Opinion: Daily Journal

The Face of Tyranny

RALEIGH – I’ve just returned from a speaking engagement and a series of editorial meetings in western North Carolina. I heard a lot about the declining textile and furniture industries, the impact of the state budget deficit and Gov. Mike Easley’s sticky fingers on local governments, and promising political contests for state legislature, county commission, and, exhibiting the greatest degree of public interest, district attorney and sheriff races.

So my trip (with Carolina Journal editor Richard Wagner) should have generated a number of obvious subjects for today’s column. And it did. But when I got back and read the story we posted on the Carolina Journal site today about the nefarious behavior of the North Carolina Railroad (http://www.thetimesnews.com/2002/02-07/02-07-27/news-1.html), I just couldn’t let it pass. This little story, by Jim Wicker of the Burlington Times News, sums up neatly a chief characteristic of government that too often gets obscured.

I am referring to its tendency to devolve into tyranny.

In this case, the face of governmental tyranny is powerful former state legislator Sam Hunt of Burlington, who heads the North Carolina Railroad Company. The original N.C. Railroad line was built more than 150 years ago with taxpayer dollars (unnecessarily, it turns out, since most states saw massive rail building about a decade later financed by private and foreign capital). The statists throughout North Carolina history have viewed this foolish expenditure as essential to the state’s economic growth, and have steadfastly refused to get the state out of the railroad business. Private investors had long owned a share of the company, in recent decades about 25 percent, but back a few years ago former Gov. Hunt engineered a state buyout of the private shareholders, thus transforming a quasi-socialist enterprise into the Full Monty.

Sam Hunt (no familial relation, though his political inclinations are brotherly) has run the state-owned company for years. What the Burlington Times-News reported is that earlier this year the N.C. Railroad used the threat of condemnation to force Arnold and Bonnie Gilliam to sell the company their property so it can build a “museum, offices, and a passenger facility,” along with “an expanded parking lot.” The couple’s store, which sells small-engine parts and mowing equipment, is having a “going out of business sale.” The Gilliams aren’t happy about it.

Meanwhile, Hunt defended his high-handed tactics this way: “I hate that anyone has to be displaced, but we have to do what is best for the community, the public and the state.”

Who the hell said you personally know what is best for the community, the public, and the state, Mr. Hunt? If you were running a real company, instead of a medieval fiefdom, you could never have flattened a family business for your own gain.

Oh, and you are building a parking lot for a passenger facility? For a railroad? Wake up, dimwit, this is 2002. Passenger rail service is irrelevant in North Carolina, certainly not worth shoving even one small business out of the way to accommodate it.

If we had real leadership in North Carolina, the N.C. Railroad would have been sold off to help balance the state budget, the Gilliams and their customers would have been left in peace, and Mr. Hunt would have been compelled to find something useful to do