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.
That so many speakers at a public hearing were in favor of government spending is not surprising.
In a letter to the editor of the Wichita Eagle the writer stated “But apparently few of them felt strongly enough to come to the commission hearing and express their support of budget cuts.” He was referring to the public hearing on Wednesday July 29, when some 50 people spoke, and just three supported cuts.
This lopsided ratio is not surprising. It’s an example of the well-known phenomenon of concentrated benefits and dispersed (or diffuse) costs. Explained in this video, it observes that for most government spending programs, the benefits are showered on a few very visible recipients who benefit greatly. There were 47 of these speaking at last week’s public hearing.
But the costs of these spending programs are spread across everyone, or at least a large group. For them, the cost is small. In fact, politicians use this argument in favor of their spending programs. Dave Unruh observed that the proposed county property tax cuts amount to savings of $1.37 per year for a $100,000 house. His arithmetic is correct, and so is his understanding of human nature. Most people look at the small cost of any single government spending program and realize it’s not worth much personal effort to save $1.37 (or whatever) per year.
Since the costs of each spending program is small for any single person, not many get worked up and take action. That’s why only three of 50 speakers opposed the spending programs. Politicians and beneficiaries of spending programs rely on this imbalance of motives.
Not often mentioned is that most of the organizations seeking county funding are charities. Anyone may make contributions directly to them. Some people have testified that they don’t need a cut in taxes, or that they would be willing to be taxed more so that these organizations could have more funding. Perhaps these people don’t realize that it is within their power to make contributions to these charities at any time.
It seems we have forgotten that charity is a voluntary act, and that government taxation and spending is not charitable. This is evidence of further drift from a civil society where things like zoos and medical care for the poor are handled on a voluntary and cooperative basis. Instead, we fight.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Is Wichita risking a Soviet-style future? A look at Wichita property taxes, uninformed and misinformed elected officials, tax increment financing, and social security. View below, or click here to view on YouTube. Episode 86, broadcast June 7, 2015.
If local governments don’t fund arts, we risk a Soviet-style existence. This line of thought is precisely backwards.
Facing the possible loss of funds from Sedgwick County, the Wichita Arts Council paints a bleak future for Wichita, as reported in the Wichita Eagle:
The Wichita Arts Council receives approximately $14,000 from the county, which it uses to provide seed money for start-up art projects, president Arlen Hamilton said. It also receives about $6,000 from the city, he said.
“Without us being there to provide that start, many of these things would never get off the ground, and we’d end up with more of a Soviet-style society than the bright, colorful and educational environment that we get to live in instead,” Hamilton said. (Sedgwick County to warn organizations of possible funding cuts)
This line of reasoning is precisely backwards. When government taxes us and turns over the funds to a group of elitists to make decisions about which art is desirable and which is not, that is characteristic of totalitarian, socialist societies. In a civil society people don’t expect others to be forced to pay for things like this.
Defenders of government spending on arts say it’s a small amount of money. It’s just seed money. This “seed money” effect is precisely why government should not be funding arts. David Boaz explains:
Defenders of arts funding seem blithely unaware of this danger when they praise the role of the national endowments as an imprimatur or seal of approval on artists and arts groups. Jane Alexander says, “The Federal role is small but very vital. We are a stimulus for leveraging state, local and private money. We are a linchpin for the puzzle of arts funding, a remarkably efficient way of stimulating private money.” Drama critic Robert Brustein asks, “How could the [National Endowment for the Arts] be ‘privatized’ and still retain its purpose as a funding agency functioning as a stamp of approval for deserving art?” … I suggest that that is just the kind of power no government in a free society should have.
The leveraging effect of seed money means that elitists like the members of the Wichita Arts Council have great power in deciding who will succeed in the arts in Wichita. We give up a lot when we turn over this power to government bureaucrats and arts commission cronies. Contrary to the argument of the Arts Council president, arts thrive in markets where people are free to choose, and stagnate under taxation and bureaucracy.
A forthcoming book by Charles Murray holds an intriguing idea as to how Americans can reassert liberty: Civil disobedience. Make the federal government an “insurable hazard.”
