Opinion: Daily Journal

The Session & Freedom’s Fate

RALEIGH – It’s about that time in a North Carolina legislative session – the state budget’s done, committees are in their lightning round, bills are flying fast and furious as lawmakers head for the exits – when reporters and pundits start making lists of winners and losers.

Who gets more money in the new spending plan? Who gets less? (Hint: think “taxpayers.” That’s almost always a safe bet.) Which member got his or her bills passed? Which lobbyists had the best win-loss record? Which leaders flexed their muscles to effect, and which simply flexed their muscles into a sprain?

I like to play this political parlor game as much as the next wonky weirdo, but I do feel compelled to point out its major defect. In viewing the legislative process as a contest of wills and a conflict of interest groups, we tend to overlook the abstract and philosophical. More to the point, we pay too little attention to the fate of freedom.

In a free society, governments have as their primary aim the preservation of individual liberty. The separation and balance of powers were created not to smooth the passage of legislation but to gum it up. Constitutions and other legal institutions were intended to reduce, not expand, the scope of permissible government action. While any civilized society must have some means of transferring funds and coercive powers to public officials to carry out (limited) government functions, these means – the enactment of budgets, the imposition of taxes and regulations, the passage of new laws – are supposed to be trying, frustrating, and frequently thwarted.

For every piece of legislation that expands our freedom, the range of actions we can take without government interference, many more take us in the opposite direction. Their proponents may well have noble intentions: protecting children from harm, protecting adults from self-destructive decisions, helping people down on their luck, etc. But the number of bills that justifiably encroach on our individual freedom is pretty low, and such bills usually involve cases where the freedom of most is attenuated by the freedom of a few (the current threat of Islamofascist terrorism may present some such situations).

So far, the 2005 legislative session has featured both victories and defeats in the battle to preserve liberty. A good example of the former was the withdrawal of a bill that would force private restaurants to change their smoking policies, which should be hammered out between owners, workers, and patrons without government interference. Another victory, the failure of a bill to boost the government-mandated minimum wage, still has a chance of becoming a defeat.

The fate of freedom cannot be chronicled with faces and up-or-down arrows. But it is, for many, the best criterion for judging legislatures.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.