InsideSources is beginning a series of interviews with leading policy professionals in the nation’s capital. We’re speaking with the leaders of think tanks, trade associations, and advocacy organizations, along with government officials, to learn more about their work and their interests outside of politics.
We begin this series by interviewing Eli Lehrer, president and cofounder of the R Street Institute. Lehrer began his career as a journalist and served as a speechwriter for then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. He worked as a researcher and manager at several other right-leaning think tanks before launching R Street in 2012.
InsideSources recently spoke with Lehrer at his Washington, D.C. office. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
InsideSources: What inspired the founding of R Street?
Eli Lehrer: R Street is a spinoff of the Heartland Institute. It was created just about 5 years ago, after the management of the institute decided to run a billboard over an expressway in Chicago with a picture of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, with the message “I still believe in global warming, do you?”
Me and the people working for me at the time—I was the vice president of the Washington, D.C. operations—did not think this was a particularly good or helpful way to talk about climate change. And as such, with the cooperation of Heartland management—which is a great group that I like and respect, actually, and they do a lot of work I agree with—left Heartland and started R Street in what had been the Heartland office space with the Heartland D.C. staff and some national staff—and it has grown a lot since then.
InsideSources: Is there a specific set of policy goals in mind? What drives the issue focus at R Street?
Lehrer: R Street is committed to “Free markets. Real solutions.” That is the phrase on the back of all of our business cards and our motto as an organization. We are a libertarian organization, and a right leaning one, but we want to deal with the world as it is, rather than what we wish it might be.
There is an enormous value in ideation regarding possible futures. I love science fiction, and I think that speculative policy analysis has tremendous value. I also think that particularly on the libertarian right, that niche has been largely filled. And instead, there is room for the ability to work incrementally towards libertarian ends in a different way, working with as many people as possible, in the broadest coalitions through a business model that is not revolutionary but represents the evolution of the think tank, and takes lessons from other organizations, where myself and others on the staff have worked.
InsideSources: Tell me about your background and how you got into politics and policy.
Lehrer: I grew up in Chicago, went to a prep school in Connecticut for high school, and college in upstate New York. I came here originally to work for the Washington Times. I was then at Insight magazine. It’s been defunct for over a decade. It has a number of relatively well known alums such as Malcolm Gladwell and David Brock, among them. That led to work at the Heritage Foundation, that led to the American Enterprise Institute, then I was with Unisys, the IT company, a speech writer for Bill Frist, when he was Senate Majority Leader, then the Competitive Enterprise Institute, then Heartland, and then I started R Street. I earned a master’s degree along the way. My undergraduate is in medieval studies and English. My graduate degree is in government with a homeland security focus.
InsideSources: Have you always been interested in politics and policy?
Lehrer: I grew up in a very political home, although a very left of center home. Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn are long time family friends, actually. Bernardine worked for my dad for a while. We had them over for Thanksgiving and stuff like that. Lovely people personally. I’ve actually avoided reading Bill’s books because I personally like him; I believe I’d probably be horrified. My father was at the Legal Service Foundation in Chicago—hardened leftie in every way. My mother was in a big firm and then was in private practice, then real-estate investment. Both of my parents were lawyers. My mother was not as much a hard leftie, but still very much in the progressive end of the spectrum. Experiences in high school and college moved me steadily to the right personally.
InsideSources: Any experiences stand out as influencing your political views?
Lehrer: Yes, there are a few. First is a trip to Eastern Europe I took during high school. Six-week trip all around Eastern Europe. What I came to realize: not only was the system not morally equivalent, it wasn’t even close. My parents were never communists, and they never said Soviets were the good guy or anything like that, but they gave me the strong sense that Reagan was dangerous and that socialists were onto something. And then I came to realize that it was awful in every possible way. And there was virtually nothing good about a side that I was never taught was equivalent but was taught was sort of okay.
This was after the fall of communism, so summer of 1992. There were still bullet marks from various revolutions in walls you could see. And it was still in transition. I remember in Poland, they were doing their economic shock therapy. They had decontrolled all prices, a clever thing I thought, except for bread. There was no communism and no welfare state because you were just forced to work for the government, and you didn’t get fed if you didn’t. And they said: “Okay, we are going to have a price system.” They realized some people would slip through the cracks, so to deal with this, they kept the price controls on bread so no one would starve to death, and it worked. It’s what the Romans did, of course. That was the roman welfare state: free bread. Things were still cheaper. I remember Coke was a quarter when it was still 50 or 60 cents in the States. But bread was a big loaf for a quarter of a penny.
There was another incident. I’ve always had a thing for free speech. When I was in college, I was on student government and elected as a leftie. A conservative newspaper on campus, founded by Ann Coulter, decided to run an article that was juvenile and racist. The reaction of the left on the campus was to burn every copy of the paper and demand disciplinary sanctions for its editors and the newspaper—basically, to ban it. I stood up against this by proposing the first amendment as an amendment to their proposal, and it worked. It was my break with the left.
That’s still an enormous problem I have with many on the left. I have no more patience for efforts by folks on the right that want to obstruct free speech. I have zero sympathy for the idea of amending the Constitution to prohibit flag burning. I think there should be more free speech rights for union organizers. Free speech has to apply to everyone, including things conservatives don’t like.
