By John McClaughry
Two weeks ago I wrote a column on “The Vermont Proposition,” a product of 22 “rural summits” organized by the largely federally-funded Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD). While paying my respects to its authors — “well written, earnest, sometimes cogent, and in places inspiring” — I expressed considerable skepticism about such “vision statements.”
Many of the desired outcomes developed in the 26-page document are certainly worthwhile. Uniting to put an end to what racism may still exist is unarguable. Expanding economic opportunity, developing human capital, fostering innovation, creating jobs and creating a tax structure that encourages people to invest in Vermont are worthy goals, so long as the vision stops short of using government to underwrite crony capitalism for favored people and businesses.
Having said that, the Vermont Proposition is open to considerable criticism.
First, visionary documents are constructed and promoted by people enthusiastic about grand visions, and who often want to make sure that their pet interests are favorably promoted. I daresay that most of this subset of Vermonters doesn’t spend much time thinking about how these grand visions are going to be achieved, who is going to pay for them, and how much the liberties of ordinary people may be diminished.
Second, while some of the components of the desired vision can only be achieved by cultural and attitudinal changes, the vast majority of the outcomes require mobilizing the powers of government. This latest vision rests on the unspoken premise that it’s our government’s business to tax, invest, encourage, stimulate, empower, combat, protect, expand and modernize, until the people of Vermont are pushed or pulled to fall in line with the vision.
The most popular conclusion in the Vermont Proposition is “we need to invest in …” followed by a list that includes most every cause promoted by liberals.
Full disclosure would require a recognition that “we” are those in control of state government, and the needed investments require extracting money from actual people who earned it, and may have their own ideas about how to invest it.
For example, the document repeatedly points to the approaching terrors of climate change, said to be “the existential threat of our time”, that “left unaddressed, will produce cascading catastrophic impacts on communities, states, and ultimately on world civilization.”
Accordingly it demands that the legislature enact a carbon price (read: “tax”) or a CO2 emissions cap and trade plan — even if Vermont has to do it alone! A lot of Vermonters will not be thrilled with a virtue-signaling vision that drives up the cost of their motor and heating fuel in order to produce no detectable effect whatever on the planet’s future climate.
Third, the vision dwells on the evils of “the greatest disparity of wealth within a democratic society in world history….The wealthiest among us continue to grow their resources.” The obvious remedy for this outrage is to confiscate that excessive wealth and distribute it to everyone who thinks they deserve more. That’s the unstated centerpiece of the Vision’s recommendation for a new War on Poverty.
Fourth, the document extols enlarging preschools to include every child aged zero to five. The state will then have control of everyone’s children until they’re old enough to go to college free at taxpayer expense.
Finally, the vision exhibits a glaring disparity between its enthusiasm for “democracy”, and its even greater enthusiasm for creating utterly undemocratic regional administrative bodies directed by an all-powerful State Planning Office that “would be responsible for the statewide community and economic development and land use plans on a five year cycle.” Presumably you could still vote for governor, but that scheme looks to me more like replacing local democracy with a hugely expanded and unaccountable administrative state.
What does the vision not include? You won’t even find the words “property” and “liberty”, both being unworthy of concern. You won’t find any mention of the state’s $5.6 billion in unfunded state retirement liabilities, or any recognition of the regulatory burdens facing Vermont enterprises, except possibly for housing that complies with “smart growth” dictates (clustered in downtowns). Nor is there any explanation of how Vermont taxpayers are going to pay for anything close to their state’s present $7.7 billion per year government once the present cornucopia of federal spending tapers off.
Paul Costello, the executive director of the sponsoring organization (VCRD), has put out an urgent argument for adopting the vision. “This is the moment for Vermonters to line up for action” … to drive priorities forward,” led by a Vermont Action Team now in formation.
Vision statements are not without some aspirational merit, but the Vermont Proposition seriously needs to be put on the shelf.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.