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In Sedgwick County, a moral crusade

In Sedgwick County the debate over the budget has the dimension of a moral crusade, except for one thing.

As Sedgwick County debates next year’s budget, the arguments against a three percent cut in spending have been heated. Proponents of spending say the commissioners are not honoring commitments (see here and here), the commissioners are being short-sighted and foolish for proposing cuts, the county has a moral obligation to use taxes to care for the needy, and that county spending has a great economic benefit.

But what isn’t often mentioned is the nature of taxation and government spending. A new video from Learn Liberty offers a perspective on the morality of government that seems to be totally missing in the debate. View the video below, or click here.

In summary, the video poses these questions:

1. Is it moral for you to donate your money and time to (the zoo, Exploration Place, arts, health care for the poor, vocational education, payments to companies so they remain in the county instead of moving, a livestock show, the river festival, the sports commission, etc.)?

2. Is it moral for you to force other people to donate their time and money to (same list as in question one)?

3. Is it moral for government to force people to donate their time and money to (same list as in question one)?

If you answer “no” to question two, then how do you justify answering “yes” to question three? All sorts of rationalizations are available to support these two answers, such as:

1. Society is like a club, and taxes are the dues.
2. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.
3. Government owns the nation (state, county, city, school district), and if you want to live or do business there, you must pay rent.
4. Government gives (most) people back more in services and benefits than they pay in taxes.
5. Government makes investments with our taxes that earn it even more tax revenue.

Some of these have a grain of truth, such as taxes providing for the national defense and a justice system. These two things make it possible for us to be safe from foreign aggressors and to have our rights and property protected. It doesn’t take a whole lot — comparatively speaking — to provide these functions, but government goes way beyond.

In fact, the truth behind number four leads to a most uncivil society, where people spend vast amounts of time and money lobbying for government to take even more time and money away from others and give it to them — or to the things they think your money should be spent on. We end up fighting over things like zoos and arts, instead of cooperating to attain these desirable amenities.

And fight we do. The techniques are known in advance. The book Economics In One Lesson, first published in 1946 and available to read at the Foundation for Economic Education, explains fallacies (false or mistaken ideas) that are particularly common in the field of economics and public policy. At the very start of the book the author Henry Hazlitt explains:

Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics or medicine — the special pleading of selfish interests. While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. The group that would benefit by such policies, having such a direct interest in them, will argue for then plausibly and persistently. It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case. And it will finally either convince the general public that its case is sound, or so befuddle it that clear thinking on the subject becomes next to impossible.

In addition to these endless pleadings of self-interest, there is a second main factor that spawns new economic fallacies every day. This is the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.

An example of using the “best buyable minds” is the promotion of government spending on arts as having some magic power not present in other spending. These buyable minds have produced an impressive document titled Arts & Economic Prosperity III: The Economic Impact of the Nonprofit Arts and Culture Industry in the State of Kansas. It explains that when a theater company (presumably operating with a government grant) buys a gallon of paint, it sets off a chain of economic activity that benefits many people. True enough. It’s called commerce. But anyone buying the paint sets off the same chain of activity. The same, that is, except that homeowners spending their own money on paint are doing so voluntarily, while the government-subsidized theater company has used the force of government to take money from others.

That’s a big difference, and one lost on most residents of Sedgwick County. I’m hopeful that the people pleading for more taxation and spending are simply unaware of these considerations, as if so, their minds can change. The alternative is much more bleak.

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