While some lament the increasing conflict among policymakers in Louisiana, lovers of liberty should celebrate it.
Liberal Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards blamed conservative Republican intransigence in the House of Representatives for preventing some of the special session tax increases he wanted. According to a recent poll, Louisianans are almost as likely to support politicians who don’t yield on basic principles as those who work across party lines. Among some observers, these developments stoke trepidation of “partisan gridlock” in a time of budgetary stress.
But gridlock has its place. The framers of the Constitution agreed on the necessity of strong government with enough power to do things majorities found wise. However, they also feared that powerful government would threaten liberty.
They solved this apparent contradiction by structuring government, through separation of powers with checks and balances, to exert much power when a solid consensus emerged among the people’s representatives. Lacking that consensus, government would remain inert, leaving power too dispersed for it to engage in tyranny.
Essentially, those who authored the Constitution, which state constitutions mirror in concept, saw government as a necessary evil. Run by imperfect human beings, it inevitably would lead to despotism unless deliberately designed to minimize the impact of their flaws.
Government’s failure to pursue a particular policy option simply confirms, in the collective wisdom of elected representatives guided by popular desires, that there’s not enough support for that policy in the first place.
Unfortunately for liberals who worship activist government as the problem solver of all social ills, perceived and otherwise, the fabric of representative democracy runs counter to their ideology. Liberals see government inaction as invariably troublesome.
Not that consensus always brings the best policy. Louisiana’s past decision-making on spending shows the perils involved. Bipartisan efforts produced an environment that, in the last year data are available (2012), ranked the state 12th in the nation in total state spending proportional to state personal income.
Relentless overspending during the prior decade grew this proportion at a faster rate than in all but three states.
The pervasiveness of Louisiana’s populist political culture has usually inhibited any challenge to big-spending government. For all of former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s fealty to limiting government, even he could not buck this habit among legislators and get the state to live within its means.
Despite policies in his first seven years in office that increased the number of the state’s private sector jobs at four times the national rate and prompted the 16th highest growth rate among the states in their private sector economies (slightly higher than the country’s average), the 16 percent increase in revenues from state sources over that period could not prevent chronic budgetary shortfalls.
But the magnitude of the most recent state budget deficits, along with actual and threatened tax increases, finally seems to have awakened a critical mass of people and policymakers to a simple reality.
Unchecked spending, without adequate attention to budget priorities and efficiency, bears the primary blame for Louisiana’s budget problems. If fiscal conservatives stand in the way of bad policy, such as the tax-and-spend agenda of Edwards and Democrat legislators (and some Republicans), that doesn’t make government less workable; instead, it reaffirms that government works as designed.
Getting along and going along put Louisiana in this fix. Gridlock is good when it blocks unwise policies that would feed overweight government by unnecessarily taking more from the people, depriving them of their property and thereby reducing their liberty.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at LSU in Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at http://www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at http://www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadow advocate. Write to him at jeff firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.