State Governments

Jeb Bush on Why Florida Thrives: 'We Don't Try To Micromanage People's Lives'

Former Gov. Jeb Bush makes the case for why "Florida works pretty good."


A native Texan, Jeb Bush moved to Florida in 1980. He was governor of the Sunshine State from 1999 to 2007, where he quickly became known as a champion of school choice. In 2016, he made an unsuccessful run for president. Now he resides in Miami-Dade County, retired from political life. A self-proclaimed "old-school conservative with libertarian blood running through my veins," Bush is frustrated by the "cyclical world" we live in where "people are very comfortable with advocating government solutions to everything."

Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Bush in October about how Florida has become home for many people—from in and outside of the U.S.—who are looking for less government intervention in their everyday lives.

Reason: Florida has become the fastest-growing state in the country. What explains Florida's growth as a destination for people wanting to move there, live there, and work there?

Bush: I think Florida works pretty good. Whatever problems we have pale in comparison to other states. No disrespect to the Northeast, but if you have business up there like I do, and you go and you drive, you're going to get a broken back basically trying to go from here to there. The infrastructure is decayed; the challenges are immense. And you come here and the roads are working; they've got a lot of people on them but fewer potholes. Things work better.

For people that come to visit, they can kind of get the allure of Florida. Typically what happens is they visit a few times and then they say, "All right, I'm making the move. I'm going to get a job."

Both Texas and Florida, two states that have become reliably red, are now kicking the butts of New York and California. These four states are the most populous states in the country. Is there something going on with the political systems in Florida and Texas that are making them better?

Totally. Miami-Dade County, where I live, has 2.5 million people. It's a big, urban, teeming place full of diversity. It has a 1.4 percent unemployment rate. It's full of opportunities. The tax code matters, obviously, for people with more wealth. We don't have income tax. We have smaller governments. The impulse isn't to try to tax your way to prosperity or regulate your way to prosperity. It's not a perfect place, for sure. I get nervous about bragging too much because the minute you stop challenging basic assumptions about the role of government, atrophy sets in, and government just starts filling the seams.

We've had a great run because we've had a period of limited government and we don't try to micromanage people's lives. As long as we do that and we stay focused on the important long-term things: making sure infrastructure stays up with the growth, making sure our natural systems are protected, which is an important conservative principle in my mind. We could rape and pillage the swamplands around South Florida, and you would have a hell of a problem going forward. So investing in these long-term things, which they don't do in California and New York because 20–30 years ago, they made obligations to the unions and obligations in the here and now that created a government that is far bigger than it is in Texas or Florida.

How is the state of Florida's education system?

In Chicago or Washington, D.C., or New York, they spend $25,000 per student. How much of that is basically to pay for the sins of the past? Pension obligations that were negotiated, health care benefits for retirees. How much of that is actually going to the classroom? Compare that to Florida, where people in the past didn't do that.

When I was governor, we eliminated tenure. We moved to an option for a defined contribution plan rather than a defined benefit. The pension is well-funded compared to other states. So you can focus on the here and now in education. Our funding, while it's less than the national average in terms of classroom education, I think is pretty good. And then we didn't just accept the status quo; we graded schools. If schools were failing, parents were given options. We eliminated social promotion. We created real robust accountability. We put a real focus on early childhood literacy, and we created the most expansive public and private parental choice programs in the country.

The result is parents here in Miami-Dade, the third- or fourth-largest school district in the country, 70 percent of the parents decide where their kids go to school. Think of that. Would Los Angeles be better? Would Chicago be better? Would New York be better under that system? Hell yeah, it would.

It's not a surprise for me that if you empower parents, you're going to get a diversity of offerings. And if you have accountability around that and parents understand where their kids stand, you're going to get a great result. For the elite families, everything's going to be fine, because they're the first teachers of their kids. They tutor their kids; they pay for tutors; they do all this stuff to protect their kids and help them learn. But what about the 90 percent of families that don't have that luxury? You better make sure your schools are vibrant and focused on the future.

Particularly in the lower-income communities, kids of color, kids with learning disabilities, we're top five in the country based on the nation's report card. There's still a long way to go. Then, I would add, the University of Florida is a top two or three public university in the country in terms of entrance rates, in terms of research, and in terms of graduation rates. And it's free. Don't get Bernie Sanders upset about this, but we actually have Bright Future Scholarships. So anybody who qualifies for that does not pay tuition. And if you do pay tuition, it's about the lowest tuition in the country—maybe second-lowest. That's a pretty good deal. It's about the best deal a family will ever get from the government, to be able to get a high-quality education.

Does legislation under the current governor, Ron DeSantis, like the Stop WOKE Act, which affects higher education as well as K-12, concern you?

It concerns me a little bit. I do think that if you're in fourth grade or below you shouldn't be accessing any discussion of sexual orientation. If your parents decide that after school, they can talk all they want about that stuff.

