READER RESPONSE -- More on the concept of a "public good"Posted by Craig Westover | 3:07 PM |
In addition to a some personal attack flak on the latest column, there’s been some intelligent dissent, which this letter pretty much captures. My response is below.
I read your column today and it occasioned a few thoughts. First, it’s so refreshing to read a thoughtful writer on public affairs. So much of what appears today is polemic, opinions masquerading as argument, devoid of facts or evidence or even sound logic. But for so many writers today, if they oppose something (that seems to be what motivates most) they seem to believe they don’t need to make a case for their position, they just need to slam the target of their wrath. [Link added, and here]
Having said that, I think your piece is missing a critical part of the equation: under our system of government, decisions about what is a public good are supposed to be made by people elected by the citizens. The “they” you are criticizing in your piece are “our elected representatives”. If we don’t like how they vote, we can vote against them in the next election. I’m afraid you’ve fallen into the trap of calling a decision you don’t like improper, when in fact, it’s just a decision by our elected officials that you don’t like.
Don’t get me wrong, I wrote for years critically of governments’ use of eminent domain and especially tax increment financing to finance private development. Cleary it has become too common. Privately owned ski lifts and ballparks fit under this category. I’d like to see more elected officials punished for it by the voters.
As for Charles Murray, I take issue with his last two points as a checklist for determining “public interest”
2. Does it ask people to pay for a government service they don't want?
3. Does it significantly benefit some people more than others?
There will always be people who don’t want to pay for some public benefit. My family uses the public parks, so we support, and benefit from spending on them more than someone who doesn’t. I think number 2 also ignores how our representative form of government is supposed to work. We are a republic, not a democracy, for a very good reason, and it’s worked pretty well most of our history. I’m not sure we would have highways or airports if Murray’s criteria had been used to determine whether to build them.
Anyway, just a few thoughts from a reader.
Thanks for the complement and taking the time to write. “Public good” is worth a lot more than just a 700-word column, but this is the kind of discussion I hoped it might generate. So let’s start with your paragraph --
“Having said that, I think your piece is missing a critical part of the equation: under our system of government, decisions about what is a public good are supposed to be made by people elected by the citizens. The “they” you are criticizing in your piece are “our elected representatives”. If we don’t like how they vote, we can vote against them in the next election. I’m afraid you’ve fallen into the trap of calling a decision you don’t like improper, when in fact, it’s just a decision by our elected officials that you don’t like.”Here I would argue, that you have fallen into the trap of assumption of propriety -- that because we elect officials to make decisions, any decision they make is necessarily proper. That is not the case.
Government has certain proper functions, which includes or should include specific criteria by which to judge a public good. My point is, that simply because a majority of legislators think something is a public good, that doesn’t make it one, any more than if the majority of legislatures think something is constitutional that makes it so.
Something is a public good or it is not. Police, courts, roads, light rail, ski jumps and zoo exhibits must share some common criteria that makes them public goods, not just nice things to have or specific goods for some segment of the population, before we consider funding them.
(I happen to love the Twins and would love to see the new ballpark built. But that I like the decision and will go to the new stadium is not relevant to whether or not it is a public good.)
You take issue with Murray’s last two criteria. I short-changed him a bit; they come from a much longer discussion. You’re right, to a degree, but some additional points beyond the scope of the column.
Of course, some people will not want a public benefit or will never directly use a public benefit. The issues are “some” and the level of government at which they are being paid for.City parks are a good example, or bike trails here in Afton. The majority of people in Afton want bike trails. I may never use them, and I pay taxes to support them. I have relatively easy access to local officials and meetings to lobby for a change. If I am still unhappy about the bike trails, I can move relatively easily. The point is, the smaller the unit of government, the more democratic, i.e. majoritarian, it can be. However, state taxes shouldn’t be used to fund my Afton bike trails. Now you’re getting to Murray’s points. Afton pays, the benefit accrues to Afton and the majority of Afton wants bike trails. I have relatively easy recourse to protest or vote against people that support bike trails. (I happen to like the bike trails, by the way.)
However, that does not mean that Afton bike trails are proper in the bonding bill at the state level. In that case the funding of many would benefit only a select targeted few. I have very little influence with legislators on the bike trail issue and no one is going to vote out a state legislature based on the bike trail vote.
On a larger scale, if St. Paul and Minneapolis want to put in light rail, fine. But why should taxpayers in Fergus Falls pay for Twin Cities light rail? Why, moreover, should taxpayers in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, contribute through federal tax dollars? If Twin Cities residents and light rail riders had to pay what it really costs to build and operate light rail, we’d think twice about it.
As to roads, airports and you can add education, you are on the fine edge of the discussion here, which is good to have, but doesn’t justify ski jumps and volley ball centers.
Some people, I am not one, will argue that roads and airports could be done privately. Could be, but I can make a criteria-based “public good” argument for both, which cannot be made for light rail, for example. Roads and airports directly facilitate commerce that affects me even if I don’t fly and don’t drive. Goods are delivered to my neighborhood store on roads and mail and goods are delivered through the airport. Without roads and air ports service would be significantly deteriorated.
Light rail has no commercial value to those that do not ride it. One might make the argument that people going to work indirectly benefit non-riders, but even without light rail, those people were and would continue to get to work without deterioration of service. Moreover, light rail doesn’t solve real transportation problems -- we are subsidizing suburban couples -- one takes the train into the city and one drives the kid to daycare and goes to a suburban job in the SUV. Off the top of my head I recall the transit study, something like 70 - 80 percent of light rail riders own a car compared to 40 some percent of bus riders. Light rail is a specific benefit for a specific group of people, not the public at large.
Everyone benefits from roads and airports, my benefiting from a road doesn’t stop you from benefiting, it would be difficult to assess me a charge for the benefit I derive from the commercial benefits of roads and airports. They are public goods.
Education is a little more difficult argument, but I also believe it is a public good -- everyone benefits from an educated public. I use it as an example because while I agree government does a pretty good job handling the public good of roads and airports, it does a lousy job managing the public good of education. I’d vote for new people to run education, but it would be improper to deny it is a public good and vote for people to de-fund it.
Thanks for the note.
Anticipating the voucher question -- "Public Education" is education that benefits the public at large, not just those that run a specific, government monopoly system. It's legitimate to tax everyone for educating children; dumping all the funds into a single system is simply bad management.