I think it’s a great idea. For an easy introduction to this concept, listen to the Cato Institute’s seven-minute podcast of Murray speaking about these ideas.
From the publisher:
American freedom is being gutted. Whether we are trying to run a business, practice a vocation, raise our families, cooperate with our neighbors, or follow our religious beliefs, we run afoul of the government—not because we are doing anything wrong but because the government has decided it knows better. When we object, that government can and does tell us, “Try to fight this, and we’ll ruin you.”
In this provocative book, acclaimed social scientist and bestselling author Charles Murray shows us why we can no longer hope to roll back the power of the federal government through the normal political process. The Constitution is broken in ways that cannot be fixed even by a sympathetic Supreme Court. Our legal system is increasingly lawless, unmoored from traditional ideas of “the rule of law.” The legislative process has become systemically corrupt no matter which party is in control.
But there’s good news beyond the Beltway. Technology is siphoning power from sclerotic government agencies and putting it in the hands of individuals and communities. The rediversification of American culture is making local freedom attractive to liberals as well as conservatives. People across the political spectrum are increasingly alienated from a regulatory state that nakedly serves its own interests rather than those of ordinary Americans.
The even better news is that federal government has a fatal weakness: It can get away with its thousands of laws and regulations only if the overwhelming majority of Americans voluntarily comply with them. Murray describes how civil disobedience backstopped by legal defense funds can make large portions of the 180,000-page Federal Code of Regulations unenforceable, through a targeted program that identifies regulations that arbitrarily and capriciously tell us what to do. Americans have it within their power to make the federal government an insurable hazard like hurricanes and floods, leaving us once again free to live our lives as we see fit.
By the People’s hopeful message is that rebuilding our traditional freedoms does not require electing a right-thinking Congress or president, nor does it require five right-thinking justices on the Supreme Court. It can be done by we the people, using America’s unique civil society to put government back in its proper box.
The purchase of a piano by a Kansas school district teaches us a lesson. Instead of a system in which schools raise money voluntarily — a system in which customers are happy to buy, donors are happy to give, and schools are grateful to receive — we have strife.
A Kansas City, Kansas school has spent $48,000 to purchase a new piano, replacing one in use for many years. Critics of school spending, even Governor Brownback, point to this as an example of school spending out of control. How can schools want more money, they say, if one school can spend $48,000 on a piano?
We can learn a few things about our public schools from this.
First, there is no way to tell whether this purchase was wise. There are several reasons. First, the school is not spending its own money. The school is spending other people’s money, and in a near vacuum. It’s spending in circumstances that are not amenable to wise purchases. Milton Friedman has developed a grid of the ways that money may be spent. The purchase of the piano falls into category III, which is spending someone else’s money on yourself.
Second, the school is spending this money in an uncompetitive environment. In Kansas, the public schools have a near-monopoly on the use of public funds for schools. No matter how bad the public schools may be, not matter how wasteful of funds, public schools know that parents have few alternatives. Yes, there are private schools in Kansas, but if parents choose them, they still have to pay the public schools. Who else can do that?
Competition is important because it provides accountability. It provides a framework for making decisions about the allocation of resources. If we see, say, a grocery store spending lavishly on fixtures and furnishings, we may surmise that the store is trying to attract customers. The ultimate test of the strategy is profit. Do customers appreciate the store’s investment enough to shop there? If so, profits may be earned. If not, there will be losses, and store management has learned a lesson.
Similarly, if Kansas public schools faced meaningful competition for students, schools would have a framework for making spending decisions, as well as for making many other decisions. But with no meaningful competition, Kansas schools are operating in the dark. They do not have the benefit of market competition and profit to let them know if they are making wise decisions as to the allocation of resources.
Market competition is not competition like a life-and-death struggle in the jungle or sea, where the winners eat the losers. It is also not a contrived event, as is a sporting event. Instead, market competition refers to a discovery process, where through mountains of voluntary transactions we learn what works and what doesn’t. We don’t have that learning process in Kansas public schools.
