Any objection whatsoever to some new, tax-funded government program elicits a consistent response from liberals or progressives. “You just don’t want to pay your fair share,” or “I guess we won’t see you driving on any of those government roads or calling the government police or fire departments.” The underlying assumption is that taxation is an all or nothing proposition. Either there is nothing that the government can collect taxes for or there is nothing that the government cannot collect taxes for. There are no principles upon which to base an answer to the question, “Is this a legitimate function of government?”
While there are probably thousands of different services that governments spend money on, they can generally be divided into three broad categories: security, public services, and wealth redistribution. Libertarians argue that the only legitimate government spending is on security. Conservatives generally approve of security and some public services with their rhetoric while engaging in all three types of spending when in public office. Liberals generally endorse all three types of spending with both their rhetoric and their actions while in public office.
“Security” includes all government functions which attempt to defend citizens from aggression against their rights by other human beings. These would include the military, various police forces, and the civil and criminal courts. These are the functions of government whose purpose is to secure the individual rights of life, liberty, property, etc.
It is important to remember that even if these are legitimate functions of government, it does not mean that they cannot be abused. For example, a small suburban village in a low-crime area may not need more than the county sheriff for a police force, but may instead bear a tax burden of village, town, county, state, and even federal police forces. However, these debates revolve around how efficiently the services are being provided, not whether they should be provided by the government at all.
“Public services” generally refers to services provided to all members of society. What makes a service a “public service” is that it can be reasonably assumed that every member of the society has an equal opportunity to utilize it. Examples include roads, bridges, public libraries, garbage collection services, and fire departments. Libertarians argue that these are goods and services that the private sector can provide. Their objection to providing them with tax dollars is that those who do not consent to purchase them are still forced to pay. While this is also true of security services, libertarians acquiesce to those on the assumption that it would be impossible to exercise property rights without a government in place to defend them.
Certainly, a bridge between a new suburb and the city may improve commerce for the entire city. However, it is not necessary to protect anyone’s rights. Therefore, libertarians argue that those who want to build the bridge should provide the capital for it themselves and are perfectly within their rights to charge a fee to those who wish to use the bridge. Conservatives have traditionally argued that these services can be funded by the government and provided by private corporations under government contracts. Liberals generally support public services as well, although they sometimes object to them being provided by private firms.
Like security services, public services are prone to abuse and corruption, even if one accepts that they are legitimate functions of government. Public funds are often wasted on services that are not needed or services that are poorly rendered because they are provided by politically-connected government employees or private firms, rather than by the most qualified. Consider the “bridges to nowhere,” the roadwork construction projects that never end, or the multitude of scandals where it was discovered that $500 was spent on a single nail or some other gross abuse of public funds occurred.
The third category of government spending is wealth redistribution. Wealth redistribution collects taxes from one group of people in order to provide services to another group. What makes this type of government spending different from public services is the fact that the goods or services provided do not benefit all members of society equally. For example, health benefits under Medicaid are paid for by all taxpayers but are only available to people whose income is under a defined eligibility level. Thus, those funds are literally taken from one group and redistributed to another. Both libertarians and conservatives argue that this is nothing more than legalized theft, although conservatives have often led or acquiesced to expansion of this type of spending once in office. President Bush’s expansion of Medicare is one of the most recent examples. Liberals and progressives generally support this type of spending, arguing that it is each person’s moral responsibility to “contribute.”
In order to have an informed debate about a new government program, one must identify which category the proposed program belongs in. Too often the distinctions between these categories are blurred by both critics and proponents. Most often, a program that would properly be categorized as wealth redistribution is represented as a public service in an effort to persuade those that must pay for it that it is their civic duty to do so.
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.