Fine print: July 2012

The final words on this
By G.D. Gearino

At the risk of repeating myself, let me revisit a few points that have cropped up over the years in this space. Once done, I promise not to belabor them again. Iíll start with this one: Being a believer in the notion that government should play a limited and well-defined role in the lives of citizens is not the same as being anti-government, despite endless efforts by progressives to conflate those two very different beliefs. In fact, government performs many vital roles, and my only complaint is that I wish it performed them better. Borders need to be guarded, a military maintained, the financial industry regulated, the garbage picked up, public safety preserved, courts operated, environmental-quality protected, etc. And taxes are required to pay for those operations. I get it. I grasp the relationship between the hefty property-tax bill on my home and the appearance of two police cruisers outside the house when some drunken stranger was pounding on the door at 3 a.m.

But by and large, what I want most from government is to be left alone. I want it to maintain streets, but I donít want it to tell me that I canít buy a big, honkiní cup of soda or smoke a cigarette on the beach, for instance. (Both examples culled from recent real-life events, by the way.) Iíd prefer that government not give itself the exclusive legal sanction to operate a numbers racket that preys on the poor while simultaneously making obesity a moral issue. And I really donít want government to tell me whom I can and cannot marry.

That last belief puts me at odds with a majority of North Carolina voters, who recently approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage. My guess is that most of them would agree with everything Iíve said above, except for that last part. And that puzzles me. If you believe in limited government and place a premium on individual liberties, how do you reconcile that with your vote to invest bureaucrats with the power to force themselves into the most personal part of a citizenís life? Thatís the gold standard of governmental intrusion. Conservative people voted for that?

I donít think government should be in the business of licensing marriage at all ó gay or straight. Most people donít realize this, but marriage licenses were essentially nonexistent until after the Civil War, when they were introduced as the device by which race-mixing could be prohibited. Society managed to function without marriage licenses for thousands of years. Weíd be just fine if politicians declared that everyone over the age of majority is free to settle into whatever domestic arrangements they like. If anyone wants some formal blessing of their union, let them get it from a church.

But whenever I mention that thought out loud, the most common reaction is similar to the one Iíd get if I proposed, say, that we all do without running water in our homes. That brings me to another point worth belaboring: More and bigger government is now the norm. In the vaguely defined interests of health, safety, equality or whatever problem presents itself as being in need of a solution, we are slowly but steadily turning ourselves into wards of the state. A country that once placed a premium on individual rights and personal liberties has drifted toward European statism. In North Carolina, government entities compete in the private office market, are the exclusive retailers of alcohol, operate telecommunications companies in places already served by the private sector ó and hardly anyone even blinks. Expansion of government is considered natural and evolutionary. Retraction of government is radical and unsettling. If you donít believe me, think about this: When does the swelling of the government payroll ever get the same media scrutiny as the trimming of it?

Finally, the one theme that has consistently run through these lines in this space the past five years is the notion that our institutions are failing us ó most alarmingly, with our connivance and consent. We want elected leaders to take on tough issues, and then we punish them when they do. We want scientists to be above politics but demand that they produce research that reinforces our political beliefs. Our universities style themselves as incubators of debate and free thought, but God help you if you are so foolish as to think you can finish a talk on, say, immigration reform before being chased from campus. Washington and Wall Street teamed up to create a housing bubble that popped with devastating consequences, and no one from either side volunteered to perform seppuku on his or her career. The only figurative disemboweling was that done to the retirement accounts of ordinary citizens.

And hereís the punch line: I actually think of myself as an optimist. Imagine how all of the above would read if I didnít have such a sunny, upbeat personality.

One last word: I wonít have any trouble keeping my promise not to belabor these points any further, because this is my swan song for Business North Carolina. I appreciate your readership, your feedback and, most of all, your indulgence. All three were great gifts.

G.D. Gearino is editor of North Carolina Lawyers Weekly. Email him at dan.gearino@nclawyersweekly.com.