The purchase of the piano has also stimulated much rancorous debate. People are yelling at each other, and over the education of children. Instead of fighting and strife, we should be celebrating children, schools, and education. But that’s not the way government works. Money is taken through taxes. (I realize it’s considered impolite in some circles to say this, but taxes are taken by the threat of force.) Then tax money is spent by people who pretty much say “screw you” to taxpayers. That is the tone of an article written by the superintendent of the school district that bought the piano. The real problem, she contends, is that the people of Kansas are not taxed enough. No matter that spending per student in this school district is $15,388. That’s down from 2009 when it nearly touched $18,000, but much higher than the early years of this century when it was around $11,000. (These are inflation-adjusted, per student figures.) Employment ratios in this district have improved, and unspent fund balances, not including bond and capital funds, have risen.
Despite these improvements, the Kansas City school superintendent says Kansans do not pay enough taxes to her schools. I get the sense that she wants to fight for more.
Do we fight over which grocery store is best? Do we fight over how much to spend on building and operating grocery stores? No. People peacefully and freely choose the store they like. Sometimes they choose several stores at the same time.
Civil society is dying. Instead of a system in which schools raise money voluntarily — a system in which customers are happy to buy, donors are happy to give, and schools are grateful to receive — we have strife. Instead of a Kansas school superintendent saying “thank you” to taxpayers for the new piano and $15,388 to spend each year on each student, we have something else. We have the gnashing of teeth, and that’s a shame.
Tax increment financing disrupts the usual flow of tax dollars, routing funds away from cash-strapped cities, counties, and schools back to the TIF-financed development. TIF creates distortions in the way cities develop, and researchers find that the use of TIF means lower economic growth.
In Kansas, TIF takes two or more steps. The first step is that cities or counties establish the boundaries of the TIF district. After the TIF district is defined, cities then must approve one or more project plans that authorize the spending of TIF funds in specific ways. In Kansas, overlapping counties and school districts have an opportunity to veto the formation of the TIF district, but this rarely happens. Once the district is formed, cities and counties have no ability to object to TIF project plans.
Before the formation of the TIF district, the property pays taxes to the city, county, school district, and state as can be seen in figure 1. Because property considered for TIF is purportedly blighted, the amount of tax paid is usually small. Whatever it is, that level is called the “base.”
After approval of one or more TIF project plans the city borrows money and gives it to the project or development. The city now has additional debt in the form of TIF bonds that require annual payments. Figure 2 illustrates. (There is now another form of TIF known as “pay-as-you-go” that works differently, but produces much the same economic effect.)
Figure 3 shows the flow of tax revenue after the formation of the TIF district and after the completion of a project. Because buildings were built or renovated, the property is worth more, and the property tax is now higher. The development now has two streams of property tax payments that are handled in different ways. The original tax — the “base” — is handled just like before, distributed to city, state, school district, and the state, according to their mill levy rates. The difference between the new tax and the base tax — the “increment” — is handled differently. It goes to only two destinations (mostly): The State of Kansas, and repayment of the TIF bonds.
Figure 4 highlights the difference in the flow of tax revenues. The top portion of the illustration shows development outside of TIF. We see the flows of tax payments to city, county, school district, and the state. In the bottom portion, which shows development under TIF, the tax flows to city, county, and school district are missing. No longer does a property contribute to the support of these three units of government, although the property undoubtedly requires the services of them. This is especially true for a property in Old Town, which consumes large amounts of policing.
(Cities, counties, and school districts still receive the base tax payments, but these are usually small, much smaller than the incremental taxes. In non-TIF development, these agencies still receive the base taxes too, plus whatever taxes result from improvement of the property — the “increment,” so to speak. Or simply, all taxes.)
The Kansas law governing TIF, or redevelopment districts as they are also called, starts at K.S.A. 12-1770.
TIF and public policy
Originally most states included a “but for” test that TIF districts must meet. That is, the proposed development could not happen but for the benefits of TIF. Many states have dropped this requirement. At any rate, developers can always present proposals that show financial necessity for subsidy, and gullible government officials will believe.
Similarly, TIF was originally promoted as a way to cure blight. But cities are so creative and expansive in their interpretation of blight that this requirement, if it still exists, has little meaning.
The rerouting of property taxes under TIF goes against the grain of the way taxes are usually rationalized. We use taxation as a way to pay for services that everyone benefits from, and from which we can’t exclude people. An example would be police protection. Everyone benefits from being safe, and we can’t exclude people from benefiting from police protection.
