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Government isn’t Free

November 29, 2009

I’m in Bermuda this week: lush green everywhere and people really take care of the place.  The houses are all whitewashed or painted bright pastel colors.  Trash is nowhere to be seen.  I went with my friend Michael to a trash collection and recycling facility to throw out an old cabinet.  Trash is burned and produces electricity–a really great thing.

I asked whether there was regular trash collection in Bermuda or if people were obliged to bring it in.  Michael said that there was regular trash collection, free, provided by the government.  I started to chuckle and he realized what he’d said, acknowledging that no, it wasn’t really free, you paid the government to do it.

This was no “aha moment” for either of us.  Whenever the government provides services, people pay for it.  But it does seem to be a strange notion for too many Americans these days.

It’s a lesson we forget at our peril.  Perhaps one reason we forget is that it’s not like going to the grocery store.  There, as anywhere in the free market, we hand over our money and we get the goods.  This simple transaction is the result of choice on the part of both parties.  You look at your receipt and you know what you’ve paid for.

When the government gets involved, it’s more complex.  In the first place, someone has made the decision that (for example) collecting the trash is something that needs to be done and secondly, that government is the agent that should do it.   In a republic like ours that means that the people’s elected representatives have made that decision because the majority of the people want it that way.  Then, to carry  out this “mandate” of the people, government collects money from taxpayers and uses that money to collect and dispose of the trash.

This is where is has already gotten complicated.  Even though a majority of people may have wanted things this way, everybody gets their trash collected whether they want it or need it or not.  This is called tyranny of the majority because the majority force their will on the minority.  Generally we accept it because although it constrains our liberty we have agreed to majority rule:  That’s the Social Contract.  We accept the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number–an idea which is called utilitarianism.  You go along to get along.

The more subtle thing that has happened is that costs have been transferred.  A majority of citizens may have wanted the government to take action but the taxpayers paid for it.  The Founders were smart guys who knew their history and they knew that when there was a large pool of citizens and a small pool of taxpayers, the citizens could use the government to transfer the wealth of the taxpayers to themselves.  Think Roman Empire.  Think bread and circus.  This is why in the Constitution there was a provision that you had to have a certain amount of property in order to vote.  The bar was pretty low but the point was that in order for you to participate in voting for representatives who would determine taxes and spending you had to have some skin in the game.

All that has changed.  The majority of voters in the USA pay no taxes and some even get money from the government, the so-called Earned Income Credit.  Any voting requirement other than breathing has been declared unfair by the courts–and in some places even breathing is optional.  Obama and the Congress not only support this wealth transfer but actually think wealth transfer is a good thing.   They want to do it on a huge scale with health care.

When government acts on a small scale with wide agreement,  such as trash collection, we lose a little liberty but society as a whole gains and we think it’s a fair trade.  When government acts on a huge scale such as health care and most people don’t want in the first place, everyone loses.

Government isn’t free: the cost of government is liberty.

One Comment
  1. November 29, 2009 7:01 pm

    I found your site on Google and read a few of your other entires. Nice Stuff. I’m looking forward to reading more from you.

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