It seems that my branch of the conservative movement has started to leave me behind. I not only believe but I know that smaller, more efficient government is preferable to the whole “nanny state” notion of taxing all our citizens so that we can satisfy all the wants and needs of the citizenry.
Government should be no bigger or more elaborate than required to provide for our common needs. That said it also has to be large enough and elaborate enough to take care of those needs, and no smaller.
There has always been a pragmatic feature to conservatism, going back to the time of Edmund Burke. We have prided ourselves on being able to provide for the common good with the smallest amount of public investment.
We understood that government could, and should, build bridges and roads, support a fair and efficient judiciary, make certain that public records are accurate and available, provide for those unable to do so, and incarcerate those who could not behave in an acceptable manner.
I was thrilled when, in the fall of 2014, our new House Speaker Jay Lucas mandated the creation of a number of ad hoc study groups to help us get a grip on issues that seemed to be poorly managed in our state. This was the hallmark of my brand of pragmatic conservatism: study the facts, find our way to success, and figure out the least expensive and most efficient way to accomplish what we had each promised in our oath of office.
In my previous public job, as chairman of the Beaufort County Council for more than a decade, we had success in many areas, but building necessary roads and bridges and engaging the trust and partnership of the electorate by intentionally raising our game with regard to ethics and transparency were two of the most conspicuous.
In truth, smaller government cannot be realized without the trust of the citizens. To compensate for the mistrust and cynicism engendered by lack of ethics and transparency, we try to create redundant oversight of public officials as well as intrusive regulation of private business to make up for the lack of trust.
Today, it is apparently enough to verbally claim the mantle of conservatism without the inconvenience of actually providing for the common good. It becomes somewhat more difficult when we chronically underfund our responsibilities, only to be outraged and blame others for our shortcomings.
The perfect example is our commitment to roads and bridges. In our study groups, we took voluminous testimony from stakeholders, only to have the legislation crafted by the House in response be cast aside by the Senate. More than a year after passage in the House, the Senate produced an amendment that agrees with the House on reform but adamantly denies the need for more revenue, such as an increase in the highway user fee, the gas tax.
Currently, DOT pays claims to around 2,600 citizens each year for damages caused by our lack of seriousness in maintaining our roads and bridges. The cost to the state is in the millions of dollars, but the human cost to our constituents dwarfs all other concerns.
Next time, some dispiriting particulars and a way forward.
Weston Newton is the representative for District 120 in the State House of Representatives.