Something for Nothing?

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November 29, 2009 by D Stack

About a week ago Tom Friedman had a column in the New York Times where he talked about the thing the United States needs isn’t better leaders but better citizens.

The standard answer is that we need better leaders. The real answer is that we need better citizens. We need citizens who will convey to their leaders that they are ready to sacrifice, even pay, yes, higher taxes, and will not punish politicians who ask them to do the hard things. Otherwise, folks, we’re in trouble. A great power that can only produce suboptimal responses to its biggest challenges will, in time, fade from being a great power — no matter how much imagination it generates.

The idea of needing better citizens is one that has been working its way through my brain for a while. It is suicide for a politician to ask anything of the voters. To say that he feels something is necessary even if its expense is such that it may require taxes to go up. Here in Massachusetts towns need to pass an override through the voters in order to increase real estate taxes. You should see (or perhaps you have seen) the fights these overrides generate.

In his article Friedman mentions California is rapidly becoming a “failed state”. One of the biggest reasons of it is California makes it easy to put anything on the ballot. This allows, in a term I’ve seen floating around the internet in many places, California to tax itself like libertarians but spend like socialists.

Though I disagree with libertarian politics and philosophy, there is a certain honesty to it. The state will provide the barest of services and in return take the smallest possible taxes. My problem with this is I do not buy into the free market utopia that will result from this. I believe the United States and United Kingdom came quite close to this in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It became clear that charities and opportunity would not be adequate to provide for the great majority of citizens in an absolutely free market economy.

However, the example of California shows that citizens are often unwilling to face the costs of government programs will incur. You’ve got to pay for all these wonderful programs. I feel that our nation is lagging behind in boldness – we can’t do anything big because we can’t pay for it. Partly this is because our defense budget is huge – I’ve read sources that site the US defense budget nearly being equal to that of all other nations’ defense budgets combined. But partly because we have conditioned our leaders not to. No program can be easily ended, no matter how inefficient, so long as there is some constituent group to champion it. Nor can a bold new program be easily launched, no matter its benefits, because we can’t afford it, either by new taxes or by cutting older programs. You can easily tell from this blog that I support the health care reform being proposed, but in all honesty, for all the wrangling, it is not that bold a change compared with what other nations do.

What do we do? I think we need to start in small ways. Reward politicians at the local level who do what is needed, who look out for both the short- and long-term needs of their constituents. Reward the selectman or town councilor who is willing to ask for a sacrifice for the betterment of the town. It’s clearly too late to change things at the federal level, at least right away. We need to start close to home and work our way up.



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November 2009
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