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The Marshall Plan and the Case for Big Ideas

The Marshall Plan and the Case for Big Ideas

Big ideas are the hallmark of America. Our nation was built on big ideas turned into action. Look to our founding to winning the space race by successfully landing on the moon — we have thrived creating something out of nothing. This week is the 70th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, an idea, at the time, that was so crazy and new, yet it worked. 

The 1947 Harvard commencement speech from Secretary of State George Marshall changed the world. Europe hadn’t recovered from World War II, there was fear of the spread of communism, and America was in the position to lead as the world’s predominant world power. In this famous speech, he pioneered the aid program, totaling billions of dollars, that became known as the Marshall Plan. He argued that, "It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.”  Marshall continued, “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.” This was a big, bold, and unattempted idea. 

Marshall wasn’t alone during this post-WWII period of big ideas. Big ideas brought to action included the Eisenhower Interstate System, a moon landing, and investments in poverty reduction through the War on Poverty’s creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity. It is important to note that this was a time of great social change and friction from the civil rights, anti-war, and environmental movements; each organizing for social and economic equity in a world that left them and their causes behind.  

Looking back at this time our nation seemed fluid and changeable. No, this isn’t a call to, “Make American Great Again.” This political slogan is packed with issues and too many questions of equity, inclusiveness, with the ultimate question of, “Who are we making America great again for?” I am arguing for a recommitment to the boldness and openness to new ideas. 

How can this be done? We must enable our political leaders to have courage to solve our big problems with our ideas and preferences. The only constituent many political leaders listen to is loss. We must start by electing and empower courageous people of diverse backgrounds and ideas. Use the fear of loss to push elected officials away from special interests to the interests of the people by organizing. Special interests have filled the void that citizens have, in a large part, left behind. Benjamin Constant, a 19th century philosopher, argued that the difference between the liberty of the ancients and the moderns is: the ancients wanted liberty to participate in institutions and the moderns wants liberty to not participate in pursuit of other activities. We must strive for participation, boldness, and openness.  

Enlightened self-interest makes the case for doing well by being good. The Marshall Plan shows the power of the United States stepping up and helping people, in order to secure our place as the worlds utmost power — the indispensable nation. There are citizens and groups now who are proposing big ideas for big problems, but there is little political will to enact them.  For example, the Center for American Progress is calling for an American Marshall Plan, the Black Lives Matter Movement policy platform is pushing for true social and economic equity of left behind communities, and even our controversial President has called for an idea that both sides of the aisle have gotten behind- a new investment in our infrastructure.  As we look to solidify our power and success both at home and abroad we must look to Marshall and his counterparts for inspiration to commit to big ideas.

Issue 1 of The Common Project is now in print!

Issue 1 of The Common Project is now in print!