“What is conservatism? Is it not preference for the old and tried, over the new and untried?” stated Abraham Lincoln in defining conservatism. The conservative view of public policy has always been to examine issues and policies based on prudence and with respect for both the United States and Iowa constitutions. When evaluating public policy conservatives need to consider fundamental principles that will preserve and defend limited government and economic liberty. The conservative also understands that the purpose of public policy is the promotion of liberty rather than equality of outcomes.
Since government is an extension of human institutions, conservatives must acknowledge that human nature is fallen and cannot be perfected. The political philosopher Russell Kirk wrote, “we cannot make a heaven on earth, though we may make a hell.” Conservatives should be suspicious of policies that attempt to bring about idealized social goals. The “conservative is suspicious of all utopian schemes,” noted Kirk. From a state perspective, one only needs to consider the consequences of progressive government upon states such as Illinois, Connecticut, and California, among others, that are attempting to tax, spend, and regulate their way to prosperity.
Government, even with the best intentions, cannot solve every problem. As an example, a major health concern across the nation is the rising obesity rates among our population. State and local governments are trying to combat obesity by punishing behavior using sin taxes on sugary drinks. Sin taxes are often used by governments to attempt to discourage harmful behaviors while seeking to raise revenues for government programs. In practice though, sin taxes frequently do not discourage the targeted behavior, nor do they raise the projected revenue. This is just one example of how governments cannot legislate utopia. As Larry W. Reed, President of the Foundation for Economic Education, wrote:
Too often today, policymakers give no thought whatsoever to the general state of liberty when they craft new policies. If it feels good or sounds good or gets them elected, they just do it. Anyone along the way who might raise liberty-based objections is ridiculed or ignored.
If human nature cannot be perfected, then the best course is a limited government that promotes individual and economic liberty. “A just government maintains a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of liberty,” wrote Kirk. This was the goal of the Founding Fathers when they created the Constitution. Government must be strong enough to protect and adequately govern, but also limited to ensure the protection of liberty.
At the state level too, limited government policies work to protect and extend liberty. Perhaps some of the largest public policy debates in legislatures across the state are centered on tax and budget issues. As noted earlier, states such as Illinois and Connecticut are struggling because of public policies that discourage economic liberty and growth. States with high levels of taxation, spending, and regulation tend to have lower levels of economic growth and they are losing population.
“The harm done by excessive regulation, taxes, and public expenditures plays itself out time and again in liberal bastions,” noted constitutional scholar Richard A. Epstein. “The progressive tax and spend agenda has been put on trial. Not only do those policies lead to much slower growth, they also benefit the rich and politically well-connected at the expense of everyone else,” argues economists Stephen Moore and Arthur Laffer.
These states do not understand that the more you tax something, the less you get and that high taxes discourage economic growth. Progressives in Iowa are constantly calling for more funding for education, health care, and numerous other programs, but they seldom discuss how they will raise additional revenues. Conservatives understand that some programs may need additional support, but they also know that raising taxes is a dangerous public policy solution.
North Carolina has established itself as the gold standard example for conservative fiscal policy. Many states have looked to the Tar Heel state as an example for formulating prudent fiscal policy. After suffering from a major budget deficit, North Carolina is implementing a historic tax reform policy that lowers tax rates across-the-board and in the process, controls the level of spending.
John Hood, who serves as Chairman of the John Locke Foundation, wrote that “while also cutting taxes and regulations to make North Carolina a more attractive place to live, work, invest, and do business, they [legislature] are increasing state spending gradually, keeping rough pace with annual changes in inflation and population while prioritizing K-12 education and public safety.” This is an example of prudent tax and budget policy. North Carolina has identified that education and public safety are state priorities and those programs are getting gradual increases. The result is not only economic growth, but North Carolina is rebuilding healthy rainy-day funds and other reserves, including their Medicaid reserve.
Conservatives know that government must look to the private sector to solve policy problems. Policy areas such as education and health care are often the leading drivers of state spending and policy innovation is needed to explore ways to better deliver services. Many states are considering Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) as an alternative way to not only improve the quality of education, but also empower parents to have greater choice in their child’s education.
A foundational element of conservative fiscal policy is the importance of economic liberty. “Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all,” noted Russell Kirk. Property rights should not only be construed as physical property, but that also encompasses income. Economic liberty means that taxpayers should be protected from excessive government taxation and spending.
Policymakers must remember that the revenues they spend are collected from taxpayers across the state. Progressives often argue that wealthy citizens do not “pay their fair share” of taxes and they believe that placing higher taxes on some people will create a more equal society. This is not only another example of utopian policy, but it is dangerous economics. As Larry Reed argues:
Confiscatory tax rates, for example, don’t make people any more equal; they just drive the industrious and the entrepreneurial to other places or into other endeavors while impoverishing the many who would otherwise benefit from their resourcefulness.
A priority for any government must be a protection of taxpayers. By protecting the taxpayer, the legislature is not only defending economic liberty, but also creating a fiscal policy based upon low tax and spending levels that will create growth, opportunity, and provide for the priorities of government.
A conservative worldview is fundamental to achieving sound public policy. The principles of limited government and liberty are at the center of our American system. By following and applying these principles, policymakers can ensure that liberty will be maintained and strengthened for all Iowans.