Commentary

Christensen: Libertarian conservatism at work in NC legislature

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJune 10, 2014 

There was a time in the early 1970s when Republicans were leaders in protecting the water, land and air.

President Richard Nixon was responsible for creating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while North Carolina Gov. Jim Holshouser championed the Coastal Area Management Act.

It was also not long ago that Republican President George W. Bush pushed through the No Child Left Behind Act in an effort to improve secondary and elementary education and championed a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients to help seniors buy the medicine they need.

But having just returned from a couple of weeks vacation and catching up in the newspapers about the actions of North Carolina’s legislature, I was struck by the degree to which today’s GOP is dominated by a libertarian brand of conservatism.

Would North Carolina’s current legislature pass an EPA, a Coastal Area Management Act, or a prescription drug plan? Not likely.

On many issues, the legislature has strongly tilted public policy toward market forces – and against anything they perceive as being an impediment to the market, whether it involves the environment, health insurance, education, worker injury claims or taxes.

So the legislature is trying to jump-start natural gas exploration of the state’s shale deposits – often called hydraulic fracturing or fracking – by paying for some initial testing to entice energy companies to begin operating here.

Protecting the state’s air and water is now seen as an impediment to the marketplace – symbolized by the famous bull’s-eye that then Rep. Mitch Gillespie drew on his office window to target the state environmental agency where he is now assistant secretary. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources has been ruthlessly downsized, and the Senate has passed a bill that would eliminate a number of air-quality monitors around the state.

Opposition to ‘welfare state’

Libertarian conservatives have long been skeptical of the welfare state – having opposed Social Security in the 1930s and Medicare in the 1960s.

That view can be seen in the state Senate, which approved a budget that cuts thousands of the elderly, disabled and the blind off Medicaid, the health care insurance program for the poor. If that provision survives negotiations with House lawmakers it could potentially effect many of middle class elderly who will depend on Medicaid when they run through their savings.

The libertarian conservatism also is evident in education, where to pay for a teacher salary increase, the Senate is proposing to layoff 7,400 teacher aides, 70 school nurses, and to cut 30 percent from the state Department of Public Instruction. There is a laundry list of public education programs that have been axed by the legislature, while market-oriented programs such as school vouchers and charter schools are expanded.

Public funding for the common good – schools, protecting the water, helping the elderly and the handicapped – is viewed with skepticism.

Meanwhile, efforts to make it easier for market forces – such as reducing regulation and cutting taxes – get a green light.

Tens of thousands of North Carolinians are being hurt by the actions of the legislature – whether being denied health insurance or unemployment insurance, or losing their jobs in the schools, or their earned income tax credits. They are being harmed by ideas put forth by economic thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman and sold by national groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council and locally by the John Locke Foundation. The theory, of course, is that the changes will lead to a more productive economy that will float all boats.

One can only hope that this experiment in libertarian conservatism turns out to be worth the pain.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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