Budget battles and fights over policy priorities are nothing new. In the 480s B.C., the assembly in Athens was sharply divided over its budget. Many wanted to disburse the money – ten drachmae (several days wages) per man – from the city-state’s revenue from silver mines at Laurium. Others, led by Themistocles, argued for spending the funds for new naval ships. They believed that the needs of the state outweighed the benefits of increasing the private wealth of the citizenry.
The sides of the debate haven’t changed much almost 2,500 years later. I, too, like lower taxes and want to keep more of what I earn, but from my position as an attorney and local bar president, I see first-hand the desperate needs for updated technology and more personnel for our court system. I am concerned about cuts to legal services to the poor that would otherwise help persons understand their legal rights and access available community assistance.
My business clients express concern about how to compete in a global marketplace with our current infrastructure. They cite the need for better roads, ports and rail systems to reduce congestion and move products to markets, for faster broadband and wireless technology to improve communications in our information age, and for more research in electric transmission grid technologies, alternative fuels and energy efficiency measures to lower costs and enhance energy independence. Their competitors in other countries have the benefits of rapidly improving infrastructure and technology to fuel their growth.
My parents, now retired after careers as educators in North Carolina, are worried about the state of our schools and universities that they invested their lives in. They hear about teachers leaving the profession or moving to other states and about overcrowded classrooms, shortages of textbooks and canceled course offerings. They believe that a strong public education is the key to good jobs, an informed electorate and economic prosperity – in essence, the key to the future.
Many of my friends are frequent users of our city and state greenways, trails and parks. They go camping with their children and see the decline of the campsites and beaches. They bike the greenways and become frustrated by the gaps in the system. They dream of the potential of the Dix property in Raleigh and don’t understand the delays. Our green spaces and recreational areas help create the quality of life that attracted them to our region.
Our mental health system and facilities seem inadequate to help those struggling to function in our fast-paced and ever-changing society. Law enforcement (and our courts) are ill-equipped for the challenges created by those who need treatment rather than detention and punishment.
Many of these needs can be addressed only by collective, public investment and action. Like the need for an Athenian navy, there is no private interest, no individual effort, that can provide the public benefits needed by the community as a whole.
The vote of the Council at the Areopagus was close, but the funds were spent to build the naval ships. It was an unpopular vote – until 480 B.C. when Xerxes and the Persian navy attacked the Greeks. At the Battle of Salamis, the Greek navy, led by the new Athenian ships, soundly defeated the Persians. That sea battle was the turning point in the war – not the stand by the Spartan “300” at Thermopylae as the movies would have us believe – after which the Persians retreated.
That vote, the public investment in the ships, and the resulting victory ushered in the Golden Age of the Greek civilization that followed. As we consider the current budget debates and prepare for the upcoming elections, let us remember the lessons of history and hope for far-sighted leaders – like Themistocles – who recognize the value of expenditures for the public good, for the benefit of all.
M. Gray Styers Jr. is an attorney in Raleigh and president of the Wake County Bar Association. He recently returned from a trip to Greece.