So when we pay property tax — or any tax, for that matter — people may be comforted knowing that it goes towards police and fire protection, street lights, schools, and the like. (Of course, some is wasted, and government is not the only way these services, especially education, could be provided.)
But TIF is contrary to this justification of taxes. TIF allows property taxes to be used for one person’s (or group of persons) exclusive benefit. This violates the principle of broad-based taxation to pay for an array of services for everyone. Remember: What was the purpose of the TIF bonds? To pay for things that benefited the development. Now, the development’s property taxes are being used to repay those bonds instead of funding government.
One more thing: Defenders of TIF will say that the developers will pay all their property taxes. This is true, but only on a superficial level. We now see that the lion’s share of the property taxes paid by TIF developers are routed back to them for their own benefit.
It’s only infrastructure
In their justification of TIF in general, or specific projects, proponents may say that TIF dollars are spent only on allowable purposes. Usually a prominent portion of TIF dollars are spent on infrastructure. This allows TIF proponents to say the money isn’t really being spent for the benefit of a specific project. It’s spent on infrastructure, they say, which they contend is something that benefits everyone, not one project specifically. Therefore, everyone ought to pay.
This attitude is represented by a comment left at Voice for Liberty, which contended: “The thing is that real estate developers do not invest in public streets, sidewalks and lamp posts, because there would be no incentive to do so. Why spend millions of dollars redoing or constructing public streets when you can not get a return on investment for that”
This perception is common: that when we see developers building something, the City of Wichita builds the supporting infrastructure at no cost to the developers. But it isn’t quite so. About a decade ago a project was being developed on the east side of Wichita, the Waterfront. This project was built on vacant land. Here’s what I found when I searched for City of Wichita resolutions concerning this project:
Note specifically one item: $1,672,000 for the construction of Waterfront Parkway. To anyone driving or walking in this area, they would think this is just another city street — although a very nicely designed and landscaped street. But the city did not pay for this street. Private developers paid for this infrastructure. Other resolutions resulted in the same developers paying for street lights, traffic signals, sewers, water pipes, and turning lanes on major city streets. All this is infrastructure that we’re told real estate developers will not pay for. But in order to build the Waterfront development, private developers did, with a total cost of these projects being $3,334,500. (It’s likely I did not find all the resolutions and costs pertaining to this project, and more development has happened since this research.)
In a TIF district, these things are called “infrastructure” and will be paid for by the development’s own property taxes — taxes that must be paid in any case. Outside of TIF districts, developers pay for these things themselves.
If not for TIF, nothing will happen here
Generally, TIF is justified using the “but-for” argument. That is, nothing will happen within a district unless the subsidy of TIF is used. Paul F. Byrne explains:
“The but-for provision refers to the statutory requirement that an incentive cannot be awarded unless the supported economic activity would not occur but for the incentive being offered. This provision has economic importance because if a firm would locate in a particular jurisdiction with or without receiving the economic incentive, then the economic impact of offering the incentive is non-existent. … The but-for provision represents the legislature’s attempt at preventing a local jurisdiction from awarding more than the minimum incentive necessary to induce a firm to locate within the jurisdiction. However, while a firm receiving the incentive is well aware of the minimum incentive necessary, the municipality is not.”
“This paper conducts a comprehensive assessment of the effectiveness of Chicago’s TIF program in creating economic opportunities and catalyzing real estate investments at the neighborhood scale. This paper uses a unique panel dataset at the block group level to analyze the impact of TIF designation and investments on employment change, business creation, and building permit activity. After controlling for potential selection bias in TIF assignment, this paper shows that TIF ultimately fails the ‘but-for’ test and shows no evidence of increasing tangible economic development benefits for local residents.” (emphasis added)
In the paper, the author clarifies:
“To clarify these findings, this analysis does not indicate that no building activity or job crea-tion occurred in TIFed block groups, or resulted from TIF projects. Rather, the level of these activities was no faster than similar areas of the city which did not receive TIF assistance. It is in this aspect of the research design that we are able to conclude that the development seen in and around Chicago’s TIF districts would have likely occurred without the TIF subsidy. In other words, on the whole, Chicago’s TIF program fails the ‘but-for’ test.
