WATERS: Political Courage More Than Catch-Phrase
By Jim Waters, Bluegrass Institute

Several years ago I found myself at a cheese-making operation in Wisconsin.

While I had not traveled to the Badger State explicitly to observe Asiago delicacies being turned from fusty, amorphous gook into firm, fresh cuisine, the side visit to the cheese-producing facility somehow ended up being the most captivating part of the whole trip.

It was almost as fascinating as watching how political leaders from state to state and even different countries differ so greatly in political courage.

Take, for example, the gap in British bravery demonstrated by Great Britain’s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who went to her eternal reward on April 15 at age 87, and that of American President Jimmy Carter, who was in office when the Baroness of Kesteven moved into 10 Downing Street.

Their nations faced similar problems: long lines at gasoline pumps, climbing interest rates and a chilling cold war. Yet while Thatcher used her time as an opposition leader during the five years before she became prime minister in 1979 to hammer out practical, free-market remedies, all Carter could do was plan failed hostage-rescue attempts and drone on about America’s “crisis of confidence.”

Carter’s approach resulted in even longer lines, emboldened enemies and soaring inflation.

Thatcher’s legacy was different.

When she ascended to power, labor unions were so out-of-control and worker slowdowns so frequent that her nation was losing 13 million working days per year to strikes. Everyone from grave diggers to trash collectors had walked off the job. Food shortages abounded and many 911 calls were not even being answered.

Economically, the United Kingdom was ranked No. 19 out of the 22 Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations, and had what one West German ambassador called “the economy of East Germany.”

Ouch. Not good.

Eighteen years after Thatcher came to power, however,  Britain had become the second-strongest economy in the OECD, self-employment had doubled, home ownership increased from 53 percent to 71 percent of the population and half of the six million Brits on public housing were able to buy their homes.

But you don’t have to be prime minister of Great Britain to demonstrate this brand of political courage and make your world a freer place.

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefish, the only lieutenant governor to survive a recall attempt, recently spoke at an event sponsored by the Louisville Tea Party to honor Sen. Rand Paul and his recent filibuster – another act of political courage – about how she and her boss, Gov. Scott Walker, helped steer a U-turn in a state headed for bankruptcy a few years ago.

By implementing more reasonable benefit packages for state employees, Wisconsin “saved more than $2 billion between state and local governments,” Kleefish said. Their reforms resulted in “the only fully funded pension system in the nation.”

Controversial? Uh, yes.

Worth it? No question.

Kleefish says Wisconsin’s fully funded pension system now allows for the kind of “certainty and stability” that reassures business owners that state government “will not be coming after your bottom line” to fund its irresponsibility.

Whether you’re prime minister of Britain, lieutenant governor of Wisconsin or a state senator from rural Kentucky, you will hear the same arguments from naysayers:  “You have to be reasonable and realistic about what you can accomplish. It’s not practical to turn an entire nation or state around in a few short years.”

For too long, Kentucky lawmakers have said it’s unrealistic to expect significant change in the commonwealth.

But the impossible becomes possible with Frankfort’s missing ingredient: political courage, which will turn fusty, amorphous politicians into firm, fresh public servants. 

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at

Published 12:00 AM, Sunday Apr. 21, 2013
Updated 07:26 AM, Monday Apr. 22, 2013

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