How should North Carolina be governed? The same question can be asked about any other state in America, or any other country in the world. It’s a critical question. It lies at the heart of every political dispute you can think of, from education reform and environmental protection to tax policy and economic development.
I have strong opinions about the subject. Perhaps you do, too. My task today is not to advocate mine or criticize yours. Rather, it is to argue for humility.
Questions about how good governments are structured and what they should do aren’t mere abstractions. They have a history. Past generations thought about them, struggled with them, and tried out different answers to see how they would work in practice.
Obviously, past generations have no monopoly on wisdom. They made big mistakes and often paid a big price for it. To say that history ought to inform our political thinking today is not to say we must be bound by tradition. But it would also be foolish to think modern wisdom is always greater, or to discount the lessons history can teach us about the constraints of human nature and the limits of good intentions.
Over the centuries, North Carolinians have developed governmental institutions and traditions that favor legislative over executive power, statewide consistency over local sovereignty, and fiscal solvency over grandiose plans. These preferences aren’t random or the product of some insidious scheme by corrupt insiders. They were constructed in stages, as the leaders of the day sought either to solve immediate problems in North Carolina or to avoid problems other states had gotten themselves into.
During the colonial era, for example, North Carolina was largely settled from north to south, not from the coast westward. Many settlers were fleeing what they saw as oppressive laws or unjust taxes. Many of my ancestors, for example, were Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and other dissenters whose religious liberties were being suppressed by the established church in Virginia.
During the mid-1700s, they moved southward to the Carolina frontier. Eventually, the long arms of colonial governors found them even there, and again sought to interfere with their desire to conduct their own marriages, educate their children according to their own beliefs, and keep their own money. The backcountry rebelled. In the ensuing series of state constitutions, North Carolinians made sure to keep the executive branch divided and on a tight leash.
Much later, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, leaders grappled with a different challenge: how to ensure that basic services were provided across North Carolina, both economically and without disruption. Many localities had run up large debts and then defaulted on them. Through their lawmakers, they sought state bailouts. Meanwhile, how were courts, schools, and roads to be maintained?
Lawmakers decided to make the state the primary funder of basic services, while limiting local capacity to issue future debts. Taxpayers would pay the bill either way, of course, but a state-dominant funding system reduces inequities and manages risk.
These and other traditions of North Carolina government are hardly free from legitimate criticism. I’ve challenged them myself on occasion. But they aren’t simply vestigial. If we thoughtlessly perform a constitutional appendectomy, we may rudely discover in the future that we’ve discarded something vitally important.
Georgetown University philosopher Daniel Robinson once used a wonderful image to describe the present value of studying the past. Remember the story of Theseus and the Minotaur? The former resolves to end the latter’s reign of terror over the Athenians. But the Minotaur resides in a labyrinth on Crete. Ariadne, a Cretan princess who loves Theseus, gives him a ball of thread. The hero ties the thread to a door post and lets it unspool so he can find his way out again after killing the beast.
North Carolina faces a range of challenges and opportunities. As we make our way through the resulting maze of choices, we may yet find value in tradition’s thread.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.