Later on, for emphasis:
“While the findings of this paper are clear and decisive, it is important to comment here on their exact extent and external validity, and to discuss the limitations of this analysis. First, the findings do not indicate that overall employment growth in the City of Chicago was negative or flat during this period. Nor does this research design enable us to claim that any given TIF-funded project did not end up creating jobs. Rather, we conclude that on-average, across the whole city, TIF was unsuccessful in jumpstarting economic development activity — relative to what would have likely occurred otherwise.” (emphasis in original)
The author notes that these conclusions are specific to Chicago’s use of TIF, but should “should serve as a cautionary tale.”
The paper reinforces the problem of using tax revenue for private purposes, rather than for public benefit: “Essentially, Chicago’s extensive use of TIF can be interpreted as the siphoning off of public revenue for largely private-sector purposes. Although, TIF proponents argue that the public receives enhanced economic opportunity in the bargain, the findings of this paper show that the bargain is in fact no bargain at all.”
TIF is social engineering
TIF represents social engineering. By using it, city government has decided that it knows best where development should be directed. In particular, the Wichita city council has decided that Old Town and downtown development is on a superior moral plane to other development. Therefore, we all have to pay higher taxes to support this development. What is the basis for saying Old Town developers don’t have to pay for their infrastructure, but developers in other parts of the city must pay?
TIF doesn’t work
Does TIF work? It depends on what the meaning of “work” is.
If by working, do we mean does TIF induce development? If so, then TIF usually works. When the city authorizes a TIF project plan, something usually gets built or renovated. But this definition of “works” must be tempered by a few considerations.
Does TIF pay for itself?
First, is the project self-sustaining? That is, is the incremental property tax revenue sufficient to repay the TIF bonds? This has not been the case with all TIF projects in Wichita. The city has had to bail out two TIFs, one with a no-interest and low-interest loan that cost city taxpayers an estimated $1.2 million.
The verge of corruption
Second, does the use of TIF promote a civil society, or does it lead to cronyism? Randal O’Toole has written:
“TIF puts city officials on the verge of corruption, favoring some developers and property owners over others. TIF creates what economists call a moral hazard for developers. If you are a developer and your competitors are getting subsidies, you may simply fold your hands and wait until someone offers you a subsidy before you make any investments in new development. In many cities, TIF is a major source of government corruption, as city leaders hand tax dollars over to developers who then make campaign contributions to re-elect those leaders.”
We see this in Wichita, where the regular recipients of TIF benefits are also regular contributors to the political campaigns of those who are in a position to give them benefits. The corruption is not illegal, but it is real and harmful, and calls out for reform. See In Wichita, the need for campaign finance reform.
The effect of TIF on everyone
Third, what about the effect of TIF on everyone, that is, the entire city or region? Economists have studied this matter, and have concluded that in most cases, the effect is negative.
“TIF districts grow much faster than other areas in their host municipalities. TIF boosters or naive analysts might point to this as evidence of the success of tax increment financing, but they would be wrong. Observing high growth in an area targeted for development is unremarkable.”
So TIF districts are good for the favored development that receives the subsidy — not a surprising finding. What about the rest of the city? Continuing from the same study:
“If the use of tax increment financing stimulates economic development, there should be a positive relationship between TIF adoption and overall growth in municipalities. This did not occur. If, on the other hand, TIF merely moves capital around within a municipality, there should be no relationship between TIF adoption and growth. What we find, however, is a negative relationship. Municipalities that use TIF do worse.
