Often our priorities are shaped less by choice and more by necessity. The pressing nature of distinct realities, for whatever reason, means the question of what one should do in these situations isn’t much of a question at all. The route forward is obvious, even if the path appears rough.
Other times, however, the field of potentiality in front of us opens up wide. In these situations, deciding which way to go, which direction to prioritize, isn’t at all obvious. When the options seem endless, a more considered approach is called for — one that hinges on the distinction between what one CAN do and what one SHOULD do.
If the former scenario requires fortitude, the latter demands wisdom. North Carolina has found itself in each of these scenarios within the past 15 years.
Over a decade ago, after emerging from the Great Recession, our state residents were saddled with some of the highest tax rates in the region, our state government was $2.3 billion in debt to the federal government, and business owners had to contend with a smothering pile of burdensome regulations decades in the making.
Naturally, then, the Republican leaders convening in 2011 laid out a roadmap for reform to tackle the immediate challenges at hand. They prioritized cutting taxes for individuals and businesses; they agreed to an aggressive plan to saw through the ball and chain of federal debt; and, they initiated a perennial focus on reducing the regulatory burden on businesses.
Fast forward a decade or so: North Carolinians are now enjoying the lowest personal and corporate income taxes in the region, the debt was paid off early, billions of dollars in savings reserves now fill the state’s rainy-day fund, and North Carolina is a growth leader with accolades from business and tax publications piling up.
It worked out quite well. So well, in fact, that North Carolina’s leaders now find themselves in the latter scenario. As the No. 1 state for business, a fast-growing population, and the financial security made possible by years of fiscal discipline, more and more routes have been opening up. Political super-majorities give these routes the appearance of a wide berth in which to operate.
Unfortunately, with green lights everywhere, even routes leading right back to the rough road we already slogged through are now giving off enticing signals. It’s tempting to think we can go anywhere we please. After all, government revenues are higher than ever, business and family immigration to our state is fueling a powerful growth story, and political capital is abundant. Which way to go?
Now is the time when North Carolina deserves discerning navigators focused on seeing past all we CAN do, to divine that which we SHOULD do.
Of course, such a normative task means healthy debates are inevitable. Luckily, our founders, those of the Old North State and the nation, helped flesh out first principles and structural parameters that serve as a fixed point of reference for the path a government ought to take when reaching a fork in the road — a liberty landmark, if you will.
Siting different routes against this landmark helps us to see that many of them, despite being seemingly attractive from our currently confident condition, actually lead us in the wrong direction. A few recent legislative accomplishments fill out this category, only being justifiable if the landmark is completely blocked from view.
The choice to expand taxpayer-funded, socialist healthcare entitlements to cover hundreds of thousands of working, able-bodied adults certainly qualifies. While expanding Obamacare is a road Republican leaders refused to travel down for over a decade — when narrow necessity helped inform a legible map of priorities — the principled beacon was shrouded in 2023, and our state’s route reversed toward bigger government healthcare programs.
More opaque, legislation to cement renewable energy mandates and “Net Zero” resolutions certainly paint a sunny picture for a clean energy future in North Carolina. Unfortunately, families and businesses have found out that traveling down this path is full of hazards like inflated energy costs and, increasingly, energy blackouts. We CAN worked toward zero carbon emissions, but, considering the trade offs, SHOULD we? That road only gets more perilous from here.
Or consider the gift of $500 million in taxpayer funds to finance NC Innovation, a seemingly laudable effort to commercialize more research at North Carolina colleges and universities by granting tax-supported funds to startup ventures which otherwise could attract the necessary capital to reach the final stages on their own. With regular revenue surpluses, North Carolina taxpayers CAN fund discretionary investments in research startups, but SHOULD the state government be bounding down that path?
Not if you want to move in the right direction.
To be sure, an impressive number of policy decisions have been made recently that firmly consider the “should we” question, keeping their sites set on the landmark of government’s true purpose. These will certainly include things like: Continuing to lighten the burden of taxes and regulations on families and businesses makes for a smoother economic journey while better respecting property rights. Expanding school choice to every child in the state reinforces one of North Carolina’s original commitments to accessible education. And finding a widely supported consensus to further protect life in the womb and reinforce the sanctity of life is the crux of our nation’s enduring success.
North Carolina is lucky to serve as a beacon of policy success, prosperity, and growth for the nation over the last decade or more. While the world faces increasingly fundamental challenges, the Tar Heel state is on a roll. Yet, to maintain this privileged position, one which enables us to choose our priorities, policymakers would be wise to focus on our founding landmarks for help in deciding which path we SHOULD take to be, rather than to seem.