By Rob Schofield
Many, if not most, modern public-policy debates between “conservatives” and “progressives” revolve around appropriate role of government.
The latter group tends to support the use of public institutions to solve the problems that confront society, while the former generally defers to the “invisible hand” of the “free” market.
For a long time, those in the nonprofit sector – which some characterize as the “third leg” of the economy – have flown under the radar in this debate.
In recent years, however, this more or less neutral posture has become increasingly difficult for nonprofits to maintain as the language of the right has grown more strident and ambitious.
In North Carolina, for instance, nonprofits have found themselves drawn toward more active participation in a host of public-policy debates – from the role and future of nonprofit health-care insurers and providers to the future of the state tax code.
Increasingly during these debates, North Carolina nonprofits have leaned progressive, with a bent for supporting shared, intentional policy solutions.
These groups have tended to understand that while nonprofits must maintain their independence and entrepreneurial spirit, they must also work closely with and in support of government – both to promote adequate funding for core services and to assure that government supports and utilizes the nonprofit sector as a partner in confronting societal problems.
A recent volley from the far right seems likely to perpetuate this trend.
In April, the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation — a far-right, anti-government “think tank” — released its 2007 “Freedom Budget” – a proposed state budget and tax package for the state of North Carolina.
As one might have expected, the document is long on tax cuts and short on intentional public solutions and individual responsibility to the common good.
The document also, however, launches a direct attack on the nonprofit sector and its relationship with government.
According to the document, lawmakers should cut $34 million in funding for nonprofits from Gov. Mike Easley’s proposed budget.
“When government steps in,” the document says, “it creates a false impression that the issue needs no private funds, crowding out charitable donations.”
The report goes on: “Government support of a nonprofit also makes the organization less accountable and may undermine its original mission.”
The Locke report should serve as a new wake-up call to the state’s nonprofit community – a clear reminder that today’s public-policy battles are about more than just the proper role of government.
As I argued in an article on the NC Policy Watch website, “At its heart…the document is about a radically different vision of society.”
I might have added that it’s also about a radically different vision of nonprofits and the future of shared, humane solutions to the problems of society.
The nonprofit sector ought not to have any illusions about which side of the public-policy debate is theirs.
Rob Schofield is the director of research and policy development at NC Policy Watch.