In the absence of argument
RALEIGH — “People generally quarrel,” G.K. Chesterton once wryly observed, “because they cannot argue.”
To the extent North Carolina politics looks increasingly quarrelsome at the moment, it is because of a breakdown of argument — of constructive debate among people of good faith who happen to disagree on public policy. Instead, traditional and online media alike are filled with venom, personal attacks, conspiracy theories, and overall boorishness.
The Republicans now in power in Raleigh campaigned for and won their offices on the basis of specific policy promises. They promised to reform North Carolina’s decrepit, anti-competitive tax code and regulatory process. They promised to reduce government spending on bloated transfer programs and pork-barrel schemes in order to free up resources for core public services and tax relief. They promised not to hasten the implementation of what they perceive as the disastrously counterproductive Affordable Care Act. And they promised to enact a voter-identification bill.
For the most part, GOP lawmakers and the new Pat McCrory administration have delivered on these promised policies, or are in the midst of doing so. They deserve no deference simply because they are currently in power. Our political system doesn’t work that way. In fact, the public deserves spirited debate about all these proposals (and Republicans ought to welcome it as a means of sharpening their own arguments).
There’s an important distinction, however, between spirited debate and character assassination. Republicans don’t favor tax cuts, regulatory reform, energy exploration, or school choice because some shadowy special-interest group has paid them off. Republicans favor these ideas because they believe them to be good public policy. They believe cutting taxes and reforming regulations will improve the state’s economy in the short run, and that energy exploration and school choice will improve the state’s economy in the long run by upgrading physical and human capital. Republicans have believed these things for a very long time — way before they were in the majority and showered by special-interest cash and attention.
The Republicans could be mistaken, of course. Their critics ought to construct valid arguments to that effect. Some do. But others have chosen to question the Republicans’ intentions, honesty, or sanity. Why? One reason is that such tactics get attention. They generate online traffic and checks from true believers (this dynamic is evident on both sides of the aisle).
Another reason, however, is that consequentialist arguments against the GOP agenda are premature. On the top issue facing North Carolina, economic growth, it is difficult to argue that Republican policies have failed when they are, at most, two years old. Moreover, the state’s economy is performing better today than it was when the GOP captured the legislature in 2010, creating an obvious rhetorical challenge for the party’ critics.
In December 2008, North Carolina’s U-3 unemployment rate was 8.4 percent. Over the next two years, the jobless rate skyrocketed and then fell slightly, to 10.5 percent in December 2010. On the broader U-6 measure of unemployment and underemployment, North Carolina averaged 17.4 percent in 2010, up from 11.3 percent in 2008. During the same two-year period, the state’s economy shed a net 158,000 jobs.
Since the end of 2010, by contrast, the state’s economy has added some 157,000 net new jobs. As of March 2013, the U-3 jobless rate has fallen to 9.2 percent and the U-6 rate to 16.2 percent — still high rates (partly because of continued migration of job seekers to North Carolina) but on a downward trajectory.
It would be unwise for legislative Republicans to claim credit for this modest but welcome improvement in North Carolina’s economic momentum. There are many factors at work. Still, it would be even more unwise — and unpersuasive — for their critics to try to construct an empirical argument against the state GOP's economic policies in light of these statistics.
That leaves them with fewer rhetorical arrows in their quivers. So they quarrel. At some point, perhaps, they will be in a position to argue once again.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation, which has just published First In Freedom: Transforming Ideas into Consequences for North Carolina. It is available at JohnLockeStore.com.