RALEIGH Ė As investigation continues into the criminal conspiracy that used to be known as the Jim Black speakership, plenty of folks are citing the scandal as proof that North Carolina needs to adopt their reforms of the legislative process.
Iím one of them, obviously. So are legislative Republicans, most of whom were closed out of power in Raleigh by Black and his cohorts. So are previously renegade Democrats, now properly seen as prescient and principled Democrats who viewed the Black regime as abhorrent and contrary to the long-term interest of their party. So are newspaper editorialists and media commentators. So are government-reform groups, committed to policies ranging from tighter disclosure rules and ethical codes to tax-subsidized political campaigns.
Reform is welcome. With a few notable exceptions, most of the reforms the above groups endorse will help, in some cases a great deal.
But letís not get carried away. In government corruption scandals of the sort that ensnared former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott, former U.S. Representative Frank Ballance, and now former House Speaker Black, the causes werenít just personal failings. They lay in allowing politicians to exercise power that is inherently corrupting, that requires them to overrule the preferences of private citizens, acting voluntarily, and instead crown someone a winner and someone else a loser.
Thatís a major difference between government action and private action. In the former case, there must inherently be winner and losers. Enact a tax or impose a regulation, and you must be transferring ownership of or power over a resource from, say, Jane to Jill without Janeís consent. In a private setting, however, Jill has no power to coerce Jane, or get a government official with a gun to do so on Jillís behalf. Jill must offer something of value to Jane in exchange. It could be a promise to work, or a receipt for past work (we call this money), or the potential for Jane to satisfy her charitable impulses or religious duties. Both parties benefit, inevitably, because voluntary transactions only happen when each party expects to receive something she values more than what she is giving up.
Letís get right to the root of the problem. Or, perhaps most appropriately, letís get Wright to the root of the problem.
The case Rep. Thomas Wright, a New Hanover County Democrat and former ally of Speaker Black, illustrates the danger of placing politicians in a position to annoint winners and losers in what should be market transactions. A state investigation of Wrightís campaign-finance practices has reportedly become a criminal probe. The allegation is in part that Wright failed to comply with disclosure rules because he wanted to cover up his role in killing a piece of legislation that would have harmed the interests of nurse anesthetists, who had contributed his campaign.
The point is not that the 2005 bill in question should have been enacted. I tend to think that it simply represented an attempt by one group, the anesthesiologists, to use the legislature to get a leg up on a lower-cost competitor, the nurse anesthetists. It does appear clear, however, that Wright used his position as head of a committee to squash a bill that otherwise got a favorable committee report and might well have passed had it reached the floor.
Should the process be reformed to curb the ability of committee chairman to thwart legislative intent? Sure. But at a more basic level, legislators should never have been in the business of deciding these issues in the first place. Whether it is battles among eye-care professionals, potential lottery vendors, fair-ride operators, electrolysis firms, or massage professionals (you laugh, but this has come up before), the underlying problem is not that state governmentís preferences might be purchased by deep-pocketed skullduggery. The problem is that state government is in a position to express any preference.
North Carolina will be fine if state policymakers focus like a laser beam on improving educational opportunities, maintaining and expanding our transportation infrastructure, apprehending and incapacitating criminals, providing a basic social safety net, and otherwise keeping government out of the way of private citizens pursuing their own personal, family, and community goals.
Thatís plenty of work to occupy their time.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.