I’ve been mulling over a Facebook comment to my post a week or so ago about the insanity of Indiana’s single-minded focus on low taxes as the magic medicine for everything and anything that ails us.
A reader named Brian wrote
I think this comment highlights a reality that all too often gets buried in the zealotry of the Left/Right debate: the fundamental question we face, especially in cities, isn’t whether we will pay for services. It’s how.
Most of us are unwilling to forgo police and fire protection, garbage collection, paved streets, and schools for our children. Most of us, if survey data is to be believed, also want convenient and reliable public transportation, parks and bike paths. Many of us are undoubtedly willing to forgo sports arenas and cricket fields, but we all want and need museums and libraries, as well as the more basic necessities and amenities that make life in urban areas attractive.
Those necessities and amenities cost money, but they cost less when we provide them collectively.
Some day, when time permits, I want to do an experiment. I want to calculate what it would cost to procure these services in the private marketplace. How much would I have to spend to hire private security, contract for fire protection, find a scavenger service to pick up my trash, etc.? (I don’t know how I would even arrange street paving and snow removal–perhaps through a cooperative with my neighbors? And what about sewers? Would private providers charge to hook in, or would we all further damage the environment with private septic systems?) I could pay to use private parks–or join a country club if I could afford that–and of course I’d have no option but to have the considerable expense of a car.
That sort of transactional existence doesn’t sound very attractive, and it would significantly disadvantage poor folks, but let’s assume those considerations aren’t relevant. (They sure aren’t to many of our lawmakers.) One thing seems clear: the costs involved would be far in excess of what I pay in property taxes.
The point is, our interminable debate about “taxes” and “tax rates” is profoundly misleading. We have no choice but to provide local governments with the funds needed to provide a reasonable quality of communal life.
We can legitimately argue about cronyism, whether a given administration is operating efficiently, and about whether obvious “extras” like sports arenas are justified, but when we make a virtue of starving the public sector of basic operating income, we shouldn’t be shocked when local politicians rob Peter to pay Paul by selling off public goods and trading our long-term interests for short-term cash.
Think about that the next time you flush.