We find evidence that the non-TIF areas of municipalities that use TIF grow no more rapidly, and perhaps more slowly, than similar municipalities that do not use TIF.” (emphasis added)
In a different paper (The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development), the same economists wrote “We find clear and consistent evidence that municipalities that adopt TIF grow more slowly after adoption than those that do not. … These findings suggest that TIF trades off higher growth in the TIF district for lower growth elsewhere. This hypothesis is bolstered by other empirical findings.” (emphasis added)
“This article addresses the claim by examining the impact of TIF adoption on municipal employment growth in Illinois, looking for both general impact and impact specific to the type of development supported. Results find no general impact of TIF use on employment. However, findings suggest that TIF districts supporting industrial development may have a positive effect on municipal employment, whereas TIF districts supporting retail development have a negative effect on municipal employment. These results are consistent with industrial TIF districts capturing employment that would have otherwise occurred outside of the adopting municipality and retail TIF districts shifting employment within the municipality to more labor-efficient retailers within the TIF district.” (emphasis added)
These studies and others show that as a strategy for increasing the overall wellbeing of a city, TIF fails to deliver prosperity, and in fact, causes harm.
By Eileen Umbehr, wife of Libertarian Candidate for Kansas Governor Keen Umbehr
November 1, 2014
As this campaign draws to a close, my heart is heavy. Not so much because Keen was treated as a second-class candidate who didn’t deserve a seat at the table with his Democrat and Republican opponents, but because of the way I’ve seen God used as a selling point in politics.
For example, Keen is solidly pro-life. He believes in freedom as long as you do not cause harm to another human being, and a baby is a human being. But because he also acknowledges the reality that unless and until Roe v. Wade is overturned women maintain their right to choose, he is not considered pro-life enough.
The issue of same-sex marriage has also been deeply divisive and been used to garner votes. How a candidate may feel about two members of the same sex uniting in marriage is separate from his or her duty as a government official to ensure that all laws apply equally to all citizens. Could the government decide not to issue gay people a license to teach, cut hair, practice law, or engage in business?
What each of us believe and the tenets we choose to follow in our private lives is a personal matter. While Keen and I are both Christians who try to live according to the principles set forth in the Bible, where we differ from many of our fellow Christians is that we don’t believe it is our right — or the government’s right — to impose any particular religious belief on anyone. Even God doesn’t do that. If He did, wouldn’t He simply force everyone to believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins so they would all go to Heaven?
Keen is a strict constitutionalist. He believes in the First Amendment right of free speech even when it means that the Phelps’ family can spew messages of hate, causing immeasurable harm to families burying their loved ones. And he believes in the Sixth Amendment right to counsel even when the accused may be guilty of a heinous crime.
When it comes to the Fourteenth Amendment, there are many who feel it should not apply to gays wanting to marry because homosexuality is classified as a sin in the Bible. But isn’t fornication and sex before marriage also classified as a sin in the Bible? And yet no one is suggesting that folks who have engaged in these acts should be denied a marriage license.
Someone posted the following statement about Keen on a liberty-based Facebook page: “Don’t be deceived, this guy is pumping for same sex marriage.” Keen posted the following reply: “I am not ‘pumping’ for same sex marriage, I am ‘pumping’ for adhering to the Constitution which requires equal protection under the law. As long as the State of Kansas is in the business of issuing licenses — whether they be drivers’ licenses, marriage licenses or business licenses — they cannot discriminate against individuals on the basis of religion, gender, or race. How each individual chooses to live their lives is their business, not the government’s.”
In conclusion, if we really want to protect religious freedom in our country, then we should elect candidates who will defend the rights of all citizens to practice whichever religion they choose. That is true religious liberty.
But then, a candidate like that wouldn’t be considered Christian enough.
Competition must surely be one of the most misunderstood concepts. As applied to economics, government, and markets, the benefits of competition are not understood and valued.
Usually when people think of competition they think of words like hostile, cut-throat, or dog-eat-dog. They may reference the phrase “survival of the fittest,” making analogies to the law of the jungle. There, competition is brutal. The winners kill and eat the losers. Or, they may refer to games or sporting events, where a competition is created specifically to produce a winner and a loser.
The competitive process allows for constant testing, experimenting, and adapting in response to changing situations. It keeps businesses constantly on their toes to serve consumers. Both analytically and empirically, we can see that competitive systems produce better results than centralized or monopoly systems. That’s why, in books, newspaper articles, and television appearances, advocates of free markets stress the importance of the competitive marketplace and oppose restrictions on competition.