InsideSources: Who are the influencers, politicians, and economists, who have most influenced your career and your thinking on policy issues?
Lehrer: Karl Zinsmeister, who is now at the Philanthropy Roundtable, I met during college. I was at Cornell, and he lived in Ithaca. I wrote to him and started writing for the American Enterprise, even while considering myself a man of the left, even though I was changing. He encouraged me to move to D.C., some years later, hired me to write at the American Enterprise as a senior editor, and so he is somebody who’s had an enormous influence.
Intellectually, it’s almost cliché to say I admire Hayek, and I do a lot. James C. Scott, who sort of has a quasi-Marx and anarchist take on Hayek, and frankly writes a lot better, has been a significant influence. I love his book, Seeing Like a State.
Central planning doesn’t work and centralization is a bad idea. The problem isn’t even the ideology, it’s centralization. Whoever it comes from, centralization is a bad idea. We need a large array of acquired wisdom and experience in virtually all spheres of human life. That doesn’t mean things can’t change, they need to change, we don’t want to live in stasis. Sometimes revolution is a good idea. But trying to impose a specific way of living on others who have a way of living is rarely a good idea.
InsideSources: What do you do in your spare time?
Lehrer: I’m married. I have a wife and a son. I live in Herndon. I’m a member and on the board for the Log Cabin Republicans. I’m the first straight man ever on the national board. However, there is one other now. So, I spend a lot of time with them. I do poetry reviews for the Weekly Standard. I read a fair amount. I’m interested in the arts. I’m a pretty avid theater-goer. I like visiting museum exhibits in the D.C. area.
InsideSources: What would you like to see the Republican Party do to better address LGBTQ issues?
Lehrer: I think the Republican Party just has to embrace its own core principles of individual liberties and free markets. Most other groups that are strongly associated with one party or another, have some good reason to be associated with that party. And there’s also the matter of family history, which is a big determinate of voting behavior. In the case of LGBT people, presumably about half will be raised in left-of-center households and half in right-of-center households. There is nothing about people’s upbringing, aside from some very regrettable things said by people in the Republican Party and also the Democratic Party, and over time, nothing about the Republican background makes it more or less acceptable to somebody because of their romantic proclivities. And that really should not be a political issue.
There is no reason at all, as with the Conservative Party in the U.K., why about half of the LGBT vote couldn’t go to a right-of-center party. Of course, the Obergefell case was written by a Reagan-appointed judge and argued by a Bush Solicitor General.
The move toward marriage is the triumph of bourgeois values that Republicans should embrace. Not a matter of overturning tradition, it’s about embracing it. If you look at the early gay liberation movement, there was a strong view that marriage was heteronormative and evil among early gay activists. It wasn’t until the late 90’s before mainstream gay groups all embraced the idea of marriage, which is exactly what it should be. The triumph of marriage equality is a great conservative victory and something social conservatives, which I count myself, should celebrate.
InsideSources: I hear you enjoy telling pirate jokes. Do you have a favorite?
Lehrer: Here’s my favorite. One day a pirate ship is sailing along. And on the horizon, the watch officer sees a Royal Navy ship. And the pirate captain says, “First mate, go to my quarters, bring me my sea chest, and take out my red shirt!” He does that. He puts on the red shirt. The Navy ship comes closer and closer. There is a fight and the pirates drive away the Navy.
The next day, the watch officer says, “Two Royal Navy ships on the horizon!” And the Captain says, “First mate, go to my quarters, take out my sea chest, and bring me my red shirt!” He puts on his red shirt, there’s another battle, and the pirates again drive off the Navy.
The first mate says to the pirate captain, “Why is it that you always put on a red shift before we go into combat? And the pirate captain says, if I’m wounded in combat, the blood won’t show and won’t hurt the morale of the boat.” Of course, everyone loves this and the whole crew drinks a round and toasts their valiant captain.
The next day, the watch captain yells out, “10 Royal Navy Ships on the horizon!” And the pirate captain says, “First mate, go to my quarters, open my sea chest, and bring me my brown pants!”
That’s my favorite joke.
There are other pirate jokes. What does a pirate try to do when he plays golf?
What does a pirate like to do after work?
Go to the barrr.
InsideSources: R Street has a bit of an obsession with pirates. Why?
Lehrer: First, pirates are better than ninjas. Quite important to remember. In the Pirates vs. Ninjas debate, pirates would definitely win. There are a few reasons. Pirates were way more libertarian than ninjas. Ninjas were sworn to their daimyos, which were basically the state in feudal Japan.
Number two, R Street started as an insurance think tank, and workers comp insurance was invented by pirates. That’s where workers comp comes from. When you signed onto a pirate ship, you sign the articles of the ship. And a typical provision was if you get our hand cut off, you got so many pieces of eight; if you got your eye gouged out, you would get so many pieces of eight. This was such a good idea dealing with injuries on the job, that it spread to all other ships, and in the early 1900s, in Wisconsin, it was applied to every other industry. And, finally, pirates were egalitarian in a time when the rest of society was bigoted. It didn’t matter what your skin color was. Women could be pirates. You could just be a pirate if you wanted to. Pirates were awesome. And ninjas weren’t.
And pirates would definitely beat ninjas in a fight. Ninjas are good at stealth but pirates can just shoot them like Indiana Jones. Like the famous scene. Pirates win every time.