By Rob Schofield
Periodically, the essence of the debate between two competing philosophies is crystallized in an exchange over a particular topic of public policy. Such moments have occurred on a regular basis throughout the course of American and North Carolina history – some momentous, some on a smaller scale. Many have involved the stubborn attempts of a powerful class to protect its prerogatives and favored status while arguing (with straight collective face) that such an action would be in everyone’s best interest.
Two-hundred and thirty years ago, Americans debated and fought over the comparative merits of monarchy and self-governance. The Civil War served as the ultimate crystallization of the debate about the nation’s original sin, slavery. At the beginning of the 20th century, competing forces squared off over the question of which entity would have the last say on the big questions confronting society: corporate oligarchs or public institutions. And, of course, the Civil Rights contests of the middle and later parts of the century forced North Carolinians (and all Americans) to decide where they stand on the question of racial equality and justice.
Today, one of the most important contests of ideas revolves around the responsibility of the individual. For more and more public policy issues, the essence of the debate comes down to this: Do modern Americans and North Carolinians – particularly those enjoying unprecedented wealth and prosperity – have a responsibility to the common good?
For the last few decades, a loud and well-organized minority has aggressively promoted the idea that there is little such responsibility. According to this point of view, except for the modest amount of charity necessary to keep the most helpless from starving, individuals have no real responsibility to support an intentional, collective effort to lift society. Indeed, to the extent that the greater good is at all an issue, this point of view holds that society will benefit if individuals intentionally ignore the common good and pursue their own self-interest so that the “market” can works its economic magic.
The Latest Installment
The debate over the responsibility of individuals was renewed this week in North Carolina with the Locke Foundation’s release of its annual proposed state spending plan – a document the group calls a “Freedom Budget.” As one might have expected, the document is long on tax cuts and short on intentional public solutions and individual responsibility. Here are some of the “highlights”:
- Slashing state spending on Medicaid and the Health Choice children’s health insurance program;
- Eliminating the Smart Start early childhood program;
- Eliminating teachers’ assistants in the public schools;
- An end to programs designed to promote minority hiring and contracts and enforce antidiscrimination laws;
- Elimination of state funding for the state Housing Trust Fund;
- Cuts in dozens of vital human services and education programs;
- Steep increases in university and community college tuition and big cuts for cultural and learning institutions like “museums, aquariums and zoos”; and
- Big new tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.
The Locke budget is not utterly without constructive ideas, but it comes pretty close. Proposals to cut corporate incentives and to provide an increase in mental health funding make sense (though much, if not all, of the mental health increase would be eaten up by cuts made elsewhere to things like housing and health care).
At its heart, though, the document is about a radically different vision of society – a society from a bygone era (perhaps the Old West or the antebellum South) in which most people lived shorter, less healthy, less connected lives, but by God, their taxes were low. Any responsibility that might have existed for people of means toward fellow humans or the general public was carried out in the form of discretionary charity. Any progress enjoyed by society as a whole was the byproduct of the “invisible hand” of the “free” market. Any “freedom” that people enjoyed was principally the result of having discretionary cash with which to consume goods and services – even if those goods and services were basic human necessities.
Indeed, for all of the discouraging obtuseness it displays when it comes to responsibility (i.e. the responsibility that all humans bear to contribute in a direct and intentional way to the greater good of society) the most discouraging aspect of the document is its cramped and almost pathetic concept of “freedom.” For the Locke Foundation and their allies on the far right, “freedom” is principally about individual avarice and the drive to accumulate and possess money and property. Freedom has little if anything to do with human progress or health or enlightenment or equality or, heaven forbid, civil rights and civil liberties – especially if it is measured on a collective basis.
Hence the absurd notion that a poor family is “freer” if it receives a tax credit for education or child care or health care rather than the actual service itself! The hard, cold reality of such an approach is that the only people who end up with more “freedom” are the well-off, who pay lower taxes and retain greater discretionary income with which to roam the candy store that is the modern consumer economy.
But, of course, even this enhancement of freedom is ephemeral. Eventually, even this “freer” group will suffer the consequences of a divided and less healthy society. Of what good is it to park behind the gates of one’s suburban “McMansion” if the rest of one’s community stands stagnant, segregated, and alienated? Soon, North Carolina begins to look like parts of the developing world – a banana republic on steroids in which the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is all but unbridgeable. Such would be the inevitable consequences if North Carolina were foolish enough to adopt, and stick to, such a budget.
A Better Path
In the near future, NC Policy Watch and the North Carolina Justice Center will release a report that identifies a set of progressive budget and tax priorities that would, if adopted, place North Carolina on a much saner, healthier, and humane course – a course that emphasizes shared responsibility and shared prosperity and that acknowledges the multi-faceted nature of the word “freedom.” With any luck, it also may serve to remind some North Carolinians of the modern day relevance of Benjamin Franklin’s statement at the signing of the declaration of Independence that “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”