I Choose the State

On Robert Reich’s blog, aly k wrote:

“And without a normative justification for the State, whether it be in the form of democratic government or a horrific tyrant, taxes can’t be justified (philosophically).”

I responded with the below message:

The most moving argument from the state can be stated in economists’ terms. It is sometimes called “the public goods” justification. Goes something like this (paraphrased from Wikipedia):

A market may allow individuals to create and allocate many goods optimally. But there are some goods — “public goods” — that are not produced adequately in a market system. These collective goods are ones that all individuals want (hypothetically — this is often a normative judgment, but comes from very basic things we consider to be “human rights”) but for whose production it is often not individually rational for people to secure a collectively rational outcome. The state can step in and force us all to contribute toward the production of these goods, and we can all thereby be made better off.

For example, it is true that if we had only private schools, people with a lot of money could ensure the best education for their children without having to pay for both the private school and the taxes necessary to fund the public school. But poor parents will have no choice but to send their children to less well-maintained and more poorly-staffed schools.

Supposedly, for society to progress we would prefer if all members of society had access to good schooling, regardless of the social class into which they were born. (That is, whether my parent is a millionaire investor or a plumber, I should have access to a good education.) Therefore, it makes some sense for us to pay a tax to the state, and for the state to provide good (and equal) schooling for everyone. What’s more, because the state needn’t turn a profit on schools, their overall cost through taxation can be lower than private schools would be.

Schools are one of those things you would prefer not be left to the market, because supposedly it’s good for everyone that everyone else is educated above a certain level. These people, after all, will become your neighbors, employers, employees, clients, etc. They also will be voting in elections.

In other words, if you value a high level of education as a universal right which should be secured for all citizens regardless of the socioeconomic class they are born into, then you are essentially already arguing for the state, because the market, per se, will not secure a high quality education for every individual.

Similar arguments can be made about health care, large pieces of infrastructure (like highways, roads, traffic lights), and certain components of institutional security (like firefighters, police officers, etc.). The state shouldn’t do everything — it should only make the level of quality equal across a market for certain goods, due to moral concerns we have. People shouldn’t have access to worse roads, or worse health care, or less firefighter or police protection, just because they live in a town of poor people.

We are okay with poorer people having less access to shiny new BMWs, bottled water, and Starbucks coffee, because these are frivolous private expenditures anyway. The poor person who drinks less Starbucks coffee than me won’t grow up to be an ignorant, sick, armed and desperate person ready to murder me on the street for the $40 in my pocket. But the uneducated person, without access to healthcare and who lives in a violent neighborhood with no police officers will certainly slay me for the $40 in my pocket.

To bring out the goodness in Man, I choose the state.

(That said, some states are better than others!)

One thought on “I Choose the State”

  1. I agree with your premise that governments should ensure the basic rights the people, but I think your definition of a right needs examination. A natural right is something you can do, not a service to which you are entitled. You have the right to protect your life and your property. You do not have the right to tell someone else to protect your life or property, because that would make that person your slave and violate their natural rights. A government does not grant these rights to the people, but a good government will establish legal rights to protect these natural rights. When a government establishes legal rights that are not grounded in natural rights it is really just creating entitlement programs which will inevitably become bloated bureaucracies delivering substandard service without a profit incentive.

    I could offer a rebuttal to all the programs you mentioned, but I will stick to education for now. Let’s look at the origins of the system. The government school system has we know it today has its origins in the early twentieth century. At the time of its inception, President Woodrow Wilson said in regards to the system, “we want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” Around the same time William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education wrote, “Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.” It is clear that this system was not intended to inspire and educate the people, but to condition them to a life of routine, unskilled labor. While you believe you will be granting all Americans a great education, you will merely be giving the government the power to easily indoctrinate the masses.

    The market will provide mechanisms to ensure anyone who wants an education can have one. Not all schools will be equal, of course, but do you delude yourself into thinking that all government schools are equal, or that the rich do not still get a better education even with the existence of government schools? Why can’t we allow the market to handle education the same way it handles the more vital functions of food and shelter? Would you favor a world in which the government distributes all food? Only if you like standing in bread lines.

    I think that the ultimate way to create a representative government is to make taxation voluntary. That way, the people will truly decide the level of government they want to support.

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