Before the stampede begins to make New Jersey Governor Chris Christie the next “conservative” hero, it should be recalled that no one’s idea of a conservative, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, also took on the state’s public employees unions early in his term in order to rein in the salaries and benefits that cause the structural deficits which hurt the economies of states, cities, counties, and school districts across the country. He failed of course, but Christie is apparently succeeding largely because of timing. A bad economy has taxpayers resentful of the good salaries and benefits paid to public employees — money that comes straight out of the pockets of taxpayers, many of whom have lost their own salaries and benefits. Back when Schwarzenegger tried to slash the California budget, public employees were still the heroes of 9-11, times were good, and his efforts fell flat. Timing is everything in politics. Christie could be a moderate (and when it comes to immigration, apparently he is), but any responsible governor (which Christie also is) seeing the long-term problem states like New Jersey have with such benefits would take on the unions, torpedoes be damned. The political climate is now one in which Christie can succeed where Schwarzenegger and others have failed.
It’s smart politics for state and local Republicans to put the Democrats and their public employee union allies on the defensive. But reining in budgets is actually the easy part. Budgets must be balanced and structural deficits must be curbed before economic growth can begin again. The problem conservatives and libertarians have in state and local government is defining what government should do at those levels and how active it can be. Look at the paradoxical situation of conservative and libertarian third parties. The Libertarian Party and Constitution Party are tailor made for the national level because they can argue, accurately, that what government does in economics, foreign policy, and social engineering is unconstitutional and should be stopped. It’s a clear argument. The problem is, their members can only get elected to city councils, county commissions, and school boards. And while one can cut budgets and privatize services at such levels, there’s no clear answer as to how large and active a government local publics want.
This has the effect of leading candidates into politically stupid actions, like the campaign of Minnesota Republican gubernatorial contender State Sen. Tom Emmer getting bogged down by a proposal of his to keep waiters and waitresses from earning the state’s full minimum wage because he believed some of them made $100,000 a year with tips. Taxpayers aren’t exactly resentful of food servers, unlike New Jersey’s well-paid and sometimes corrupt public employees.
Privatization of services sounds nice in theory but without competition in various sectors like health care or prisons, for example, private companies wind up gouging the taxpayer as much as the state does and can be just as corrupt, as the Pennsylvania private prison scandal showed. And where do you stop — with the police department? The Health Department? Close the local public school district? What if these are the best-paying middle-class jobs in your town? What do you do?
This is not to say there are no good policy ideas for creating slimmed-down, conservative government on the level that most greatly affects individuals’ daily lives. But there needs to be more work done by think thanks, university economics departments, or new institutions of some sort that can organize these ideas into policy proposals to give conservatives and libertarians more constructive things to do than read passages from the Fountainhead into the minutes of city council meetings.