The 2012 elections have been seen by many as a bold refutation on the part of voters to extreme religious conservatism: marriage equality made big strides in four states, women’s rights took a small step forward as the Senate is now comprised of 20% women and reproductive rights were supported as voters saw fit to reject Aiken, Mourdock and others who said unbelievably objectionable things about rape and abortion.
But the voters also rejected the other half of the Republican Party’s conservative agenda. They have rejected the libertarian lie of the self made millionaire in favor the reality that we all get where we are going with the help of others. While libertarians create elaborate schemes of minimal government and free market utopias, voters in the real world recognize the need for things like infrastructure and education investment.
Here in Rhode Island, voters approved a host of important bond issues. These bond issues are very different in character, but their approval demonstrates that in our heart of hearts, we are a kind and compassionate people who really want to help each other achieve our goals, not a group of ruthless competitors battling it out for supremacy in some sort of Darwinian financial Thunderdome.
Putting aside the first two questions, as to whether or not to expand gambling in the state, we can look at Question 3, Higher Education. 65.5% of voters decided that even in these financially difficult times, Rhode Island College is worthy of $50 million for renovations to key buildings and an expansion of the nursing program. At a time when conservatives are looking to corporatize and outsource education, Rhode Islanders have decided to support public education at a college level, because a commitment to education is a key value.
Question 4, provides funds for a new veterans retirement home. With 77% of the voters approving, this vote shows that we are a people committed to fairness and gratitude. Veterans sacrifice for this country, and one of our great shames is the second class treatment we afford our country’s heroes after they are dismissed from service. Yet this vote shows that we are in fact committed to honoring our debts to these men and women, despite the priorities of the politicians and bureaucrats who prioritize our veterans differently.
Question 5 deals with clean water, and since everyone wants that, the vote, with 73.2% approving, could be interpreted as being selfishly motivated. $20 million is to be spent on waste water facilities and drinking water infrastructure, but the Clean Water Finance Agency also provides low-interest loans for communities and utilities to undertake improvements. Rhode Island is of course proud of its amazing drinking water, and caring for this vital resource is a gift to future generations, as well as to each other.
Speaking of gifts to future generations, Question 6 concerned environmental management, and 69.3% of voters approved. Local recreation projects, open space and farmland preservation and improved water quality in the Narragansett Bay will all become realities due to this $20 million bond.
The final ballot measure, Question 7, passed by the lowest margin but with a 60.6% approval the vote wasn’t really close. This bond provides $25 million that will be matched with $225 million from other sources to provide affordable housing. As a strong supporter of and volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, such housing is a real priority for me, and at least 6 out of 10 Rhode Islanders concur, even in, or perhaps especially in, these economically difficult times.
Libertarians believe that education and environmental issues are best solved through the free market. If people want education, they’ll pay their way through private schools. If they want to breathe clean air they will purchase it in containers at the store. If they want large swaths of nature to be protected from development they should save their money and buy it before some developer strip mines it. If veterans want to retire in comfort and dignity they should have saved their money or found employment that paid them more and if people can’t afford decent housing they should live in a box and work harder.
But voters this election cycle, not only here in Rhode Island demonstrated that they don’t really believe in that. Elizabeth Warren, Senator elect from Massachusetts, said it well:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
This is the America that most Rhode Islanders believe in. For the libertarian policies to win acceptance by the greater public economic conservatives will need to convince us to turn away from our sense of fairness, our sense of charity and our duty to care for each other and for the future. To achieve their goals, economic conservatives need only to convince voters that the only thing that matters is our own short term self-interest and to reject the very values that best ennoble us.