Monday, December 7, 2009

Good Government

I see the citizenry as being divided into two broad groups. One group is comprised of people who were taught to believe that it is the responsibility and duty of every American to support, with a portion of their funds, the government that is needed to guarantee our access to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" -- call them the contributing group. The second group contains those who appear to believe that the government is the very source from which flows funding and access to happiness -- call them the receiving group. The contributing group would like to limit the size and role of government to those items that actually are necessary, because it is their funding that the government is taking and spending, and frankly, they would like to see it wisely spent. The receiving group, by contrast, would like to expand the role of government into as many areas as possible, primarily because other people, namely the contributing group, are largely funding those programs, but they will be the primary beneficiaries. This arrangement seems fair to the receiving group because, after all, the contributing group being taxed have more money, so those taxed can better afford to pay for these programs.

This portrayal is overly simplistic, of course. And, not everyone falls cleanly into one group or the other (although quite a few actually do). But it illustrates that the fundamental emotion behind give-away programs is a negative one masquerading as a positive one: It is greedy and selfish to desire for oneself benefits that can only be obtained by taking money by force from someone else -- it smacks of envy, and also of theft. It masquerades as altruism -- to help and benefit those less well off than ourselves -- but altruism implies that the giver is not coerced. If coerced, it becomes not altruism, but robbery. One can argue that people pay taxes out of altruism, but more often than not, this is simply not true, and it is suspect in all cases because the tax rates are set by the government (heavier on the more wealthy, note) and are rigorously enforced. And when our representatives in Congress spend the money, that is not altruism either, because it is not their money that they are spending! If they want to be altruistic, they can spend their own money -- and I note in passing here that they are much more careful when spending their own money than they are when spending mine.

"Ah", you might say, "but you did agree, when you elected representatives to the Congress that passed the laws setting up such programs." There may be room for this argument when those doing the electing are from the contributing group, or even largely from that group. The argument is less convincing, though, when the receiving group, which has the same voting power as the contributing group (one person, one vote, after all) begins to outnumber the contributing group. Then representatives are elected that seek to solidify their base by constructing programs that benefit the receiving group that elected them at the expense of the contributing group that opposed them. (See former blogs on getting elected as the number one priority of elected representatives.)

Those who give are now at the mercy of those who take.

Worse yet, many of our representatives are willing to spend not only all the tax money there is, but also money that has not yet been collected. It is not their money; but they incur no penalty for spending it, and there is no operative force to act as a restraint. But the contributing group is appalled, because it is their money, and the unfunded expenditures will eventually have to be paid for with their future money. The receiving group sees no problem. It is not their money. They won't have to pay for it.

When my kids were in college, I seethed when my taxes went to fund scholarships for which my own children were not even eligible. I worked hard to pay for my children to go to college, and financially it was a difficult time, but not only did I have to pay college expenses for my own children out of my own pocket, but in addition, the government took even more so I could (altruistically, Congress no doubt thought) also pay for someone else. There was absolutely no benefit whatever to me, because my children were positively disbarred from these scholarships. It was a program that benefited a specific group of people at the expense of a different group of people.

This brings me to the subject of what is the proper role and scope of government. This is a subject that varies all over the map, so I will give only my own views. When the government takes money from taxpayers, it should expend those funds for projects that will benefit taxpayers as a whole, and rigorously restrict itself from projects that take money from one group of people and expend it for the benefit of a different group. Further, it should maintain a high degree of fiscal responsibility for those funds. When funds are expended, it should be, in general, to buy something -- either that the government needs, or that is used for the benefit of the general citizenry.

Examples of proper government funding include such items as roads, bridges, and infrastructure (benefits the expansion and maintenance of commerce, which benefits all people); defense (protects the whole country and ensures continuance of our way of life); law enforcement (protects all citizens -- even those not abiding by the law, most of the time); statecraft between us and other nations; treasury and fiscal policy; other needed government institutions that represent the citizenry as a whole.

Examples of improper government funding include such items as "entitlement" programs or any other "spread the wealth" programs (money taken from one group and given to a different group -- violates the benefit taxpayers as a whole test and violates the "buy something" test); social security (a tax, run as the most monumental Ponzi scheme in history, that is masquerading as a retirement fund -- violates the "buy something" test, and egregiously violates the fiscal responsibility test); lotteries (persecuted as illegal when run by the Mob, but was taken over by the government when it saw how much money could be made and now run as a "stupid tax" -- encourages bad habits, does not "promote the general welfare", preys on the ignorant and poor); schools at the federal level (this a responsibility of the states); bailouts (violates fiscal responsibility test).

There is a tendency for representatives elected by the receiver group to see tax money as a gold mine, limitless in scope, to be mined for the benefit of themselves and their supporters. And they are not alone: Every government agency also sees the tax revenue as a source for their own needs and tries to get as much of it as they can. The President sends a budget to congress each year that is full of items that are (in the view of the contributing group) unwise, unnecessary, unwarranted, and wasteful, and it is up to Congress to eliminated those that do not fall within the definition of good government. But instead, members of Congress hasten to add to the problem rather than the solution. They scheme and maneuver to carve out portions of the budget to favor their own specific groups or organizations. Each member believes that if others insert these "earmarks" into the budget, it should be called "pork", but if they do it, it must be good government -- after all, if it helps get them re-elected what could be better than that? It must be, by definition, good government.

But in my mind it is clear: If a program or law benefits one group at the expense of another, it is almost certainly bad government, and if it does not apply equally -- including to members of Congress -- then it is almost certain to be bad government. Congress should be ashamed.