Naturally, Republican conservative Gov. Bobby Jindal has faced a constant barrage from the liberals and their mainstream media handmaidens for the last dozen years (the latest such, exemplifying both valid points but selectivity, is here), and over the course of his governorship from the less ideologically principled political right as well. Yet more recently some principled conservatives have begun to criticize him, even if more on instrumental rather than on ideological grounds. It’s an outcome less a consequence of executional shortcomings and more concessions to the fundamental challenge his state stewardship has brought to its political culture.
Over several decades the notion that some group out there, usually conceptualized as anybody out of state and within it anybody who had made a success of themselves outside of the fields of sports or politics constituted bogeymen that deprived Louisianans of things that government could redress, ingrained itself into the state’s collective psyche (and, if you were black for the first half of this period, that was true with most whites in that class and actually against you). Reduction of the degree of the native-born population, increasing educational attainment and (more recently) its quality, and wider exposure to information all have eroded this populist fancy, but it will take decades of continued societal evolution for it to mutate into an inert form.
Principled conservatism rejects populism, even as the two can coexist with the bogeyman becoming government controlled by outgroup forces, as a genuine conservatism posits a government minimized in size and reach to maximize liberty lacks the power to pursue populist schemes. Nonetheless, in an environment where populism has burrowed in like a tick on a hound, to create conservative policy it’s difficult not to make some kind of accommodation to populism that ends up producing half-measures that bring disenchantment to conservatives because the neither fish nor fowl quality of them brings a host of implementation issues.
Two major reforms inaugurated by Jindal, one that succeeded and another strangled in the cradle, and one impossible even to attempt, exemplify the difficulty. Just a couple of years ago, Jindal embarked upon the long-necessary task of exfiltrating from the state’s indigent care system the Soviet-like sheen of state-owned, state-run charity hospitals. An article of faith for eight decades, they provided mediocre care inefficiently, sucking valuable financial resources from better use.
But the Jindal Administration could not unilaterally sell off or close any of the hospitals in the system, courtesy of a law that gives the Legislature veto power over such moves. And even with Republican majorities in the Legislature, even with the state facing a fiscal crisis because Congress stripped a special exemption from the state that pumped in extra money for indigent health care that total privatization of the system could have solved, enough members of both parties saw the system as a reelection tool (being able to take credit for providing “stuff,” in this case “free” health care and jobs) it realized that no majority could be obtained for any closures.
So it went with this hybrid system of continued ownership but leasing out the operations. That complicated arrangement, even as it saves money and provides improved care by all early indicators, makes it work less efficiently and effectively than it could and gives critics opportunity to snipe at it.
In contrast, fiscal reform to eliminate income taxes hardly got off the ground. A tax swap essentially of income for sales taxes floundered because the convoluted nature of the existing fiscal system and all its exemptions, many carved out specifically benefitting lower income individuals, made it difficult to figure out whether most taxpayers were better off, this aggravated by its unwillingness to address that pillar of populism, the country’s highest homestead exemption. What could have provided a shot in the arm for state finances and the economy through its simplification went nowhere because the Jindal Administration was so concerned about not having low income individuals, who pay next to no taxes and some of whom enjoy a negative income tax payment, actually contribute a little bit thereby fell of its own complexity.
And any attempt to address the state’s Byzantine setup of dedications, a main factor in the current budget crisis that prevent revenues from use on priority spending items, hardly has received any hearing, much less a serious effort to correct. Legislators have no incentive to reform this, as they can use it as an excuse to dodge tough funding choices yet hold themselves out as saviors and grantors of benefits when the state finds itself in a vicious cycle of juggling accounts every year as a result.
It’s little wonder that even principled conservatives can find fault at how the Jindal Administration runs things; this space consistently has lamented the lack of its pursuit of larger reforms needed for more rational governing based on the long term rather than through short-term crisis management. But consider the headwinds that Jindal or any conservative reformer must encounter in an environment infested with populism that make radical yet needed change so difficult.
It will take a generation for what preliminary steps Jindal and others have managed to take for these roots to infiltrate and deprive the old paradigm of its sustenance. If we discover incompleteness if not occasionally dysfunction in what Jindal has done, that may tell more about the limits of possibility imposed by Louisiana’s peculiar political culture than his relative skills of governance.