Most Kansans are familiar with the iconic mural in the Statehouse east wing painted by Kansas artist John Steuart Curry. Curry depicts another Kansan, the abolitionist John Brown, his arms spread wide with a Bible and a rifle in his hands as he presides over the conflagration of the Civil War.
The scene is a constant visual reminder of the role Kansas played at the headwaters of our nation’s painful struggle to define America’s promise of freedom and equality for all. Our great state stands fiercely for the notion that no person should ever be subjected to mastery by another.
Less well known is Curry’s majestic mural in the Statehouse west wing. As Paul Harvey would say, it tells the rest of the story. It gives Kansas’ answer to the unstated question, “Freedom, yes, but to what end?”
The west wing mural depicts a Kansas farmer and his wife standing straight and tall, surrounded by their children, surveying the fruits of their labor — a barnyard full of livestock, a bountiful garden and grain gathered in the fields. In their bearing is the satisfaction of free people that is tempered with a quiet humility and gratefulness for all they have been given. In the distance, thunderclouds gather, perhaps as a testament to nature and to nature’s God, which graciously gives life and yet may test our unity in times of trouble and scarcity.
These are the two stories of our state’s founding. As Kansans, we hold dear the stories and images of liberty and self-determination on the one hand and responsibility and self-sufficiency on the other. Only as we continue to see our lives as rooted in both of these stories will our experiment in self-government endure over many generations.
The men and women who settled our great state, who bled for freedom and dirtied their boots and hands to provide for themselves and their families, understood this well. An 1881 editorial in the Abilene Chronicle summarized it with typical prairie efficiency: “A man with a family, with 160 acres of land in Dickinson County (with a contented mind and a will to work) is far better off than the Astors or Vanderbilts, or even President Garfield, as far as the real substantial enjoyment of life is concerned.”
We can no longer afford to view our current economic crisis as something distinct and apart from the crisis of family and community decay. Increasing economic dependency on a deeply indebted government is not a viable long-term solution.
Likewise, economic opportunities in faraway places that entice our children to abandon the communities that nurtured them cannot be the answer.
Our economic prosperity depends on strong families and strong cultural institutions. Healthy families and communities require economic freedom. The best welfare program is a good job. The best child poverty prevention program is a stable, two-parent home. The best disaster recovery program is a community of resilient and caring neighbors and businesses. The best community revitalization happens when our towns and cities are free to create economic opportunities that stop exporting their best, brightest and hardest working elsewhere.
When I took office a little more than a year ago, my administration refocused state government on core functions, reduced state spending for the first time in a generation, buttressed the stability of our small towns and rural communities, and began to roll back the regulatory environment that too often smothers economic activity.
These changes are beginning to pay off. We have turned a $500 million state deficit into a $600 million dollar projected positive balance. Kansas entrepreneurs and workers have created more than 22,000 new private sector jobs. Human capital is returning to small towns and rural communities as economic opportunities increase.
Now the Legislature has the opportunity to enact significant tax reform and prevent another lost decade of economic decline. Empowered by a tax policy that is built on liberty and rewards hard work, we can accelerate economic growth, create well-paying jobs, increase family and community stability, and reduce the number of children living in poverty.
As Kansans, we have a rich heritage. Curry’s Statehouse murals remind us that Kansans have always insisted on both equal liberty and opportunity for all people, and also on our responsibility, together, to care for our own needs and the needs of our families and communities without being overly dependent on the state. This is still the best course to chart for liberty and prosperity, for ourselves, our children, and their children to come.
— Sam Brownback is the Governor of Kansas. The opinions in the columns solely reflect those of the author. They aren't endorsed by the Kansas Health Institute, which seeks a broad range of opinion to stimulate discussion.