Tag Archives: libertarian

Voters are Ill-informed; Politicians are Hypocrites

The NY Times recently ran an article about Alaska, which attracted my attention since I was planning a vacation to that giant state (in fact, I am drafting this entry on my flight to Anchorage). But this article wasn’t about fishing, or the awesome glaciers, or how to avoid being eaten by bears. No, this article was about the irony of Alaska being the home of such anti-government fervor (Sarah Palin’s small government views are pretty representative of her home state) while at the same time being the largest recipient of federal stimulus money.

For example, Alaska state representative Carl Gatto called to roll back the federal government’s “entire socialistic experiment in federal hegemony.” Yet he also celebrated that “for every $1 we give them in taxes for highways, they give us back $5.76.”  Jay Ramras, another state rep, embodied the dichotomy in a single quote: “If you want to feed us federal money like it’s a narcotic and make the state into a junkie of the U.S. Treasury, O.K.,” he allows. “But we would like to be an Emersonian Alaska and just get control of our resources.”

Of course, Alaska is not alone in this irony. There is a strong correlation between conservative states talking a big game about “government out of our business” while sucking aggressively at the federal teat. This map shows how red states take more than they give, and this chart shows traditionally republican states leading the way in receiving more federal dollars than they pay in taxes. And here is a brand new map from the NY Times based on census data.

So how do we explain this paradox? I suppose it could simply be the essential greed of humanity, people feeling that they are justified in taking as much as they can while giving as little as possible. Or it could be a canny political move, trying to drain the coffers of the government in order to force it to shrink, sort of a “starve the beast” movement at the grass roots level. But I don’t think either of those explanations fly. I think, instead, that the average voter doesn’t even make the connection between small government and services provided, between taxes paid and resources received. When voters say “don’t tax me” while taking a bridge paid by other citizen’s taxes, they don’t see the irony because they don’t even realize that taxes are what pay for bridges. See this piece by James Kwak on how the whole tax & service thing works, and this piece by David Sirota on how American voters seem to lack the ability to remember what policies worked or didn’t work in the past.

The politicians, on the other hand, who vote for these policies, like Carl Gatto and Jay Ramras from the NY Times article, or Ted Stevens, a major obtainer of federal dollars for the state, should actually understand how taxes and services are related. I mean, they are professional legislators, and this is a basic part of government budgeting. They are not ignorant, like the voters; they’re just hypocritical, saying and doing whatever they must to get reelected. They recognize the irony in calling for lower taxes while trumpeting the bacon they bring home from Washington…they just don’t care. They use that irony to cynically take advantage of the electorate’s lack of understanding, and it gets them elected year after year.

I just returned from a week in Alaska, where I saw this phenomenon in action multiple times. There will be follow-on posts on this topic.

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No Taxes = No Government Services

There was a great article in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday about cash-strapped counties letting their rural roads decay from pavement to gravel, since gravel is much cheaper to maintain. It seems telling and appropriate that we are going back to 1940’s road conditions, since we’ve spent the six decades since then overspending, undersaving and generally acting like idiots.

Several of the counties mentioned in the article have put the gravel decision up for a vote, with ballot measures that give citizens the opportunity to choose higher taxes and pavement or lower taxes and gravel. I dig that: let the people decide. But of course, this being America, some people want it both ways.

“Judy Graves of Ypsilanti, N.D., voted against the measure to raise taxes for roads. But she says she and others nonetheless wrote to Gov. John Hoeven and asked him to stop Old 10 from being ground up because it still carries traffic to a Cargill Inc. malting plant.”

So Judy doesn’t want to pay taxes to cover the cost of the road, but she wants the road paved anyway. OK people, let me explain some basic math to you. If you don’t pay taxes, you don’t get services. It’s that simple. If you don’t pay the cashier at Safeway, you don’t get to take your groceries. If you don’t pay at Home Depot, you’re not able to walk out with paint and brushes. Why should government be any different? If you don’t pay for it, you’re not going to get it.

Serious libertarians know this. Their approach is that government shouldn’t provide most services. Cool. I don’t agree, but I get it. Unfortunately, the common approach in our society is more Judy Graves and less libertarian, calling for lower taxes but more services. Less money in, more money out. This is unsustainable, and it’s why Judy and her Ypsilanti neighbors are going to be driving on gravel instead of asphalt.

J.S. Mill and Financial Regulation

I was recently on vacation, which gave me a chance to reread John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. This is a classic of the individual liberty movement, and I thought this might be an apt time to revisit it, what with the government nationalizing some financial institutions and making major investments in others, and almost certainly about to heavily reregulate the financial markets.

My expectation was that Mill would provide ammunition for those arguing against government involvement, but I was wrong. In fact, Mill clearly supports a government that is active in many affairs of its citizens, as long as there are definite and specific limits to that activity. As Mill says, “the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct toward the rest.” (p 70, all quotes from the Norton edition)

But let me take a step back. The money quote that summarizes all of On Liberty is this: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (p. 10) Mill’s basic position is that people should be allowed to do and say as they please, as long as they don’t harm anybody else. If left at this, Mill could easily be read to support a fully Libertarian position.

But Mill doesn’t leave it at that. Instead, he teases out a pretty broad definition of “harm,” and thereby a broad set of circumstances under which government can interfere in individual affairs. Continuing the quote from above, Mill notes “this conduct consists, first, in not injuring the interests of one another.” (p. 70) This sentence alone seems to support regulation of Wall Street, since virtually every trade has a counterparty whose interests are affected. Mill goes even further, claiming that the state can compel certain behavior from individuals: “to bear his fair share in the common defence, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection.” (p. 12)

For Mill, the default position is to give people freedom, but he recognizes that a civil society involves so many interactions that the default may be infrequent, and thus there is significant warrant for government action. So while there are plenty of reasons to disagree with government policy on the financial bailout, John Stuart Mill is not one of them.