Since at least the late 1980s, policy disputes in the United States have largely revolved around the actual and perceived deficiencies of government. It has been an article of faith among self-styled fiscal conservatives that wasteful state and federal governments are imposing excessive and unnecessary tax burdens on the American public.
Engaging in this line of argumentation is particularly appealing to candidates for public office, since it plays to widespread resentment of the obligation to pay taxes while avoiding the pesky need to identify specific instances of the “fraud and waste” that are widely supposed to exist.
There are certainly situations where tax dollars are misspent. Most of those situations involve poor management practices, since voters tend to base their support for political candidates on ideology rather than perceived managerial competence. But more often than not, assertions of “waste” are based upon disagreement with something that government is doing–a belief that services being provided or programs being supported are unnecessary (especially when such services or programs are primarily seen to benefit others).
What government should do, and how it should fund what it does, are persistent and entirely legitimate issues. The problem is, too many of us have imbibed the Kool-aid; we want the services, we want to live in thriving communities with a good quality of life, but we don’t want to pay for the services and amenities necessary to produce that quality of life.
Worse, we frequently don’t recognize the ways in which we benefit even from government programs and services we don’t personally use. A couple of examples:
When voters are asked to support bond issues or tax increases for public education, people who do not have children in the system (usually a majority of those voting) often oppose the measures, because they see no personal benefit, no immediate “return on investment.” What they fail to recognize is that the quality of local public education systems affects their property values, enhances (or diminishes) job creation efforts, and makes their communities safer and more attractive. In the long run, good schools are in their personal self-interest.
Similar metrics apply to taxes for public transportation. Even people who will never use transit benefit personally from public transportation systems that reduce congestion, improve air quality, connect low-income workers to their places of employment, and improve mobility for the elderly and disabled.
Even people who care only about minimizing their personal tax burden will ultimately benefit, because long-term, the ability to hold down tax rates (especially here in Indiana, where constitutionally-imposed tax caps severely restrict municipal governments’ revenue options) will depend upon a city’s ability to grow its tax base–its ability to entice people to move in, buy homes and start businesses. Cities that successfully market themselves do so based upon quality of life measures–good schools, well-maintained parks, excellent public transportation.
Often, sound investments take time to generate returns. That’s particularly true of investments in our communities.
Sometimes, “self-interest properly understood” (as De Tocqueville noted many years ago) is the opposite of immediate gratification. That doesn’t mean the investments aren’t necessary and worthwhile.