Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan didn’t need government to stack the deck so they could succeed on a grand scale.

And that’s what Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah) wants Americans to remember as he challenges policymakers to put an end to decades of Washington-based corporate cronyism under Democrats and Republicans—beginning this year with the U.S. Export-Import Bank.

In a major address this afternoon at The Heritage Foundation, Lee said a firm “anti-cronyist” stance is key to a conservative reform agenda designed to vanquish “a large and growing Opportunity Deficit.”

Lee identified one immediate target in a campaign to crush cronyism: the Export-Import Bank, the charter of which expires Sept.  30.

The fight against reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank is probably the most important and winnable anti-cronyist effort conservatives can take up this year,” he said.

The 80-year-old bank helps foreign companies and countries—including China and Russia—purchase goods from American companies. Interestingly, Lee noted, “more than three-quarters of Ex-Im’s billions of dollars in loan guarantees go to just three corporations that are perfectly capable of securing private financing anywhere in the world.”

Photo: Steven Purcell

Photo: Steven Purcell

The problem isn’t too much money in politics but “too much politics in the economy,” Lee said.

“Cronyism simultaneously corrupts our economy and our government, turning both against the American people,” he warned. “It forces American families who ‘work hard and play by the rules’ to prop up, bail out, and subsidize elite special interests that don’t. It therefore represents a uniquely malignant threat to American exceptionalism.”

On the Ex-Im Bank and many other fronts, the Utah Republican said, conservatives must confront the political establishment with the need to “restore equal opportunity to the top of our society, too: to root out cronyist privilege from the law, and from our party, to re-empower the American people, and restore fairness, dynamism, and growth to our economy.” He added:

Free enterprise works – morally and materially – because it aligns the interests of the individual and society.  …Steve Jobs didn’t succeed by rigging the computer industry – he figured out how to make technology accessible and helpful to ordinary people. Oprah Winfrey didn’t try to bury other talk-show hosts in red tape – she spent decades perfecting her own show, informing and inspiring millions of viewers. Michael Jordan never mandated us to watch him play basketball – he just played so well that we wanted to.

Cronyism, Lee said, betrays the many to reward a relative few:

The more power government amasses, the more privileges are bestowed on the government’s friends, the more businesses invest in influence instead of innovation, the more advantages accrue to the biggest special interests with the most to spend on politics and the most to lose from fair competition.

Conservatives ought to reject the idea of making the way smoother for special-interest friends.

It’s progressives who slice the country into politically assigned subgroups, manipulating cooperative citizens into selfish special interests. It’s big government that divides us – picking ‘friends’  and ‘enemies.’  Freedom unites us.

>>> Read the Speech: Opportunity, Cronyism and Conservative Reform

Lee peppered his speech with references to dozens of conservative reform ideas—complete with generous shout-outs to proponents ranging from Reps. Dave Camp (R–Mich.) and Jeb Hensarling (R–Texas) to Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Wisc.) .

He concluded with a helpful history lesson from the years leading up to the Revolutionary War:

People sometimes forget that the British policies that lit the fuse of the American Revolution did not merely oppress the colonists. Indeed, the Tea Act of 1773 actually lowered taxes. The problem was, it only lowered taxes for one corporation, the politically connected East India Company, giving it an unfair, artificial advantage over smaller, local American competitors.

That is why the tea went into the harbor.

In many ways, it was a fight for equal opportunity against special-interest privilege that made our nation.

>>> Watch the Speech at (to be posted within 24 hours)

This story was produced by The Foundry’s news team. Nothing here should be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of The Heritage Foundation.