It never ends

Andy Matthews

Every week, NPRI President Andy Matthews writes a column for NPRI's week-in-review email. If you are not getting our emails, which contain our latest commentaries and news stories, you can sign up here to receive them.

It never ends

Have you ever heard — or, worse, had your children sing to you — “The Song that Never Ends”?

For those who aren’t familiar with the lyrics, it goes:

This is the song that never ends.
It just goes on and on my friends.
Some people started singing it not knowing what it was,
And they'll continue singing it forever just because
It is the song that never ends…

And the song continues until you go crazy or bribe your kids to just stop singing it!

I was reminded of that song this week, when I was reading a Las Vegas Sun story about how the ACLU of Nevada is considering suing the state for not spending enough on education.

As the Sun notes, liberals’ attempts to intimidate by threatening lawsuits is a tactic that never ends:

The threat of a lawsuit over education inadequacy isn't new, with advocates bringing up the threat about every two years and whole legal papers exploring the issue.

Here’s the 30,000-foot view of the potential lawsuit’s argument:

  • Nevada’s constitution says the “legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual … improvements.”
  • Nevada’s constitution says the “legislature shall provide for a uniform system of common schools.”
  • Nevada’s constitution says the legislature shall fund K-12 education before any other part of the budget.
  • Nevada’s education system is doing poorly.
  • Therefore, Nevada’s courts should make the legislature spend more on education.

There are a lot of things wrong with this argument, but let’s focus on two.

First, we’ve been trying to solve Nevada’s education problems by spending more for 50 years.

Even after adjusting for inflation, Nevada has nearly tripled per-pupil spending in the last 50 years. Spending more hasn’t worked, and spending more in the future will only further entrench the status quo. That’s because Nevada’s onerous collective bargaining law, NRS 288, gives unions more power over increases in education spending than elected officials have. NPRI has proposed a lot of solutions to Nevada’s education problems, but none involve spending more — because spending isn’t the problem.

The second problem is more fundamental and even more important. This type of lawsuit, if successful, would further weaken our very system of government. Power in our government is constitutionally divided between three branches, each with distinct and separate types of authority. These distinct powers allow each branch to check and balance the dominance of the others.

This is why the “separation of powers” principle is so important. If one person serves in two branches of government, it produces a disproportionate concentration of power — sabotaging the check that the branches should provide upon each other.

One person serving in two branches of government is problematic enough, but for one branch to assume the duties of another branch would be even more destructive. That’s what would happen if such a case were successful.

A fundamental role of the legislative branch is to spend taxpayer money. That’s a job for duly elected lawmakers, not Nevada judges — who already have more than enough to do.

Were a Nevada court to decide that it can determine how much state taxpayers should spend on education, it would demonstrate its own disdain for the constitution it is sworn to protect.

And that would be a huge problem. As James Madison observed, "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." (Emphasis added.)

Certainly, governmental tyranny is a matter of degree. But the record, throughout history and all around the world still today, is clear: Exceptions to the separation-of-powers principle diminish a fundamental structural protection of our liberties.

In some ways, America and Nevada are victims of our founders’ success. So excellent a job was done establishing a form of government structured to preserve liberty and limit governmental oppression, that many citizens have forgotten just how fragile freedom is — and how vigorously we must fight to defend it from even the smallest encroachments.

So while liberals will likely never end their cries to “spend more,” we also have a job that never ends: reminding our fellow citizens about the important principles at stake in our current public policy debates.

Take care,

Andy Matthews
NPRI President

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