Policy Forum: The Importance of Liberty: At Home and Abroad

July/​August 2012 • Policy Report

On May 4, 2012, the Cato Institute honored economist Mao Yushi as the recipient of the 2012 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. One of the most outspoken activists for individual rights and free markets in China, Mao has emerged over the last several decades as an instrumental voice against the nation’s heavy‐​handed, authoritarian grip. Before the presentation of the award, attendees heard a keynote address by Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey. Governor Christie stressed the significance of communicating the ideas of freedom, and how his experience in office holds lessons for the nation at large.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: It’s a pleasure to be here this evening — to leave all that’s exciting in New Jersey on a Friday night, come down here to this sleepy little hamlet, and speak before you all.

Back in 2008, I remember Barack Obama talking about the lack of hope around the country. And although he and I always defined the solutions to that problem differently, the environment in which I found myself shortly thereafter was not significantly different.

When I first took office in New Jersey in January 2010, optimism was a hard thing to find. In the eight years before I became governor, our state had raised taxes 115 times. From 2000 to 2009, New Jersey had — literally — a zero job growth decade. In the four years before I became governor, $70 billion in wealth had left the state — not diminished wealth, departed wealth. Our unemployment rate was over 10 percent, with 115,000 private sector jobs lost during the four years of my predecessor.

New Jersey had the highest tax burden in the country, the worst climate for small business, and a bloated state government that contained the most public workers per square mile in the country — yeah, you can laugh unless you live there. And it only got worse. In my second week in office, my state treasurer told me that, in the subsequent five weeks, we had to find $2.2 billion in cuts from money that had already been appropriated.

We essentially had to impound the money back from certain departments just to meet payroll — all in what was the second wealthiest state per capita in America. If you need any greater example of what happens to an economy when a government overtaxes, overspends, overborrows, and overregulates, just visit New Jersey in January 2010.

So what did we do? Thanks to New Jersey’s unique constitutional structure, which allows spending to be cut by executive order, my staff and I sat in a room over the course of three weeks and went over all 2,400 line items in the state budget that I inherited. The result was finally cutting $2.2 billion. And the great thing about operating by executive order was that, at first, I didn’t have to tell anybody.

But, after delivering the news in my first speech before the joint session, you can imagine the reaction from the legislature.

Reporters descended upon the floor as the Democrats began calling me names: Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte — all of those great leaders of the past that I admire. And I realized something. The way I confronted my first substantial problem in office set the tone for my administration. I made clear from the first day that decades of fiscal irresponsibility were no longer going to be tolerated. As I said on the campaign trail, I was ready to go to Trenton and turn it upside down.

Last year we passed a $2.3 billion tax cut for businesses, with nearly 70,000 new private sector jobs created. We’ve cut spending in every department of our state government, from areas that folks told me were the third rails of politics. Given that I was still upright, I decided to go after public pensions and benefits next. And what happened? For the first time in 10 years, a majority of New Jerseyans recently polled believe the state is back on the right track. On election day in 2009, that number was 19 percent. Today, it’s 53 percent.

The American people are ready to hear the truth. They know our government is out of control. And the only thing they care more about than today is tomorrow — because tomorrow is about our children and grandchildren, and today is just about us.

The bottom line is we took action — we did it with solid principles and strong leadership — putting our state’s interests ahead of partisan ones. We turned Trenton upside down. And in the difficult times that America is in now, the only way to govern is by treating our citizens as adults — by telling them the truth about the depth of our challenges and the difficulty of the solutions.

When we fail to do this, we pay the price as a country many times over. The domestic price is obvious: growth slows, unemployment persists, and we make ourselves even more vulnerable to the unpredictable behavior of rightfully skittish markets.

But there’s also a foreign policy price to pay. To begin with, we diminish our ability to influence the thinking and ultimately the behavior of others. Democracy is the best protector of human dignity, liberty, and freedom — and history shows that mature democracies are less likely to resort to force against both their citizens and their neighbors. Yet, all across the world — in the Middle East and Asia and Africa and Latin America — people are debating their own political and economic futures. They’re looking for inspiration, and we have a stake in the outcome of those debates. There’s no better way to reinforce the likelihood that others in the world will opt for more open societies and marketbased economies than to demonstrate that our own system is working well.

