Setting Fire to Straw Men and Slaughtering Paper Tigers
If you’re a regular on www.facebook.com, you have probably seen various picture-quotations popping up on your wall lately. In a word, these need to stop. They are almost universally moronic (see: Elizabeth Warren), and they never encapsulate the depth of thought required to address real issues. In fact, the only purpose they serve is to make the public discourse all the more shallow. My position is that we need more principles and fewer slogans.
Click through and you’ll see exactly what I mean about shallow public discourse. We see tax protestors, and then we see various things pointed out as government services which are supposedly beyond reproach. There are multiple problems with this.
First, street signs, roads, sidewalks, power lines, etc. are indeed a part of the state budget (most power lines and utilities are in fact privately owned, but let’s extend the benefit of the doubt). Because the tax protesters are in close proximity to these things, and probably use them on a daily basis, their arguments are somehow supposed to be less valid.
This is not so, and it is one of the most common rhetorical head fakes of the class warrior set. Those people who talk about limited government are not talking about roads. They are not talking about police, or fire departments, or even education as a general matter. Cutting budgets for these are just about the last thing on the agenda.
The things that are crushing this country and the states within it are not the “night-watchmen” government services like the foregoing. They are overwhelmingly transfer payments, corporate welfare, bureaucracy, and regulation.
Take California for example. In state-issued budget charts, we can easily see that “Transportation, Total” is about $8.7 billion out of a $117 billion 2009-10 budget (and more than half of that is federally-provided funds!). Even if we assume that all spending remotely related to transportation is justified, that is about 7.4% of the total budget.
What about the other 92%? Is it that unreasonable to think that perhaps something could be cut there? That perhaps we do not need any more taxes to support the bloat that makes up the majority of government? Congratulations “Americans Against the Tea Party.” You’ve set fire to a straw man, and the nation is dumber for it.
My point is that we should all be thinking a little bit deeper about the real issues, so I’ll briefly touch on what I think those are:
According to other publicly-available information, in the past 25 years the California budget has grown from $12.5 billion to $129.5 billion (although it peaked one year earlier at $135.9 billion). That is a 1,036% increase. What are the main drivers of the increase in state spending? Transfer payments.
Because we have decided that people deserve health care because they cannot pay for it, and because we have decided that people deserve to be given things because they have not earned them, we have blown up our budgets ten-fold. But there aren’t any little arrows pointing to entitlements are there? No arrow that points to lack of responsibility. No arrow that points to vote buying.
Then there is the idea that whatever the government “provides” us is better than the alternative. I find it insufferable when people defending government spending point to government monopolies as evidence of the great things that government provides us. They are monopolies! If we had a choice about how to fund our roads and street signs and sidewalks, I would imagine that we would find better ways to fund them than funneling real money through make-work bureaucrats, overpaying for labor, and ending up with sub-par facilities anyway. In fact, just about any system of private financing would make more sense.
But let us assume ad arguendum that it is, in fact, the state’s responsibility to fund things like transportation. Can we then justify even that 7.4% of the overall budget, as is clearly assumed by the picture above? Even the most superficial investigation tells us no.
Certainly main roads and highways should be built and maintained. But what about light rail that nobody rides? What about bus routes that nobody uses? What about public transport options that hemorrhage taxpayer cash yet exclude private competitors by law? What about “green” options that do nothing but prop up politically-connected businesses that have no way of sustaining themselves other than patronage? Even under the assumption that the picture above has justified transportation spending, I believe that it has justified a fraction of the total. Perhaps half if I am charitable.
And what of the funding options available? Again, assuming that it is the state’s duty to fund this sort of thing, what makes us think that we are doing it correctly by using taxes? Why spread the costs among everyone, despite the fact that usage varies? I would argue that a system of user fees would a far more equitable way to go. This would put the burden of transportation use on those people who actually use transportation. And like the sign says, it would require no taxes.
If I had one piece of advice to give my facebook friends it would be this. Think before you post. What seems like a cutting commentary on social issues ends up making you look like an idiot.