For most of my adult life I’ve considered myself a progressive rather than a liberal, someone who believes that capitalism in general and large institutions in particular — including corporations — work best when government lays out a clear set of reasonable rules. Government is not evil, but instead necessary and at times enlightening. Think of the words and actions of people like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR.
My father and mother were Southern Democrats, conservative in lifestyle, but progressive in beliefs. My mom was a huge John F. Kennedy fan, and my father had changed his views on many social issues by the time he became a senior citizen. Their ideology shifted over time, something some conservatives can’t accept.
When I was a freshman at Appalachian State University in the fall of 1978, my World Civilizations professor was Dr. Alan Pousteau, a mad genius of a history professor. He gave us several reading assignments, among them The Social Contract by the Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The book by the Enlightenment philosopher, written in 1762, argues that we must give up certain freedoms in order to form civilized societies. The decisions about what laws to pass — what freedoms we give up to the state — must be made by the people. That’s democracy.
This book influenced our founders, and for me the concept of a social contract makes perfect sense. We all give up something, but we all should do so in an equitable manner: what I give up — i.e., what I pay in taxes, what I face as far as rules and regulations — should be the same as my neighbor, so it is fair. That’s why the fight for equal rights for blacks, women, gays and the LGBTQ community is something I support wholeheartedly, and also why I think a progressive tax system is more than fair.
I’m also a small businessman. I ran a subcontracting carpentry partnership when I was in my late 20s in Raleigh, and now I’ve owned this newspaper for almost 18 years. I pony up federal and state payroll taxes and pay unemployment insurance, contribute to Social Security and my employees’ 401K plans.
I also have to follow rules and laws that are a direct result of the way the U.S. Constitution has been interpreted over the years, particularly First Amendment directives about what I can and can’t say about individuals and corporation or else have to face libel or slander suits. Other state and local regulations determine where I can place newspaper boxes, what kind of legal advertising I can publish, and on and on and on.
But you know what? I don’t wish all those rules would just go away, and I don’t want the so-called bureaucrats who enforce them fired or those government agencies they work for abolished. Capitalism works best when regulated; smart, talented people will still rise to the level of their abilities.
If I’m going to accept the fact that having a civilized society means we can’t always do what is in our own best interest, I insist on open government so I’ll know how and why decisions were made. That belief, perhaps, helped lead me to this profession. I began writing editorials and columns in high school about openness, and still hold that belief as one of the sacred cornerstones of our democratic ideals.
When the GOP leaders in Raleigh met in special session and hastily passed HB2, I was as mad about the process as I was the law. When in December the same legislative leaders once again made fundamental changes to state government without open debate, I was enraged as much about the “how” as the “what.”
In the end, I hold much more respect for ideological convictions than I do for political beliefs. Yes, my ideology informs my politics, but I think the opposite is much more dangerous and is one of the root causes of the legislative and congressional problems of the last few years: politics is replacing ideology, and so we have constant stalemates or constant power grabs instead of compromise and problem solving.
The optimist in me believes this is just a blip on the timeline of this country, and that heartfelt, intellectual debate to solve important issues comes back into vogue. One can only hope.