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Public Goods Anyone

<jor debate today, as it has really always been in American politics, is about the proper size of government. I’m not causing any earthquakes with that statement. However, the right’s success at perpetuating the lie of a secret socialist takeover makes it exceptionally relevant today. The core philosophical questions are: what should government provide its citizens and how much should it intervene in private economic matters? It is a worthy argument, yet one that today gets muddled and distorted through ideology; there is little practicality present in the current conversation. Critics of government point to budget-busting entitlements, bailouts, and subsidies to note how the government creates perverse market incentives and inefficiencies. There is little conversation, however, about how these government actions are just part of its job of supplying public goods. The real debate should be about whether certain goods are truly public, not about whether public goods are good, per se. Much of the reason for the quality of today’s debate lies in the frames and values politicians have learned to place onto terms. Ideology and polarization have given social constructs, like the government or the corporation, inherent value (or lack thereof), which makes any type of moderate viewpoint seem amoral and unprincipled.

Part of the trouble we’re having is that we have lost sight that government and its provision of public goods are an organic and natural occurrence, just like markets. We fail too often to see that each mechanism arises simultaneously to fulfill different societal needs. We need to return to basics.
Lets start with a story about a community. The community is completely self-sufficient. It is made up of individuals and groups of individuals who, collectively, have the unique skills and talents to provide for the community. This town is a perfectly functioning market.

But then imagine, lets say, that the town realizes that there are some goods that everyone uses, like roads, light poles and street lamps. Each person uses them roughly the same amount, so it seems that rather than allow private corporations to control access to these goods for a fee, the town should guarantee everyone can use them. The town decides, then, that since all of its residents use these things about the same amount, and the whole town needs them to sustain its economy, it should hire some people in the community, who are accountable only to the community, to oversee the maintenance of these goods. That group of officials will be responsible for hiring companies to build and sustain this vital infrastructure, but through each member of the community paying into the system, the town can guarantee that these goods will always be available. In addition, the community decides every few years whether or not these public goods managers are doing a good job and spending money on worthwhile public goods and investments.

What are these public goods managers really? Politicians. What do we call those payments into the system that maintain the provision of public goods? Taxes. And what do we call the organization these politicians manage that oversees these public goods? Well, that’s just government.

The story obviously goes further and becomes more complex. For instance, maybe the town decides that guaranteeing an education to everyone regardless of economic class should be a function of the government as well, because an adequately educated workforce is necessary to creating sustainable economic growth. Anything that government spends money on can be thought of as a public good.
Now, I’m not saying anything mind-blowing by presenting this simplified version of society. But I think we do tend to lose sight of what government’s role is in society. Many conservatives wouldn’t disagree that government should supply most of these services I’ve mentioned, but the rhetoric out of the anti-government crowd often gets people to lose sight of government’s usefulness. The primary consequence to this lack of understanding is a lack of thoughtfulness; we end up stigmatizing taxing and spending without thinking about what their purposes are. Government is now increasingly an inherently good or bad thing, rather than something with strengths and weaknesses, which should therefore be utilized thoughtfully. The corporation is also a social construct and an organic part of society. Yet like government, the corporation—and the for-profit capitalist system it represents—now contains inherent value as well. Supporters are backers of freedom and capitalism while detractors are closet communists. There does not seem to be any space for moderate voices; they’re branded as unprincipled.

The real consequence of this kind of dogma emerges when real problems arise and the political system, and society by extension, is incapable of having a mature conversation about our challenges. In a few days, most political observers expect Democrats to be clobbered by a wave of conservative anger, independent flight, and a lack of enthusiasm and turnout in the liberal base. The conservative rhetoric, unsurprisingly, urges tax and spending cuts as well as a nice sprinkle of debt fear mongering. How someone cuts taxes and spending while balancing the budget is anyone’s guess. Unfortunately, the anti-tax and spending ideology has led to conservatives arguing for spending cuts without ever specifying what government programs they would cut at the magnitude needed to also balance the budget. Republicans just say that there will be the need to have an adult conversation with the electorate about spending choices in the near future, but after the election of course.

The real tragedy is that, although my illustration above is obviously oversimplified, government and its provisions do play vital roles in society, just as the private sector does. There are legitimate debates to be had, like whether social engineering should happen through public programs or the tax code, or at all. A conversation about whether to have a flatter or more progressive tax code is a worthy and needed one. The argument about whether centralized or de-centralized government is part of the fabric of American life! Yet, if there’s anything the upcoming election will teach us, it’s that the details don’t matter, and thoughtful consideration of them are therefore politically suicidal. There’s no need to set priorities, because everyone should be treated as children.

Government can only work if people believe it can, and if they understand it as a necessity. Then what can follow is a conversation about what our national challenges are, one where we honestly evaluate our public needs and constraints. But lets be honest, that’s not where the money is. There are votes to be had, elections to be won, and power to be gained. After all, you can’t waste voters’ time with the details. Personally, my hope for the future is just that by the time I retire, government has finally gotten its hands off of my Medicare.

-David Heifetz is a Carletonian columnist.

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