Today’s challenge: Can you think of five ways that government spends money better than you could?
There is an oft-used conservative talking point — or rhetorical flourish — that we (the “taxpayers”) know how to spend our money better than “the government”. It is a talking point that masks selfishness and reeks of anti-civicism, and it deserves to be challenged whenever it is brought up.
First, I should say that “conservative” is a woefully imprecise word. A person can be conservative about any number and variety of things, and “liberal” (its presumed opposite) about any others. It is an injustice to the endless variety of human thought to put each person into one of two camps. Nonetheless, those well-known politicos who claim that “you know how to spend your money better than the government” tend to fall into the political camp that gets called conservative — so, for lack of a better and well-accepted term, I’ll use that one. By no means am I trying to demonize those who call themselves conservative or attempting to categorically dismiss “conservative” values (whatever they may be).
The first thing I dislike about such a viewpoint is that it presumes a divide between the people (or “we the people”, as many like to say when affecting a patriotic idiom) and their government. It presumes that “the people” and “the government” are two separate entities, with conflicting agendas. Now, I agree that institutions often make self-preservation and self-aggrandizement their primary missions, and that they do not always serve their constituencies with perfect selflessness or efficiency. Yet I don’t think that means we have any call to take an adversarial posture toward government. In fact, just the contrary: an entrenched adversarial posture toward government will only incline people to pay closer attention to its shortcomings and abuses and to ignore its many advantages and triumphs. It will incline them to disengage from the political process, rather than to put their energy toward its improvement.
My wife and I both enjoy the married life: in both the short term and the long term, we receive advantages. Although at times we feel constrained by our mutual obligations, there are plentiful opportunities we can pursue because we have each other’s support. When conflicts arise, we often feel the urge to withdraw from each other and avoid whatever difficult topic got us into trouble in the first place. However, our experience (and that of countless others; I’m not pretending to be unique) has been that engaging with our difficulties helps us to become “re-enfranchised”, while disengagement only allows problems to fester and lets us continue believing the worst of each other.
Whether you believe government is “us” or believe government is “them”, you’re taking part in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unfortunately, since the belief is held individually but the effect on government only comes from large collective action, it’s easy to be convinced of your own powerlessness and to take the government-as-adversary stance. Collectively, we have the power to prove ourselves right — though only in the long haul.
The second thing I dislike about the position that “you know how to spend your money better than the government” is the excess to which people take the idea of “their” money. I am all in favor of private property and private enterprise. But too often people are of the opinion that, because something is “theirs”, they (1) are not indebted to others for it and (2) have no responsibility toward others with regard to its use. This is a philosophical question that I don’t have time to address adequately here. Suffice it for now to say that those who hold the extreme form of this belief suffer deficits of gratitude and social responsibility.
The third thing I dislike about that belief is that it is just plain ignorant. There are absolutely scads of things that “the government” (that is, the people acting collectively) can accomplish better with “my” money than I can. Here are five:
- Mail delivery. For all its faults, the United States Postal Service does a marvelous job of delivering letters and packages with good speed. I cannot deliver all my mail by myself — who has the time? — and private industry would exclude many small, out-of-the-way places, or charge exorbitant fees for mail delivery to or from Fairbanks.
- Public transportation. Helping people get from home to job to shopping to recreation and back home is a fantastic investment in economic development. If I had to get everywhere on my own, I would spend extra hours each day between work and home, or spend extra hours’ worth of my labor to afford the private automobile to take me back and forth in a timely fashion. Private enterprise would try to make ridership as expensive as possible, thus shutting out the young and the poor. Of course, even a private auto is worthless without…
- Transportation infrastructure. The buses I enjoy — or, in other cities, the trains, trams, and other means — would go a lot slower over trees, rocks, and mud, as would our private automobiles. Do you think that private industry would do so well at laying down and regulating streets, roads, and tracks? Do you think I could do it on my own?
- Safety regulation. One relationship that I think is naturally more adversarial than that of citizen and government is that of employee and employer. Businesses showed for too long (and they continue to do it!) that they would imperil employees to no end while it resulted in corporate profits, absent the regulation by and sanctions from government.
- Disease tracking. I shudder to think what levels of disease (or other public health hazards) might ravage our communities without the information gathered and processed by the CDC.
The above have three things in common: (1) I couldn’t do them on my own. (2) Private industry could not be relied on to do them. (3) Were there non-profits in charge of providing the same, high-quality services, and were they reliant on voluntary donations, they would flounder. Fall flat. Perish. People are too short-sighted to give voluntarily and sufficiently to all the agencies that would do them and their societies good.
Can you think of ways that “government” can spend “your” money better than you can? Go on — just name five. Let them be large or small. Have fun with this! If you approach government with an attentive mind and a grateful heart, it shouldn’t be hard.