By Becky Gray
John Locke Foundation
During the early spring of 1939, when war with the Germans was inevitable, the British government commissioned posters with the slogan, “Keep calm and carry on,” assuring citizens that all capable measures to defend and protect Great Britain were being employed.
North Carolina is not on the verge of war, but we are facing troubling and crucial challenges. With the recent outcome of state elections, new leadership will take the helm in January and the uncertainty of how those challenges will be met has left many North Carolinians feeling that same uncertainty and uneasiness that the British felt at the beginning of World War II.
There is good reason for concern. September’s unemployment rate was 7 percent, the highest since 2002. The national credit crunch brought home sales and construction to a standstill.
Gov. Mike Easley called for a reduction in state spending. Gasoline prices diminished revenue for road construction and maintenance, necessitating a 6 percent cut in state Department of Transportation spending and delaying the state’s first toll road.
Tax revenue for the first quarter was $230 million less than anticipated and pointed to a likely $1.5 billion, or more, shortfall by year’s end. The state health plan, a major responsibility of state government, is short $250 million. The General Assembly obligated more than $1 billion in new debt in last year’s session.
New lawmakers will have to grapple with severe revenue shortages and more. When the economy sours, people reduce spending, businesses suffer, people lose their jobs, and there’s more demand for Medicaid and other social programs. Changes in how mental health services are delivered have been a failure and are in dire need of massive reform.
In the meantime, more people are moving to North Carolina. North Carolina was predicted to be the seventh largest state by 2010. More people mean increased demand for transportation, infrastructure, and school enrollment, which means some leaders will push for big tax increases and even bigger government.
In these times of crisis, things could easily get out of hand. Some leaders think government control, rather than individual responsibility, is the answer. More and bigger government means more taxes and more interference in our lives — telling us where and how we can live, how we can get to and from work, how much water we can use, where our electricity will come from, how we can use our property, how and where our children will be educated, and what kind of health care we can have.
So it comes down to this: Will the newly elected leaders address the crisis by increasing government’s control and expenses? Or will they limit government, allow the economy to grow with free markets, protect private property rights, and ensure individual liberty?
Stay calm. John Locke and the state’s Founding Fathers actually provided the guidance needed for today’s challenges more than 200 years ago. Locke, who greatly influenced the framers of the U.S. and N.C. constitutions, believed that property rights were the basis of human freedom and that government existed to protect them.
Under the current N.C. constitution, the state budget must be balanced. It gives the governor veto power and ensures that elections are free. It clearly defines and restricts the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government. It gives state government the right to tax and puts limits on that right. It limits the ability to issue public bonds. It requires that the General Assembly apply laws uniformly across the state. It protects against the government seizing or depriving anyone of his or her life, liberty, or property. The power to change that constitution lies with us.
The Founders crafted the N.C. constitution to restrict government and to protect basic rights of property and liberty. That doesn’t mean that we, the people, don’t need to be diligent, to hold those leaders accountable and to be sure they uphold the constitution’s principles. It just means the Founding Fathers anticipated new leaders, new challenges, and a changing economy and provided the framework to get through tough times.
Keep calm and carry on.
Becki Gray is vice president for outreach for the John Locke Foundation.