Editor's note: The following is a transcript of remarks delivered by Reihan Salam at the 2019 Alexander Hamilton Award Dinner
Reihan Salam: Thank you, Paul, for your kind introduction, and thanks to all of you assembled here tonight for your generous support of the Manhattan Institute.
Though I am still new to MI, its work has long played a central role in my life.
When my parents first settled in Brooklyn, in the mid-1970s, the city was in the midst of a long, slow slide. Growing up, most of our friends and neighbors moved to the suburbs as soon as they possibly could, and it was hard to blame them. In those days, muggings were so routine that battle-hardened New Yorkers treated them as inevitable. And I was one of them.
I still remember the night twenty years ago when I thought I might have taken my last breath. I was returning home after a night out with friends, and just as I was about to reach my front door, someone rushed me from behind and held a knife to my throat. Not for the first time in my life, I was being mugged. All I had on me was a paperback book, which I had borrowed from the library, and $11. Two thoughts rushed through my head. The first, of course, was whether this guy would kill me. The second was whether I’d get in trouble for not returning a library book. I handed everything over, and then I rushed inside, where I woke my parents.
When I saw the look of fear and disappointment on their faces, I knew that this couldn’t be end of the story. I called the police, who arrived on the scene within minutes. I rode with them in their squad car, in the hope we might catch a glimpse of my assailant.
We did not. But knowing that the police had my back made a deep impression on me, and also on my family. We realized we were not alone -- we were part of something larger than ourselves. Millions of New Yorkers like us were through with being victims, and with the leadership of a reform-minded mayor and the best police department in the world, we took our city back.
With each passing year, the streets grew safer. Private sector job growth started to soar. This city — our city — once again became a city of hope. Instead of fleeing New York in droves, hard-working, ambitious people from around the country and around the world did everything they could to join in its rising prosperity.
It was during this Age of Reform that I started to question my inherited loyalty to the political left. Having lived through such a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of my hometown, I wanted to know more about how it had happened, and where the ideas that inspired Rudy Giuliani, Bill Bratton, and many other brave and decent public servants had come from. It was then that I first learned about the work of the Manhattan Institute, which quickly became my intellectual lodestar.
Without MI and the leadership of Larry Mone, New York City’s transformation would never have been possible. The success of MI’s ideas in New York, and in cities across the country, is what most think tanks can only dream about.
MI’s vision has always been one of Reform — It is not zero-sum. Everyone can climb the ladder of opportunity. Your prosperity does not come at the expense of mine. The role of government, as Alexander Hamilton argued long ago, is to protect the life and property of individuals, and to ensure that public services actually work for the public.
It is a vision that sees taxes as a necessary evil that must be spent carefully, wisely, and efficiently, not as an instrument for the enrichment of the politically connected.
Most of all, the politics of reform is a unifying politics that treats every citizen, regardless of race, color, or creed, as a rights-bearing individual worthy of dignity and respect.
Yet the forces of Reform, as everyone in this room understands very well, are embattled.
Arrayed against us is a poisonous politics of Envy — a political vision that pits rich against poor, ethnic group against ethnic group, all in the service of expanding an already bloated and self-serving public-sector machine
To see the damage the partisans of Envy are doing, look no further than the rank cynicism of the many local politicians who have been crusading against New York City’s specialized high schools on the grounds. Their complaint is that the schools are admitting too many Asian Americans and not enough Hispanics and African Americans. But what you’ll find is that virtually all of the politicians who’ve made this their cause also oppose allowing high-performing charter schools to give children of all colors the education they deserve.
And how does that make any sense, ask the Reformers at MI and elsewhere? If the goal really were to better educate all of our young people, there is no question that we’d embrace the charter sector. But instead our elected officials choose to bash Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, as though their students were somehow to blame. What explains this madness?
It’s simple, really. At the very same time New York City’s mayor has been going after the specialized high schools, he was forced to abandon his so-called Renewal Schools program, which spent a staggering $750 million with nothing — nothing — to show for it.
If you were Mayor DeBlasio, which story would you rather have dominate the headlines? A story of flagrant waste and mismanagement, in which three-quarters of a billion dollars in taxpayer money was essentially set on fire — money that could have helped literally tens of thousands of students attend charter schools with long waitlists?
Or would you rather have reporters cover a faux social-justice crusade in which specialized high schools that have served thousands of working-class and immigrant kids—including me—are compared to the worst excesses of the Jim Crow South?
I’m sorry to say that the poisonous politics of envy is not limited to New York. We’re seeing it spread in cities from coast to coast, and now we’re hearing its message reverberate in the halls of Congress.
The politics of Envy denounces private-sector wealth creation as somehow suspect. It treats taxes as a punitive measure more than as a means of raising revenue, and it promises to hand ever more power to technocrats and central planners. More insulting still, this message is wrapped up in a language of racial justice that rings hollow to the children of every race and ethnicity left attending substandard schools, the women and men of every race and ethnicity left jobless, and the city-dwellers of every race and ethnicity left to contend with poverty and disorder.
If America is to thrive in the decades to come, we must rally the forces of Reform to vanquish the forces of Envy. This is the battle that Betsy DeVos and Larry Mone have taken on in their years of service, and that is the one MI will continue to fight in the decades to come. MI rescued my city from the forces of crime and disorder once, and now it is called upon to rescue cities across the country from the new forces that threaten to tear us down.