Look, the governor is a master at virtue signaling, but so is the left. We're in this virtue-signaling food fight. I'm not sure the substance of the bills that have passed has created a dangerous place for speech. But I do think we have to be vigilant about it. It's one thing to say, "You can't impose these woke cultural values on everybody," which I think is an issue. It's another thing to say, "Well, therefore, we're going to impose our values on everybody."

I'm kind of an old-school conservative with libertarian blood running through my veins. I think what we need to find is an environment where we let people have an honest discourse. And if you believe what I believe, you should have a right to discuss it and defend it. The people that you disagree with aren't the enemy. They just might be wrong. Have an open dialogue. I think our universities are pretty good at that compared to other places where we're seeing right now. If you're a Jewish kid going to one of these elite schools, you're in danger. I mean, that is ridiculous what's going on. So both sides have these impulses that I think I'm uncomfortable with, but I would say the left is probably much worse than the right.

Do immigrants, whether they're from outside the country or within the country, bring their values with them to Florida?

It's always been a concern that all these people, wherever they come from, bring their values. But think about it. If someone's leaving California, they're leaving for a reason. They're probably leaving because they want economic opportunity for themselves and their families, or they're tired of being taxed to death.

In Miami-Dade County, 65 percent, maybe 70 percent, of the people were born outside of the country. There is nothing like it in the rest of the country. And these are patriotic people. They believe in freedom. They've left oppressive regimes. They're concerned when they see policies that try to impose a heavy hand of government. It's chaotic. It's diverse. It's fun. And it adds a dynamism that is really remarkable. It's the principal reason why I moved in 1980, and it's even better now.

You and your brother [former President George W. Bush] were, in many ways, a dying breed of pro-immigration and pro-immigrant Republicans. What has happened to the Republican Party that it has veered so far away from seemingly having anything good to say about immigrants?

I think there are a lot of Republicans that are pro-immigrant. But look, the reason why people are angry is the systems that we've relied on, the institutions we've relied on, haven't worked. We can't enforce our existing laws as it relates to immigration. People get upset. I think it's legitimate. You have the avalanche of fentanyl coming into our country and the tragedy that brings. What institution is working the way it should in the 21st century?

There is a deep resentment that the elites are doing quite well. I'm blessed. I've got a healthy family, an intact family. I'm in business in a way that I can add value. I've got a great life, and a lot of other people do too. But there are a ton of people, they're one paycheck away from real hardship, and the system hasn't been working for a lot of those folks. And so you try to find scapegoats. Whether you like President Trump or not—I'm not a big fan—he has tapped into that anger better than any politician in the last generation.

Does the Republican Party need to go libertarian in order to win the future?

Look, I'm out of politics. I guess I'm so old-school that I think believing in freedom and limited government and entrepreneurial capitalism—rather than picking winners and losers and doing it through government—is the path forward. I've always believed that.

Did you think after 2000 you would be seeing the rise of anti–free trade people and anti-immigrant people on both the Democratic side and the Republican side again?

In 2000, I didn't see it. I didn't see it when I was governor either. This has happened maybe in increments, not discernible to the naked eye. We're not in a linear world. We are in a cyclical world, and the cycle right now is people are very comfortable with advocating for government solutions to everything.

Now, another reason why I love Florida is the contagion hasn't spread to other places. We're AAA bond-rated, and we don't have an income tax. Under Gov. [Rick] Scott, I think they reduced the state debt by 70 percent. There was no debt issued in the eight years that Rick Scott was governor. What other state did that in a high-growth situation? I certainly didn't. Charlie Crist didn't do it. I don't know if Gov. DeSantis has, but there is a way to show that you can pursue limited government ideas and balance the budget, create reserves, deal with hurricanes all the time, not have a bloated government, and put the people that are most vulnerable in the front of the line. That philosophy still exists here.

Let's talk about the concept of the Florida Man: a person—it's usually a man, it can be a woman—doing incredibly insane, stupid things often after snorting whatever was around. That has become ubiquitous over the past decade. What do you make of the Florida Man meme?

Look, it's probably not fair, but who cares? It's funny. We should embrace it. We're striving to have a disproportionate number of candidates for the Darwin Awards each year. We should be very proud of it. To all the people laughing at Florida because of that: I'll take our tax structure, I'll take our environmental policy, I'll take our education system. I'll take our way of life, and I'll be OK.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. You can watch the full video interview here. 

Photo credits for video: JOE BURBANK/KRT/Newscom; MIKE EWEN/KRT/Newscom; Keiko Hiromi/Polaris/Newscom; Alberto E. Tamargo/Sipa USA/Newscom; Michael Bush / UPI Photo Service/Newscom; St Petersburg Times/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Kyle Mazza/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; White House/CNP/ZUMA Press/Newscom; KEYSTONE Pictures/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Pedro Portal/TNS/Newscom; Abaca Press/Gripas Yuri/Abaca/Sipa USA/Newscom; Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom; KEVIN DIETSCH/UPI/Newscom; Paul Hennessy/Polaris/Newscom; ABDEL MEZA / Notimex/Newscom