Thursday, March 15, 2007

Government for Community, not for Individuals

After a week discussing the first part of my immigration plan (a column not yet on the web site, so I haven't posted it), I went back to expand on my theme from two weeks ago regarding what government should spend money on.

My column, Government for the Community, touched on the purpose of Government to serve the community, not individuals, the problem of government funding private charity, and how the only thing that will save us are people willing to enforce fiscal discipline:

Government for the community

By Charles Reichley
Potomac News
Thursday, March 15, 2007

Two weeks ago, I argued that Prince William County should not run a senior day program. Unfortunately, the Board of County Supervisors deferred a decision on the program until June, after supporters put together a group of over 30 citizens (more than use the program) to lobby for its retention.

This shows why it is so hard to cut the county budget. Each day another letter-writer bemoans cuts in "critical" services, noting taxpayers are only saving "pennies" a day. The truth is, while the average tax cut will be about $138, funding all the programs requested would require a tax increase.

Still, the problem is clear. People who use a program will show up to defend it. A packed house attended last Tuesday's board meeting to save the program. But who will take a day off from work to fight for "pennies a day"? There are over 400,000 people in our county. Cut a program used by 30 people, and they are much more motivated to fight for the program than the other 399,970 are to kill it.

In fact, if someone asked you to donate a buck to save the program, you might well do so. But nobody is asking you -- instead, they are asking the county to take the dollar from you by force of law.

One person who supports the center questioned giving tax dollars to private non-profits to perform services. I agree -- the county should not give our money to private organizations who serve individuals, any more than they should spend the money directly.

The entanglement of charities and government makes it harder to cut programs. Organizations have paid lobbyists to attend meetings and explain the dire consequences of funding cuts. The board is told how their small "donation" is multiplied by volunteer efforts and private giving, so a small cut will have a large impact on the programs being supported.

If a program is a legitimate government service, there's nothing wrong with contracting a private organization if they can do the job better and more efficiently than the government. But it should not be treated as a "donation" or "matching contribution". And a program that isn't appropriate for government does not become "appropriate" by laundering the money through a charitable group.

What is an "appropriate government service?" The key is whether a program primarily helps individuals, or primarily helps the community. Of course, any program that "helps individuals" could have a side effect of helping the community.

Government is for the community, not for the individuals in the community. If a program mostly serves individuals, it is suspect. If it duplicates services available from the private sector, it is additionally suspect. If it's only for a small group of people, not the entire community, government probably shouldn't be involved.

In the case of the senior program, the community wasn't suffering because a few seniors needed day care. You can hire home caregivers. There is a private center available. The program only serves a few people, and isn't open to the general population.

Compare that with the library system. Every resident can use the library -- in 2005, our libraries had more than 1.5 million visits. While you can buy books, an individual cannot access millions of literary works. Schools use libraries to provide reference material for students. Libraries are a place for citizens to gather, and for programs which benefit the community and are open to all.

The county has proposed eliminating two community libraries. People who use those libraries are lobbying the board to reconsider. The savings are similar to the senior program cut, but the library serves the whole community while the day care program primarily benefits a few individuals.

The Founders had a wise idea -- that any money collected by government be paid equally by all, and spent for the good of all. That way, nobody could use government to take money from their neighbor for their own use.

What keeps government from taxing the richest people, and using the money to buy everybody else a big-screen TV? Only citizens who know it is wrong to take other people's money for their own enrichment -- a group that sadly seems to be fast shrinking.

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