Against Public Works

 Posted by on 9 April 2009 at 11:01 pm  Government, Politics
Apr 092009

On a mailing list, someone recently asked about Adam Smith’s “third duty of government,” namely:

… the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.

The person asked, and reasonably so:

How is this determined; and to what extent is the benefit of the majority a reasonable argument for the forced expense of any individual? (i.e., National defense)

Here was my reply:

Adam Smith’s view puts us on a slippery slope, I think. It concedes the moral superiority of the collective over the individual.

If you grant that it’s acceptable to forcibly tax people to provide for “public works” and “public institutions,” then you’ll soon be forcibly taxing people to satisfy the demands of narrow special interests. Why? Because the mechanism of doling out such public funds can and will be used by the special interests that stand to gain so many unearned dollars from it.

That’s certainly has happened in American history, to such an extent that we’re now spending billions on special interests with barely any discussion thereof. Everyone expects their slice of the government pie, they demand it at other people’s expense, and they get it. While many people question the legitimacy of this or that project, few people question the legitimacy of the basic principle. They accept that some people should be forced to part with their money for the sake of projects of no interest to them — or even projects contrary to their values. But that’s wrong.

If some project is truly of great benefit to humanity, then either (1) the users of that project should be willing to pay for the benefit they get (e.g. by paying to visit the museum, attend the opera, drive on the road, attend the school, or use the open space) or (2) benefactors, whether large or small, must be found to fund it (e.g. to endow the school, museum, or opera). Often, some combination of those two methods is perfectly workable — as history itself shows. (The National Gallery of Art, for example, was created and endowed by Andrew Mellon and other private collectors.)

If some grand project cannot be funded by either of those two voluntary methods, then it’s clearly not valued by the public. And in that case, to force people to spend their hard-earned dollars on it is utterly indefensible. It’s a sham, in fact.

As a side note, I regard the military, the police, and the courts as a different kind of case than “public works”: they are legitimate functions of government. Yes, they do benefit everyone, and they are necessary to the existence of a civilized society. Yet even in their case, coercive taxation is morally wrong — and practically dangerous. All government should be financed by voluntary contributions. If we can have an all-volunteer military — where men and women put their lives on the line for too-low pay in order to protect America (and more, unfortunately) — then citizens voluntarily contributing their part in taxes is hardly far-fetched.


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