Some truth in advertising, please!

As visitors to Harrisburg approach the State Capitol, they’ll likely notice a number of quotations from luminaries of Pennsylvania history–including William Penn and Benjamin Franklin–testifying to the virtue of liberty. Even today, that legacy of liberty is enshrined in Pennsylvania’s new slogan–“The State of Independence.”

Members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly have no doubt seen these inspiring quotes thousands of times. Yet on issue after issue, far too many of the commonwealth’s elected representatives have gradually whittled away their constituents’ liberty.

In this context, we shouldn’t be surprised if some hot-shot lawyer sues the state for false and misleading advertising. One could certainly make the case that state government’s ever-increasing intrusion into the affairs of private citizens is rapidly making Pennsylvania the “State of Dependence,” not Independence.

How far have Pennsylvania’s present-day leaders diverged from the ideals etched outside their deliberative chambers? A walk around the Capitol steps shows that it’s quite far indeed.

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”–Benjamin Franklin. For more than 30 years, Pennsylvania politicians of both parties have convinced voters that state government can meet their material needs…if they’ll just pay a few more taxes and give up a little more freedom.

Consequently, the state’s General Fund budget rose from $2.6 billion in 1970-71 to $22.8 billion for 2004-05–an increase of 777 percent. But higher taxes and government spending haven’t delivered Pennsylvania’s families and businesses the promised safety–it’s simply made them more likely to turn to government for future help, as their paychecks and liberties shrink.

“By uniting we stand; by dividing we fall”–John Dickinson. Economic development policy is a perfect example of how state government’s encroachment into areas beyond its proper scope harms liberty.

Many of Pennsylvania’s current leaders think that they can improve upon the workings of the free market by forcing Pennsylvania’s workers and businesses to fund, through their taxes, government-directed economic development programs that have consistently ranked among the most generous in the nation–and which subsidize competing firms. However, this “divide and subsidize” strategy has failed in the past to vault Pennsylvania to even a mediocre economic position.

Nevertheless, this spring only seven Pennsylvania legislators voted against Gov. Ed Rendell’s $1.1 billion “economic stimulus” package, which relies heavily on new bonded debt to fund, among other new programs, more than $300 million in “venture capital” (making Pennsylvania taxpayers take risks that private investors will not).

“Government is of divine origin and any government is free where laws rule and the people are a party to those laws”–William Penn. Pennsylvania’s government school system graduates many young people who lack the requisite knowledge, skills or inclination to defend their liberty–providing another excuse for government to take more of it. But any Pennsylvania student who learns the high school civics lesson about how bills become laws would be hard pressed to find it replicated in Harrisburg.

The process often goes something like this: A deal is crafted behind closed doors by a few high-ranking legislative and executive branch officials. Rank-and-file members are informed of the agreement and “encouraged” to vote for it. Attempts by skeptical legislators to amend the hastily (if at all) read bill are routinely defeated. Finally, usually long after midnight, first one, and then the other legislative chamber approves the bill and sends it to the governor for a quick signature.

Of course, the “morning after” always seems to include some details that were glossed over the first time around–such as the provision in the recently passed bill legalizing slot machines that allows legislators to own up to 1 percent (or upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars worth) of a gambling company. But hey, citizens are told, “we can always fix it later” (wink-wink).

The failure of Pennsylvania’s current stewards of the public trust to defend their constituents’ liberty has surely caused many Capitol visitors to descend its steps with their heads bowed in quiet frustration. But if they look up as they turn onto Third Street, they will see these words: “There is a time to pray and a time to fight”–Peter Muhlenberg.

William Penn founded Pennsylvania so that there would always be a time and place for people to pray. But if the commonwealth is to ever again practice “truth in advertising” and proudly bill itself as the “State of Independence,” the time to fight for liberty has surely arrived.

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Grant R. Gulibon is senior policy analyst at The Commonwealth Foundation (, a public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA. Permission is hereby granted to reprint in whole or in part, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.