I admit to being biased in favor of my home state. But I believe the following proposition is demonstrably true. To the extent that American conservatives are increasingly pessimistic about the future of their decades-old political movement, they should look at North Carolina and feel better.
While the nation’s capital seems incapable of grappling with the nation’s massive challenges, Raleigh is a place where conservative leaders have rolled up their sleeves, converted abstract ideas into practical policies, and outmaneuvered a host of special-interest groups to enact an ambitious agenda.
The General Assembly’s latest contribution to that effort, a 2016-17 state budget, will continue to make North Carolina a national leader in conservative reform. It cuts taxes for virtually all households, saves nearly half a billion dollars more in the state’s rainy-day fund, and offsets new spending on high priorities such as teacher pay and law enforcement with cuts and economies elsewhere in the budget. It also advances core conservative ideas such as school choice, innovation, competition, and pay for performance.
Naturally, left-wing interest groups and editorial boards are highly critical of the new budget. They call it “extreme,” “radical,” even “crazy.” That’s great news. Their sentiments are a reliable contrary indicator. If they liked the new budget, that would be a sign North Carolina leaders were abandoning the sound policies that have boosted the state’s fiscal soundness and economic recovery.
Conservatives venerate Ronald Reagan — and for good reason. He helped to forge the modern conservative movement out of the traditionalist, libertarian, and anti-communist factions that predated it. He articulated what they had in common better than anyone else. I am particularly fond of a televised speech he gave just before the 1976 Republican national convention. In it, he spoke of the generations who came to the New World in search of religious, economic, and political freedom:
“I’m convinced that today the majority of Americans want what those first Americans wanted: a better life for themselves and their children and a minimum of government authority. Very simply, they want to be left alone in peace and safety to take care of the family by earning an honest dollar and putting away some savings. This may not sound too exciting, but there is something magnificent about it.”
Yes, it is magnificent. Conservatives don’t oppose all government. Particularly at the state and local levels, we recognize the value of core public services such as public safety, courts, infrastructure, and education. But we don’t believe they all must be provided by government monopolies. More importantly, we don’t think government is a device for planning people’s lives, attempting to solve all their problems, or providing them with personal meaning. These are tasks best left to individuals, families, and other voluntary social institutions.
If you put North Carolina’s new 2016-17 state budget into the context of five previous budget plans enacted by conservative legislators (three of them bearing the signature of Gov. Pat McCrory) you can see Reagan’s vision being implemented into law.
For the vast majority of North Carolinians, state taxes will be significantly lower than they were in 2010. While it has grown in dollar terms, government spending will be significantly lower as a share of the state’s economy. More workers will have jobs. More entrepreneurs will have the freedom to start or expand their businesses without excessive regulations. More parents can choose where their children attend school. More patients will have more choices about where to get their health care, thanks to a regulatory change in the budget bill as well as upcoming Medicaid reforms.
I’ve disagreed with McCrory and legislative leaders on occasion. Other conservatives have, as well. But perspective is critical. Conservatives disagreed with Reagan on occasion, too. But they recognized that he was an exceptional leader who accomplished more for their cause than any other modern president.
Such leadership is currently lacking in Washington. If conservatives would find it, they must look to the states — starting with the one just south of Virginia and just east of Tennessee.
John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.