Why are we so confused about conservatism in Mississippi?

By Aaron Rice
August 28, 2019

No sane person would argue that Mississippi is not a place with a strong sense of tradition. Mississippi literally drips with the fine traditions of family loyalty, religious liberty, community charity, and the value of life. 

Some would also refer to a place like this as being “conservative.” From a social perspective, I would agree. However, when we look at the Magnolia State through the lens of public policy and political philosophy, the word “conservative” does not apply. 

Though Mississippi has been governed mostly by Republicans, that does not make it a conservative state. We can’t measure our conservatism by our political affiliation or social conscience alone. 

We must look deeper into the meaning of conservatism. Being conservative in America means, by definition, you favor constitutionally limited government, the mechanism of free markets, and the personal liberty and responsibility we have as individuals. 

A conservative is willing to stand up to encroaching power of all forms of government (city, county, state and federal), to the growing corporatism that seeks to govern us from the boardroom, and to the menace to our society that is a progressive culture. Being a conservative means holding your representatives to account for fiscal discipline, for reducing our regulatory burdens, and for keeping our taxes low so that every Mississippian keeps more of his or her own money and freedom.

The recent gubernatorial race was particularly instructive. A candidate for governor, who constantly referred to himself as a conservative, ran on a plank of raising the gas tax and expanding Medicaid. 

Distinguished, non-partisan organizations all across the country have provided empirical evidence and shared instructive data on the imprudence of states expanding Medicaid, like this one from my counterpart at the conservative Pelican Institute in Louisiana. The conservative and libertarian think tanks all over the nation are opposed to the expansion of Medicaid by states. Yet, a candidate for the highest office in the state supported the policy of expansion while referring to himself as a conservative. 

That’s a head-scratcher for me.

On the issue of the gas tax, the current governor called a special session last year and passed what was then called “landmark” legislation to address the infrastructure issues of our state’s highways and bridges. Through a combination of an internet sales tax, sports gambling taxes, lottery revenues, and bonding, it was announced that government found a way to commit over a billion dollars to infrastructure projects over the next five years. Full-page ads were taken out by trade groups and chamber of commerce-type organizations to “recognize the historic achievement.” 

Less than a year later, a candidate for governor was claiming we needed to “do something to address our crumbling roads and bridges.” This is despite the fact that our state roads and bridges are ranked as the 11th best in the nation by Reason Magazine in their 23rd Annual Highway Report. I’ve driven most of the roads in the Southeast; our state roads are just fine. The crumbling streets, roads, and bridges are found mostly in a few of the cities and counties of Mississippi. Jackson/Hinds being the worst example and the one most of the political class has to contend with on a daily basis. As a Jackson resident, I agree. Our roads are among the worst in the country, but that’s not a state issue. That issue is one of municipal funding and management. We provided an analysis on this earlier this year.

If we want to succeed and get ourselves out of last place, it’s not going to happen by deepening our dependence on government solutions. Every tax is a decision to give more power and responsibility to the state. There is no evidence that government will spend that money more effectively than we would spend it ourselves. 

We already have far too many Mississippians who seek to petition government to solve problems we’re better off solving through the private institutions of free enterprise, churches, nonprofits, communities, and families. Too many individuals and companies are looking to the government for a contract, a job, a partner, or protection from competition. 

When we allow government to wield this much power, we weaken the free market. We create a disincentive to the formation and deployment of capital. We thwart the opportunity for all Mississippians to prosper. What’s more, such reliance on government ensures only those with power have significant influence on Mississippi, including determining who represents us in the legislative and executive branches of our government.

What makes a “conservative” is not a party or allegiance to a particular leader or political campaign, but the power of ideas. As conservatives, our ideas are based on bedrock values and fundamental truths. Freedom is a policy that works. A limited and restrained government is the essence of our system. And the principle of ordered liberty holds it all together. 

Our goal at the Mississippi Center for Public Policy is to play a leadership role in building a Mississippi where individual liberty, opportunity, and responsibility reign because government is limited. We believe this is the only way nations, states, and cities have ever enjoyed durable prosperity.

If we remain committed to these ideas and work hard to convince others of their value, we can all experience a magnolia renaissance. And we can say conservatism made it possible. Real conservatism. The kind of which Bill Buckley, Ronald Reagan, and Milton Friedman spoke. The kind where we are free to pursue our individual liberty and speak our minds. The kind where we encourage people to take action and take risks in pursuit of their happiness. The kind where we take personal responsibility for our futures and stop looking for government to solve all of our problems.

There is an important role for government but it must be limited. Government functions best when it is closest to the people and when it is open and transparent. 

Although our national government continues to grow into an unwieldy and bureaucratic swamp, our country is still federalist. We are a collection of semi-sovereign states. Federalism is a conservative idea. As Reagan stated in his first inaugural address, “The federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government.” 

Thanks to our founding fathers, the real political and policy power is supposed to belong to the states. Therefore, we hold the key to our own future. Our future does not belong to the bureaucrats and politicians in Washington. 

Let’s remember who we are...and vote accordingly.


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