At one time in our history, our greatness was a reflection of our country’s innovation, determination, ingenuity, and the strength of our democratic institutions. When there was a crisis in the world, Americans found a way to come together to help our allies and fight our enemies. When there was a crisis at home, we put aside parochialism and put the greater public interest first.

Today, our ability to effect change has been diminished because of our own inability and unwillingness to effectively deal with our problems. Now, I understand full well that succeeding at home and setting an example is not enough. But it’s a start. And I realize that what I’m calling for requires a lot of our elected officials and our people. I plead guilty to that. But I also plead guilty to being an optimist, because I believe in what this country and its citizens can accomplish if they understand what’s being asked of them.

We seem to have forgotten that this is a human business. Day after day, I’ve spent time sitting with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, convincing them of my intentions and letting them know that I don’t believe compromise is a dirty word. There’s always a boulevard between compromising your principles and getting everything you want. You should never compromise your principles.

But you also need to understand that you’re not always going to get everything you want. The job of a leader is to find your way onto the boulevard between the two without driving into the ditch of compromising what you believe. And trust me, if you can do this in New Jersey, you can do it anywhere. That’s where my optimism comes from. See, I’m not looking to be loved. I get plenty of love at home — and when you’re looking for love in this job, that’s when deficits get run up.

However, if you make people understand that you’re willing to say no, but you’re also always willing to listen — that you’re willing to stand hard on principles, but you’re also willing to compromise when those principles won’t be violated — then respect will come. It’s about being consistent. It’s about leading by example. It’s about standing up for the things that we believe in, instead of simply trying to figure out which way the wind’s blowing. There’s no need for varnish anymore. In fact, I don’t think we have the luxury to put it on. Liberty and freedom and the human spirit are the most powerful things in the world — and we need to say that directly to the American people. They’re ready to hear it.

I want to thank the Cato Institute for setting an example of why liberty and freedom are so important to the future greatness of America. But please never forget that it’s not going to come without a fight. We need to fight hard, even harder than we are now because the stakes are too great to do anything less. Only then can we allow the United States to, once again, export hope and liberty and freedom around the world, not just because those values are a part of our past, but because we will be acting to make them a bedrock of our future.

MAO YUSHI: Ladies and gentleman, I bring you all my humble greetings from China. Tonight, we are here together in this “Shining City upon a Hill” to celebrate our common beliefs, our common hopes, and our common commitment to the values that make the Cato Institute so very special. Those Cato values bring us together today, united as common citizens of the world. I like to think of us all as “Cato citizens.” The values of which I speak, of course, are peace, free markets, limited government, and the preservation of individual liberty.

Tonight, we celebrate those timeless values — the common thread that runs through all great civilizations of the world from the beginning of humanity. Regardless of whether your traditions and cultural roots are in Africa, the early settlements along the Yellow River, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile, or the valleys and mountain ranges of Meso‐​America, these universal values are our common heritage. They touch each heart and resonate in the basic moral fiber of our souls.

I am personally honored and humbled to be recognized as the recipient of the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. I cannot express enough my grateful appreciation for this recognition and for Cato’s many decades of invaluable guidance on the long road to liberty in China.

Over the last 83 years, I’ve endured many threats and fearful nights, years of deprivation and political persecution. My family and friends, however, provided the love, the loyalty, the dignity, and the moral compass to continue that journey, regardless of the headwinds.

They helped me remember the lessons of our nation’s past heroes and heroines, as well as our moral responsibilities to the future generations. They provided the light in the storm so that we could stay the course. I could not be here today without them.

My family and I are honored tonight, but we realize that we are not here just as sons and daughters of China. We are also here on behalf of three additional constituencies who join us in absentia.

First, we stand in the shadows of earlier honorees from Estonia, the United Kingdom, Peru, Venezuela, and Iran. Each represents societies that have traveled on their own Homeric Odyssey, which Cato has appropriately recognized. We honor them individually and we salute their great peoples and cultures.

Secondly, we stand in the foreshadow of Cato honorees yet to emerge. To these future Cato citizens, let them know that we see their courage. We feel their heartbeats, their yearning, and their allegiance to the values of the Cato Institute. In the years to come, let everyone here be our proxy and congratulate them on their journey to a shared better tomorrow.

Thirdly, and most importantly, we receive this honor on behalf of two constituencies in China.

The first is the tens of thousands of grassroots organizations who currently work every day to serve the common citizen of China, who strive to build a better and more humane tomorrow. Countless scholars, workers, peasants, teachers, students, volunteers, and friends struggle against the common enemies of humanity: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war. They are the real honorees of tonight’s prize.

