freedom movement often misses the mark in defining freedom. At best, Utah’s strain of libertarianism represents only a subset of freedom. When behaving poorly (i.e. arguing to legalize drugs), it thinks it alone is freedom. At its absolute worst – in the form of LDS libertarians – it is often disloyal to freedom. In other words, these groups can do more harm than good.

In practice, Utah’s freedom movement is a bumbling mess. When pro-active, it is often counterproductive, as we saw during the voucher fight years ago. The top-down voucher strategy was shortsighted, impatient and ultimately harmful to the cause of freedom in Utah. If you doubt this point, just utter the word “voucher” around today’s state Legislature. Or, if not counterproductive, Utah’s freedom movement is often self-important and aggrandizing, as with the recent legislative victory over extending eligibility of Medicaid – many groups were publicly self-congratulatory for their role in defeating it. Truth is, House members did not need anyone encouraging them to kill Medicaid eligibility extensions. If no outside group existed to oppose the extensions, a majority of House members would have killed it anyway.

Utah’s freedom movement prides itself on consistency to principle – it wants little, if anything, to do with government; it thinks government is an inherently corrupting influence; and, it condemns any person or entity that seeks benefits from government. There is a reason why a standard policy in the freedom movement nationally is for its member organizations to reject government money in the form of grants or contracts – it is viewed as a corrupting influence.

Paul Mero: The state of the freedom movement in Utah
Utah Governor Gary Herbert (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Utah’s freedom movement most frequently criticizes Governor Gary Herbert and the state Legislature for this type of corruption and a lack of transparency in reporting corruptions. And yet, nary a word is said when it manages to stray itself. The very libertarian Strata Policy in Logan accepts government money. Jonathan Johnson, attempting a run for governor against Gary Herbert in 2016, spent a substantial part of his professional career at Overstock.com. During his reign, not only did Overstock leaders use personal and corporate money to largely fund the lawsuit to overturn Utah’s marriage law (since then I’ve thought they should be called Overturn.com), Overstock also applied for and received state subsidies from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development for its business. More? Jonathan Johnson has been a relentless critic of Governor Herbert’s policies on extending Medicaid eligibility, calling those policies support for Obamacare – at the same time, Overstock put its employees on the Obamacare plan from Arches Health that just went belly up – a member of the Overstock corporate leadership has been a trustee of Arches. So much for consistency.

Paul Mero: The state of the freedom movement in Utah
Jonathan Johnson, Overstock.com chairman of the board and candidate for Utah Governor.

Utah has been my home for the past 15 years, 14 years of which have been experienced at the heart of the state’s freedom movement. My decisions as head of Sutherland Institute are an open book. My opinions are well-known. Running an organization isn’t easy. If you’re doing it right, you’re constantly setting a strategic vision amidst a team that does not always agree, let alone a board and supporters, and in the face of special interests and ideological opponents who seek to denigrate your leadership at every turn. As an example, it took nearly a year to persuade my Sutherland teammates that state-based comprehensive immigration reform was important and worth fighting for in the name of freedom. Though I was correct ultimately, each step of the way was treacherous for the organization, inside and out. And though the fight was exhilarating personally, it was tiring and it often tried my self-confidence as a leader. It was a daily exercise in serious introspection. Everyone who really knows me knows I always have been my hardest critic – a fact that does not absolve me from outside criticism or any professional shortcomings, but I’m comfortable that it sets a good example inside Utah’s freedom movement.

I’m sure I’ll receive due criticism for these words. All of these groups seem to have their own narrative about how such-and-such a situation went down. It is what it is and I know many friends need to protect their egos and organizations. So go ahead and point fingers again. Or not. Ignore my counsel – the latest narrative about me in the state is irrelevancy.

Just saying – I’ve earned these opinions. And earned opinions are few and far between these days. While I might have plenty to say about candidate Jonathan Johnson’s qualifications for governor, I would not presume to tell him how to run Overstock. And yet anyone with an Internet connection thinks they know the solutions to all the world’s problems, not generally but specifically. The old saying that “the masses are asses” often applies to Utah’s freedom movement, as it does in any walk of life where wise expertise and an adult, steady hand is needed.

The biggest failure of Utah’s freedom movement has been our inability to sell freedom. We lost school vouchers because we did not take the time to change education culture first before attacking its politics. Part of that inability to sell freedom has something to do with so many mixed messages about the meaning of freedom. But the bigger part of our inability has been self-interest – too many people in our freedom movement seem to have something personal to prove to the world. They express angst not passion. They are only concerned with the hill they perceive they are destined to conquer at the moment – it’s become their personal hill and, dammit, they will take it at any expense.

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) speaks at the 2012 GOP Caucus held at a convention center in Sandy Utah, April 21st, 2012. Copyright © 2014 Jeff McGrath. All photos are Copyright protected. Use of images is prohibited without written consent of the Copyright owner.
Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) speaks at the 2012 GOP Caucus held at a convention center in Sandy Utah, April 21st, 2012. Copyright © 2014 Jeff McGrath. 

We see it in the attacks against Governor Herbert and we even see it against Senator Mike Lee and many staunchly conservative members of the state Legislature whenever one of them fails to uphold a tired ideological creed. It blows my mind that anyone inside Utah’s freedom movement would criticize Senator Lee for his tax proposal that includes increased child tax credits – criticisms so unapologetic in the name of economic principles (i.e. an idealized notion of free markets) and so removed from freedom’s practical realities that they fail rationality.

So we disagree. Utah’s freedom movement is rudderless. Leadership is lacking. Utah ought to be the brightest light in the freedom movement. Frankly, our movement is often weird, confused, delusional and, compared to what it could be, completely irrelevant. The growing cacophony of voices representing freedom in Utah is chaos, not a healthy competition in the marketplace of ideas.

There is a new space to be conquered by Utah’s freedom movement. That space is educating Utahns about true freedom, especially educating rising generations about true freedom. As it stands, none of today’s groups in Utah is capable of protecting the cause of freedom – a waste of time, money and energy.


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