Wrong priorities for county government

The more the state “plans” the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.

The Road to Serfdom, Frederick A. Hayek

  While many of us worry about taxes we’ve paid and owe, and try to plan our lives with limited resources, this time of year the New Hanover County commissioners and staff hatch up a new budget mostly to fund their self-serving projects and distribute money to interest groups. Instead of evaluating the proper role of government and spending only on those limited authorizations, these people “discussed trends, county assets, the economic climate and critical issues facing the area,” writes Lydia Coutre in the Wilmington, North Carolina StarNews.


The most critical issue to citizens should be the misuse of government power.

The newspaper front page article “Commissioners prioritize budget goals” raises questions about the proper role of government and who actually controls it—our elected officials or unelected paid staff?

In a special “first budget” meeting this year Chairman of the NHC Board of Commissioners Jonathan Barfield said it was a “high-level look at the process.” Most of the comments quoted in the StarNews about the budget, priorities and process came from Chris Coudriet, the county manager.

From nine “strategic” goals (apparently crafted by staff), “commissioners were asked to choose their top three priorities.” In my opinion, only two on the list were legitimate government functions: “Increase the safety and security of the community” and “Reduce and prevent crime.” Actually, reducing crime is part of improving safety, but crime can’t be prevented. To their credit the five commissioners chose “safety and security” one of their top three priorities.

The others, however, are utopian and, I think, out-of-bounds goals. For example, the number one goal of our county commissioners is to: “Promote a strong and diverse economy and high-quality job growth.” Who do these people think they are to assume these activities? This presumptive meddling in private affairs leads to favoritism and unjust manipulations by bureaucrats. What is a “diverse” economy? Why is that important, and to whom? What businesses will be promoted? Who decides what a “high-quality” job is?

A free-functioning economy can’t be planned, especially not by government operatives. Government always makes it more difficult for individuals to plan; the thousands of people in the county who actually create growth and jobs. They and our best economists understand the folly of government meddling.

The late Milton Friedman set limits on government policy. The most “urgent necessity” is to eliminate measures that support enterprise and labor monopolies. The next most important thing government should do to improve economic conditions is to reduce or eliminate taxes.

Several of the county goals are preposterous; found only in socialist manifestos: “Support a planned environment”; “…support a vibrant and culturally diverse community”; “Enhance self-sufficiency of individuals and families”; “Improve community literacy.”  The great Austrian economist Frederick Hayek wrote:

…under central planning the government cannot be impartial. The state ceases to be a piece of utilitarian machinery intended to help individuals in the fullest development of their individual personality and becomes an institution which deliberately discriminates between particular needs of different people.

The third County budget priority is also ridiculously presumptive: “Prepare all students to be successful in a 21st century world.” How is county government supposed to do that? I suppose by lavishing more money on the system that already shows poor returns for the huge amount of public investment.

Another well known (to literate people) economist writer, Dr. Thomas Sowell, in his book The Quest for Cosmic Justice writes: “The quest focuses on one segment of the population and disregards the interests of others… (who) nonetheless pay the price of the decisions made.” Dr. Sowell specifically notes how this applies to public education funding.

“…taxpayers and donors provide billions (millions in NH County) of dollars annually for the education of the next generation, but there is little or no sense of responsibility to them to maximize the productivity of the education they pay for, rather than to engage in self-indulgent feel-goodism. Nor is there any concern for the effects on society as a whole in not putting educational resources where they will produce the largest returns.”

Based on the news article it’s difficult to know if our commissioners understand any of this—or even know their proper roles as our elected representatives—but it’s clear to me that the staff, who I believe set the budget agenda and manipulate commissioners to support bigger government, know what’s good for themselves.

The county manager believes all of the goals (he set?) are important. He told the reporter that the budget process “reinforced what the staff is already doing.” And, as he said, it “reaffirms that promoting a strong and diverse economy and high-quality job growth remains what I say is a first (priority) among equals.” Spoken like a man who knows how to secure favor—and his job.

I’m sure that this is what the commissioners want to hear; it will help to elevate their assumed image as important, forward-thinking and progressive leaders. In reality, they will have little to do with any of the budget goals except to spread more of our money around as directed—especially to increase the size and scope of government.


About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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