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RALEIGH — Human beings have debated the proper scope and purpose of government ever since the formal institution of government was invented.


Some argue that government — properly defined as an institution that enjoys a comparative advantage in the legitimate use of physical force in a specific geographic area — should be small, constrained, and limited. Others argue that government should be larger, more powerful, and involved in a more extensive array of services and goals. (The latter group, by the way, justifies its view by defining the term “government” to be roughly synonymous with “society.”)


There is, however, a nearly universal consensus about the subject: Whether you think government should be big or small, you typically believe that its core functions include public safety. That means spending tax dollars on law enforcement, the courts, and related programs.


Combating crime is indispensable to good government. As John Locke himself put it, “All mankind … being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.” As we know, perfection in this life is impossible. Even the best-run governments can’t prevent every crime or apprehend every offender. But governments vary substantially in their effectiveness at establishing law and order. This variance, in turn, is related to variations in the economic success of the communities being governed.


Safewise, a private company that markets home-security systems, recently published an analysis of official crime rates and other data for cities and towns. It came up with a top-50 list of North Carolina’s safest communities. Half of them were located in the state’s Triangle region (15) and Charlotte area (10) — which also happen to account for a disproportionate share of North Carolina’s recent gains in employment and personal income.


On the other hand, only eight of the 50 safest cities were located the state’s Coastal Plain and Sandhills regions. These also happen to contain some of North Carolina’s most economically distressed communities.


Obviously, you can’t prove a causal relationship between public safety and economic growth just by eyeballing the data or establishing a correlation. For example, perhaps the causal arrow points in the other direction — that fast-growing communities tend to generate sufficient revenue to fund effective law enforcement. That’s probably part of the story, as a matter of fact. But fast-growing communities also tend to attract more people, including more predators.


Moreover, regions are themselves diverse. Although there are many relatively safe communities in the Charlotte area, for example, Charlotte itself is not one of them. Similarly, while Raleigh and Chapel Hill do rank among the top-50 safest communities, the other point of the Triangle — Durham — does not.


Still, we need not speculate about the relationship between public safety and economic growth. We can turn to empirical research on the question. Careful academic studies of the question seem to suggest that having a high crime rate tends to deter business investment and economic activity in a community. Similarly, of 36 studies published in academic journals since 1990 that examined a possible link between public-safety expenditures and economic growth, 21 found a positive, statistically significant relationship. In some of them, researchers used lagged variables or other techniques to try to figure out what was causing what. Most suggested that public safety does, in fact, lead to stronger economies. In fact, public-safety expenditure was the only category of state and local spending for which a majority of studies found a positive effect on job creation, personal income, or other measure of economic performance.


These findings suggest that for North Carolina’s most-distressed communities to find their way back to prosperity, a necessary first step will be to make public safety a priority when allocating local revenues. To the extent that state revenues are used to assist poorer regions in regaining their economic momentum, ensuring adequate law enforcement and judicial resources ought to be a high priority, as well.


When it comes to spending tax dollars, the correct governing principle is: Safety First.


John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.


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