A noble goal is more freedom

First Posted: 2/11/2015

RALEIGH — “What do you people want?”

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked that by lawmakers, activists, or reporters who don’t share my views. The term “you people” refers to the modern conservative movement in North Carolina, a phenomenon that still seems to puzzle older politicos and the Left.

There is, of course, no single definition of conservatism or membership application to fill out before you “get in.” The modern conservative movement arose from the combination — and in some cases even the collision — of several different factions and schools of thought.

Traditionalists addressed themselves to the decline of stable families and the deterioration of the culture as well as specific issues of social policy. Libertarians resisted the expansion of the welfare state and promoted tax and regulatory relief as both morally imperative and economically productive. So-called “neoconservatives” who began their political lives as progressives or socialists gravitated to the Right as they witnessed the failures of projects such as the Great Society or détente with the Soviets. More recently, reformists have sought to introduce innovation and market forces into the delivery of public services.

Many who call themselves conservatives today would identify themselves with more than one of these factions. Still, there remain significant differences among them, both on particular issues and on matters of timing and emphasis. However, here in North Carolina at least there is widespread agreement that government in general should be smaller, focused on a few core services it does well but otherwise leaving households and businesses free to solve their problems through voluntary cooperation rather than state coercion. There is also widespread agreement that government involvement in those core services need not be as a monopoly provider — that choice and competition should be built into the basic infrastructure for delivering such valuable and complex services as education and health care.

The theme, in other words, is freedom. As much as possible, North Carolinians should be free to make their own decisions. With freedom comes responsibility. To be free to decide means to accept the consequences of those decisions.

What does that value look like in practice? My colleagues at the John Locke Foundation have a new product designed to put a number on it: the First in Freedom Index (FFI). Using dozens of measures gathered from other think tanks, government statistics, and independent reports, JLF produced scores for all 50 states in four major categories: fiscal freedom, regulatory freedom, educational freedom, and health care freedom.

Within each category, JLF also ranked North Carolina on specific measures such as overall tax system, protection of private property rights, competition in the delivery of hospital services, and parental choice in education.

According to the initial index, North Carolina ranks 23rd in overall freedom. By this measure, the freest states in the union are Florida, Arizona, Indiana, South Dakota, and Georgia. The least-free states are New York, New Jersey, California, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

It wouldn’t take much for our state to improve its freedom ranking significantly. Nor would it be required to do so that we borrow policies only from deeply Republican red states. Adopting purple-state Colorado’s broader policies of parental choice among public schools, for example, would raise North Carolina’s overall freedom ranking to 15th in the nation. Bright-blue Democratic states such as Delaware, Vermont, and Rhode Island outrank the Tar Heel State in specific categories such as state spending, regulatory freedom, and competition in health care services.

Freedom isn’t just an abstraction. It is a proven solution for practical problems. There are now dozens of peer-reviewed studies showing that states ranking higher in economic freedom tend to have more business starts, faster job growth, and healthier growth in personal incomes. Academic research also shows that choice and competition improve educational outcomes and reduce the cost of health care.

What do today’s conservatives want? For North Carolina truly to become First in Freedom. We believe that North Carolinians will be better off as a result. Feel free to disagree — but at least now you know our goal.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.