The second constituency we represent is the tens of millions of Chinese over the last century who have sacrificed their lives along the road to overthrow feudal dynasties, defeat warlordism, and defend liberty against foreign colonialism and imperialist invasion. They have proven countless times that freedom is more precious than life itself, and their struggle is also revered here tonight. This award is accepted on behalf of them, with the solemn promise that your torch will be carried by each succeeding generation with the same energy, faith, and devotion you brought to your endeavors. We do this to continue to brighten our country’s future and to deliver the inalienable and universal rights of all human beings to our descendants.

This glow — when combined with the lamps carried by fellow Cato citizens around the world — will become beacons of light from the “Shining City upon a Hill,” spreading Cato values to the dark corners of the world. In your hands, more than mine, will rest the final success and failure and hopes for liberty of our peoples.

Many have sacrificed for China’s people, for her dignity and her liberty. Despite my eight decades — my now weak hearing and failing sight — I still remember the names of those who sacrificed for our country. I see their faces. I hear their voices. I feel their souls. Tonight I speak for those who cannot be here. Their sacrifices have not been in vain, and I thank the Cato Institute for giving their lives renewed meaning.

China is a very old country. She is a noble and wise civilization, with a grand history of fine art, science, medicine, philosophy, exploration, hard work, tolerance, and openness. It is a society based on balance known as the Golden Mean, or the middle way. This theme runs through our great traditions of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Our people have always sought balance between the needs of the collective and the individual — and against extreme government.

China understands the power of economic liberalism. Her people know that free markets and liberty nourish each other, acting together as a force for social progress. Our long history is full of examples of people rejecting the arbitrary power of the state, refusing to subordinate the rights of the individual, and recognizing that unchecked collectivism stifles human creativity and productivity.

Systemic checks and balances against unlimited government power, corruption, and improper privileges — mechanisms which include free markets, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and the shift to a smaller, more accountable government — need to be built and put in place permanently.

These are so important because of China’s horrific past. This generation has personally experienced mass repression through the government apparatus, witnessing the more than 50 million Chinese who died directly as a result of the influence of the rule of man over the rule of law. Both our leaders and our people know what is at stake for China’s future. They are all personally invested in ensuring that Cato’s values — tailored to China’s realities — can help build a strong, prosperous, and harmonious country in the finest traditions of our ancestors.

In modern times, many countries have recalibrated their societies to fundamentally improve them with these balanced values. In the early 1970s, there were about 40 democracies in the world. As the 20th century ended, there were 120 diverse countries with some form of self‐​government crafted by the people — a largely peaceful trend that continues to this day. China needs to learn from these powerfully instructive experiences.

In order to preserve societal harmony and build China’s better tomorrow, the government should further extend liberty, freedom, and free markets — and reestablish the peaceful rise of “good neighbor” policy to preserve regional and world peace. If China’s leaders can implement the essential principles common to every successful society, she can further contribute to the world’s peace, prosperity, and harmony.

I remain optimistic that China’s government will hear her people’s desire to make this vision a reality. If one examines our country objectively, they will see that there is great reason to be hopeful given China’s tremendous progress already. Edmund Burke, the great British parliamentarian, once warned that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” China has been changing and progressing — a process which does not require disruptive instant transformation.

Our country has successfully raised more than 300 million people from poverty — a huge number, even in China. Knowingly or not, accomplishments like this have been achieved by the balanced implementation of Cato values in the context of the Chinese society. China’s successful evolution over her long history has been rooted in the balance between rights and responsibilities — a balance that is in focus now as we approach a transition in leadership at the end of this year.

Those of us in China know that the rights of the individual do not come from the generosity of the state. In fact, we have very limited expectations from government. We ask only that the system lives up to our constitution, abides by our laws, and complies with the international covenants of the world community. The people of China know that the fruits of society are not the sole prerogative of the powerful and privileged few. As the next generation steps forward to battle against tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself, I believe that our journey into the future will be long, but successful. All big rivers come from small streams. Our efforts in China are but one small stream.

Tonight’s constituencies — from the people of China to the other tributaries inspired by the timeless wisdom of the Cato Institute — will join together as a mother river to nourish the human spirit and wash away the hardships of our imperfect world. Thank you once again for this great honor.