Thursday, February 05, 2015

People, government, and spending money

“The people know how to spend their money better than the government.”  Really?

A Minnesota politician was quoted last month stating some variation of this Libertarian statement, but I can’t find it in a search of the Duluth News Tribune or the Star Tribune.  This mantra keeps popping up when a Republican doesn’t like a particular program or a given tax.  Funny how they rarely apply it to the bailout of the big banks.  And it never applies to any government activity that they support.

Let’s start with the military budget.  Do the people really know how to spend their money on the military better than the government does?  Those who spout my introductory statement seem to want to throw even more money at the military budget.  Regardless of your attitude toward the military, it is in the Constitution that the government should spend money on the military: “provide for the common defense”.  I don’t think the signers meant for the government to take up a collection to support our numerous wars.  Wars are often strongly supported by those who make the claim about the people knowing best how to spend money.

If your house were burglarized, would you want to be responsible for paying for an investigation, a trial, and a prison term for the culprit?  Would you want to have to buy insurance to ensure the thief was brought to justice?  We buy insurance to cover the loss, but we pay taxes for a criminal justice system.  Who runs the criminal justice system?  The government.  Who runs on platforms of “tough on crime”?  Those who are first to put government down.

If your neighbor’s house catches fire, do you want to pay for your private fire department to ensure the flames don’t reach your house?  Government pays for and organizes fire departments that are a phone call away for taxpayers and tax dodgers alike.  Even when local fire departments are all volunteer, they seek support from local taxes and state and federal grants.

We complain about the condition of our streets and the congestion of our freeways.  If we know best how to spend our money, do we want to be responsible for the condition of the streets in front of our houses?  You pay for a nicely paved street in front of your house, and your neighbor leaves the street a muddy mess.  We need government to co-ordinate this so we don’t get our cars stuck in the mud.

We go to restaurants and buy groceries without giving any thought to the cleanliness or condition of the food.  Most restaurateurs and grocers are scrupulous about what they provide, but they aren’t in control of every step of processing the food or even have the time or means to give a thorough quality check.  Government provides some oversight with food inspections, for example, in meat-packing plants.  Many corporations complain about this government “intrusion”, but without it we would have many more food-borne illnesses.  Think about Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”.  Think about the City of Duluth closing a couple of local restaurants because of numerous health violations.  Would “the people” have all the resources to make these checks?

Corporations complain about the lack of “qualified” employees, but they complain about the taxes to train these “qualified” employees.  Industrialized countries invest heavily in public education supported by taxes.  And they provide a range of subjects that provide skills to learn more about technical subjects and about subjects that make for better informed citizens.  What if education were only supplied by parents, either directly or by paying tuition to schools.  First, few parents know enough about all the subjects to fully education their children.  Second, many parents don’t have the resources to pay tuition for professional teachers.  Think of the literacy rates in countries where parents must pay school fees.  Only the well-off in these countries are sufficiently literate.

Speaking of education, a parallel statement to the one about spending money is that “parents know best what is good education for their children”.  A close example is the sweeping generalization that “Parents know kids don’t need Common Core, so politicians should listen”, Ben Boychuk, republished in Duluth News Tribune, February 1, 2015.

We were involved in helping our children with schoolwork, but we didn’t even pretend to know how to teach them the various subjects they took.  Except for the six years we lived in Europe, we sent them off to the local public schools.  In Europe, we sent them to Anglo-American schools because we expected to be in a given country for only two years.  About the only curriculum shock I had was when our daughter showed us the catalog for American history.  Rather than an overview, she had to select one or two narrower subjects, such as Andrew Jackson.

My own education experiences were more self-directed or teacher-encouraged than parentally involved.  My mother encouraged my brother and me to do well, but I doubt she knew much about what we learned or how we learned it.  For the most part we went to schools in the neighborhood. However, we rarely stayed in the same neighborhood for more than three years.  When we moved after I started high school, I selected an out-of-area high school to be with friends who I had known before.  And as Robert Frost wrote, “that made all the difference”.

It was Mr. Rush, a math teacher who punctuated his remarks with “when you go to Case”.  Six of us in my class went to Case Institute of Technology.  It was Mr. Cameron, the assistant principal who recommended that I apply for a Huntington Fund scholarship, which paid full tuition my first year.

Thank you, government, for spending so much money on me to get to that point.

Also published in the Reader Weekly, 2015-02-05 at