We often see people plead for cooperation, as being preferred over competition: “Can’t we all get along?” But Boaz says this: “What needs to be made clear is that those who say that human beings ‘are made for cooperation, not competition’ fail to recognize that the market is cooperation. Indeed, as discussed below, it is people competing to cooperate.”
Boaz says that cooperation is so essential to human flourishing that we don’t just want to talk about it; we want to create social institutions that make it possible. That is what property rights, limited government, and the rule of law are all about.
If we didn’t have well-defined property rights and rule of law, we would be continually fighting — competing, that is — over property and who owns it. Boaz says “It is our agreement on property rights that allows us to undertake the complex social tasks of cooperation and coordination by which we achieve our purposes.”
Cooperation and coordination in markets is what has allowed us to progress beyond the simple societies where each person has only what he himself produces, or what he can trade for with those in his immediate surroundings. Maybe it would be wonderful if this cooperation and coordination could be accomplished through benevolence, that is, by people doing good simply for good’s sake. Sort of like “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” During the last century we saw how political systems based on that philosophy worked out.
Human nature isn’t always benevolent. People are self-interested. They want more for themselves. In economies where property rights are respected and protected, the only legitimate way to get more stuff for yourself is by trading with others. You figure out what other people want, you produce it, and give it to them in exchange for what you want. And if you can figure out what people really want, that is, what they’re willing to trade a lot of their stuff in order to obtain, you can prosper. And since the trading is voluntary, both parties to the trade are better off.
In Adam Smith’s lasting imagery over two centuries ago: “By directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”
Figuring out what others place high value on and providing it to them — and doing that better than someone else — is what competition in markets is about. As Boaz said, it is “people competing to cooperate.” When you generate success in this way, rather than by stealing from others, we all benefit. We experience what Boaz and others call the “civil society.” We cooperate with others to get what we want, instead of beating them over the head and stealing from them. Our desire for more stuff, coupled with property rights and rule of law, means that we compete to make others’ lives better, so that in turn our own lives can be better.
Who knows best what people should have? Each person knows best for themselves, of course. People place different values on things, but it each person who knows best what he values, and how much he values it.
That’s the way voluntary markets work. But government and politics works differently. Here’s what Milton Friedman had to say on this topic: “[The political system] tends to give undue political power to small groups that have highly concentrated interests; to give greater weight to obvious, direct and immediate effects of government action than to possibly more important but concealed, indirect and delayed effects; to set in motion a process that sacrifices the general interest to serve special interests rather than the other way around. There is, as it were, an invisible hand in politics that operates in precisely the opposite direction to Adam Smith’s invisible hand.”
So the benefits of market competition and cooperation are turned around and perverted in government and politics. There are many examples of this. Currently in Kansas we have a vivid example unfolding. The Blob — that’s the public school establishment — doesn’t want to allow competition, at least not competition using taxpayer funds in the form of charter schools, vouchers, or tax credit scholarships. It doesn’t want existing teachers to face competition from professionals who haven’t spent years earning a teaching degree and obtained a license.
Instead of the values of civil society, where people compete to cooperate with others in order to accomplish their goals, our public schools operate under a different system. Politicians and courts will tell us how much to spend on schools, and will pass laws to seize payment from people. Bureaucrats will tell us what schools will teach, and how they will teach it. If parents don’t like what government provides, they’re free to send their children somewhere else. But they still must pay for a product they’ve determined they have no use for.
The benefit of market competition, that is, the “constant testing, experimenting, and adapting” that Boaz writes about, is missing from government-run schools. Instead, the centralized monopoly of public schools plods along. We place all our eggs in the No Child Left Behind basket. That law is now considered by nearly everyone as a failure. So we attempt to impose another centralized, monopolistic system: the Common Core Standards.
Instead of peacefully and happily competing to cooperate in the education of Kansas schoolchildren, there is vitriol. Extreme vitriol, I would say. No one seems happy with the system. Great effort is spent fighting — jungle competition, we might say, rather than cooperating. And for some crazy reason, we use this system for many other things, too.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A Kansas newspaper editorial is terribly confused about schools and the nature of competition in markets. Then, we already knew that the wind power industry in Kansas enjoys tax credits and mandates. Now we learn that the industry largely escapes paying property taxes. Episode 38, broadcast April 6, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.