Reflecting on conservatism as Legislature winds down

By Derek Monson

By Derek Monson, Sutherland Institute Director of Public Policy
By Derek Monson, Sutherland Institute Director of Public Policy

Although the 2016 Utah Legislative Session is winding down this week, two proposals – namely, legalizing medical marijuana and banning so-called “non-compete agreements” – are forcing Utahns and policymakers to re-examine their core beliefs. Because we are in Utah, that means forcing Utahns to decide what it really means to be conservative.

Just this week, the sponsor of the more expansive medical marijuana bill, SB 73, was quoted in a news story saying that he plans to move out of the country. He has been planning the move for years, but the story says that the move is in part due to how he believes his colleagues view conservatism, as reflected in their treatment of his medical marijuana bill. The story cites him as saying his bill “represents the epitome of conservative thinking.”

He fleshes this out by saying, “When the choice is between government control over an individual medical decision and allowing individuals and their medical doctors to make that decision, what could be a more clear-cut issue of basic principles of limited government and individual liberty?”

That is one view of what it means to be a conservative, and it is a view that deserves consideration from any person that sees themselves as right of center. But here’s the important question: Is limited government and individual liberty everything there is to conservatism? Does the epitome of conservative thinking really boil down to having license to get yourself drugged up however you prefer in order to cope with the difficulties in your life? Put another way, is freedom from restriction – the mantra of every rebellious teenager in America – really the end-all, be-all of conservatism?

Another view of conservatism is articulated by an oft-quoted elected official from a different time: Edmund Burke. He said, “What is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils: for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.” In this view of conservatism, freedom is about aspiring to our highest qualities as human beings, such as virtue and wisdom, not about fleeing from the pain of life through addictive substances. Burke’s quote, I would suggest, represents more authentically what it means to be a conservative.

The second issue is the proposed ban on non-compete agreements. A non-compete agreement is where an employer requires their employees to agree to restrict their future career prospects. Usually, it means employees cannot work for competitors or in the same markets as their current employer. In essence, the employer restricts their employees’ right to work as a condition of employment, because restricting competition from former employees serves the employer’s financial interests.

This proposed ban on non-compete agreements has drawn opposition from some in the business community, the Deseret News, and even east coast law professors. It has gained support from some in the business community, the Speaker of the Utah House of Representatives, and organizations like Sutherland Institute. Opponents criticize the ban on non-compete agreements as harming employers and changing Utah’s reputation with out-of-state businesses. Supporters argue that such a ban encourages innovation and competition, and protects the right to work.

Which of these perspectives represents what it means to be conservative? Is conservatism primarily about protecting the financial interests of business owners? Or is it about encouraging the innovation, competition and fundamental human rights necessary for a healthy and prosperous free market economy?

Utah law points out that “the right to live includes the right to work.” In other words, we believe in Utah that the right to work is a basic part of the inalienable right to life articulated in the Declaration of Independence, which the American Constitution was designed to protect. We believe that the right to work is a fundamental part of what it means to be a free human being. So under what logic should that fundamental right not trump the financial interests of some businesses in non-compete agreements? Whatever logic that is, it does not seem to be conservative.

Although it is challenging, it is good for us to examine our core beliefs every now and again. It forces us to look in the mirror and ask what we really stand for and believe in, and it is one way that we check human nature and its tendency to become complacent and base all decisions on situational ethics. You may or may not see yourself as conservative, but we all ought to recognize that the process going on up at Utah’s Capitol Hill is a healthy thing for both society and the common good.

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