Government Isn't Just Keeping Books

If you believe that history repeats itself, you would have found much comfort in the play "The Madness of George III," which just ended its Baltimore run at the Morris Mechanic Theater.

Although Alan Bennett is an English playwright and his play deals with an English monarch who reigned 200 years ago, the production contained a number of political strains familiar to Carroll County residents.


The play's ostensible theme is the devastating impact of a rare metabolic disorder on King George III of England and the cruel medical treatment he received from supposedly well-intentioned doctors.

However, an equally important theme is the struggle between two strong politicians and their visions of the proper role of government in English life.


Their differing visions of government during the last decade of the 18th century speak to some of the same issues that confront Carroll County residents in the last years of the 20th century.

The king's prime minister, William Pitt, a young but effective politician, represented the so-called "kitchen" vision of government.

He was a stiff, formal, calculating minister who believed the proper role of the ruler was to keep order, maintain an efficient economy and ensure that the residents of the country were well-fed -- much in the way a mother would run her household.

In the play, the king playfully chides Pitt: "You don't have ideas. Well, you have one big idea: balancing the books. And a very good idea to have."

Pitt's parliamentary opponent was Charles James Fox, a Whig ** whose personality and views of government were much different. Older than Pitt, Fox was a warm, convivial and eloquent politician. He believed that government should play a central role in changing the direction of the country and should not be afraid of spending large sums of money.

"I will show this counting house clerk that the nation is not simply a household. Let a housewife be thrifty, modest and shy. Government is bold, restless and prodigal," Fox said in the play. "It is prodigious in its expenditure, recalcitrant in its debts, lofty in its assumptions. It is not all thrift. Popular government has nothing to do with thrift."

Next year is an election year, and Carroll's voters will be electing, among others, three commissioners, a state's attorney, sheriff and State House delegation. These people will determine the direction of the county's government for another four years. While no single politician in Carroll County resembles Pitt, the county's politicians as a group share his preoccupation with balancing the books.

And for the past three years, Carroll's elected leaders have done an excellent job of running the government much like a household. They have been thrifty. They have been cautious. They have not embarked on major new initiatives that require large expenditures of public money.


As a result, the county is in relatively good shape financially. Property taxes have been stable, borrowing has remained conservative and the county has preserved its good bond rating.

But in some quarters, people worry that the county is unprepared for the rapid population growth that is projected for the next decade. They worry that schools will become overcrowded, that roads will be congested, that prime farmland will disappear and that the quality of life will decline.

But these dissenting voices are not very loud nor do they seem to attract much attention from the county's elected representatives.

Most of the local politicians are, in fact, proud that they spend so little public money. Their frugality would gladden the heart of Pitt were he alive today.

Instead of building new office space to house the education department, for instance, the county commissioners are relying on donated portable offices to house school administrators. Rather than build a permanent 80-bed addition to the county's crowded detention center, the commissioners are prepared to use much less expensive modular jail cells.

In the short run, these are reasonable solutions. But the governing of the county is not a short-run proposition. Cutting corners today may mean much larger expenditures in the future.


When the state government made Route 140 a four-lane divided highway in the 1950s, it was being extravagant. At the time, there was no justification for such a large road. However, yesterday's extravagance is today's farsightedness.

If Old Westminster Pike were the main road between Westminster and Baltimore County, Carroll's motorists would be close to revolt.

However, during the past three years, corners have been cut. Road and bridge repair budgets were slashed. School construction has not kept up with the burgeoning population of youngsters.

Following Fox's admonition that government should be extravagant certainly has its pitfalls, as we have seen on the national level. Taxpayers' funds should be spent wisely. Nevertheless, sometimes spending a little extra money today may save considerable sums in the future.

Judging from the current political climate, however, the William Pitts who run Carroll County are worried much more about balancing today's books than about investing in the future.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.