Name Three

Name Three January 10, 2009

Last night I had dinner with a friend who considers himself a “free market socialist.” He mentioned that when talking with anti-big government types, he likes to ask them to name three government programs they want to see abolished that they have personally benefited from. Apparently people can usually name one such program, but that’s about it.

To answer this question, one would first have to compile a list of the government services and programs that one has used or that have been to one’s own personal benefit in some way. This itself was a bit of a challenge, as other than public schooling, it was hard for me to think of government services that I’ve used off the top of my head. After noodling the question for a while, however, I was able to come up with the following (undoubtedly noncomprehensive) list:

* I have attended public schools.

* For law school, I received federally subsidized loans.

* I have used public utilities (e.g. water & gas, electricity, garbage services).

* I’ve visited public parks, national monuments, etc.

* I’ve used the public library.

* I’ve used the public roads and, on occasion, public transportation.

* I sometimes use U.S. printed dollars as a medium of exchange.

* I’ve used the post office.

* I’ve used the police once, when my car was broken into, and can generally be said to have benefited indirectly from their existence.

* I am a member of the state bar, and my salary is probably higher than it otherwise would be if not for legal licensing.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Once the list was compiled, picking out three programs I’d get rid of was pretty easy (in my case, the three I’d pick are the post office, electrical service, and legal licensing).

What about you? What government services and programs have you used over the years, and of those what three would you get rid of?

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  • David Nickol

    picking out three programs I’d get rid of was pretty easy (in my case, the three I’d pick are the post office, electrical service, and legal licensing

    BA,

    I am not clear on what you are saying. Would you get rid of the US Postal Service (or just local post offices)? And, as I understand it, electric companies are often privately owned monopolies regulated by the government. Are you saying you would get of the publicly owned ones, or you would end government regulation of electric companies so that multiple companies could compete in the same market?

    Or are you saying you could do without electricity altogether? 🙂

  • Blackadder is a lawyer. He cannot but be evil 😛

    I agree with him though. In this country, other than financing wars, it does seem pretty dubious as to where the money goes. I’ve been saying to my wife, exactly what do we pay taxes for ? In Austria, you actually get a lot in return. You know what you’re paying for.

    – protection of employees
    – pregnant women cannot be fired, cannot work 8 weeks before and after giving birth but get
    full pay from the government
    – 5 weeks mandated vacation for everyone
    – labor courts
    – health insurance tied to the person, not a job
    – a social safety net
    – overall, a much more just treatment of employees.
    – regulations making the insanities of the incinerated American financial and real estate
    business largely impossible. Some got screwed because they’d trusted the American system

    – Quasi free college education, including doctorate, provided by state universities
    – A standard of living that’s higher than the average American’s(how can this be ? Workers don’t
    get screwed and they have money too ? Commies !), and not because rich people raise the
    median income etc. Not to mention that CEOs don’t make billions.
    – No military worth mentioning. Money is spent on useful things.
    – Government apartments aren’t “projects”, they’re sought after. Low rent, good upkeep and
    strewn purposely throughout the city, including “fancy” areas.
    – Due to smart governing (at least by comparison) there are low crime rates, low prisoner/capita
    rate, low poverty.

    The list goes on and on. The 10% more in taxes my wife would pay would be more than offset by student loans alone. There is no reason anyone but the rich would prefer the USA to Europe or Canada. And that’s before we even go into how this country wages perpetual war for peace.

    If taxes weren’t high in this country, the system would be fairer, since you get crap in return. Of course, this would not change the treatment of employees in this country. That *#!* Schwarzenegger couldn’t pull off his stick-it-to-regular people crap given the strength of unions.

    The terms used in Europe would be mocked as Communism here. “Social partnership” refers to the close relationship between business and unions, for example. It was the Social Democratic Party that dragged Vienna out of the dirt of worker exploitation. The services provided by the city would be viewed as Shangri-La by the non-brainwashed here. As a special bonus, there is no Religious Right. No one will stand on street corners protesting gay rights.

    Since the American Dream (TM) is a sham, and the country is a perfectly rigged system in favor of business and the rich that has convinced the people that they live in the “greatest country in the world” (TM), they might as well stop the high taxes business. Exploitation of employees should suffice.

    The only thing that “trickles down” are bombs on the country-du-jour.

  • blackadderiv

    Would you get rid of the US Postal Service (or just local post offices)?

    I’m not sure I grok the distinction.

    And, as I understand it, electric companies are often privately owned monopolies regulated by the government. Are you saying you would get of the publicly owned ones, or you would end government regulation of electric companies so that multiple companies could compete in the same market?

    My understanding (based on what I’ve been told about how these things work in Texas) is that electricity is sometimes provided through a public utility or a private company given monopoly over an area, sometimes by a number of different private companies competing with each other, and sometimes through a co-op to which customers are members. I would get rid of the first option.

  • Brett

    Richard John Neuhaus dies and not one mention of it here. Bizarre. Father RJN and I disagreed vehemently on some issues, but he was a pivotal player in my own conversion. Certainly worth a mention.

    [See here – ed]

  • David Nickol

    Brett,

    You overlooked

    Prayers Needed for Fr. Richard John Neuhaus
    January 7, 2009

  • M.Z. Forrest

    I have public water and electric. I wouldn’t get rid of either. Having had both public and private electric, I like public a lot more. Our local park and rec department is excellent. My daughter’s dance lessons would cost 3-5 times as much if they were offered privately. We also like the postal service.

  • blackadderiv

    I have public water and electric. I wouldn’t get rid of either. Having had both public and private electric, I like public a lot more.

    According to Nariman Behravesh’s book, public provision of electric utilities tends to cost 30% to 40% more than when it’s privately provided. For water utilities the increased cost is between 15% and 65%.

    We also like the postal service.

    I want to make a joke here about the band, but I’ll resist. I’ve had some negative experiences with the post office, but mainly it’s the example of things like FedEx, along with the results of privatization in Europe and at various points in American history that convince me we’d be better off without the government running the mails.

  • I don’t see the point of this. Both standard economic and Catholic social teaching call for government intervention when free markets would lead to an inferior outcome. Can we just leave the ideology behind?

  • blackadderiv

    I don’t see the point of this. Both standard economic and Catholic social teaching call for government intervention when free markets would lead to an inferior outcome. Can we just leave the ideology behind?

    I’m not sure I understand the comment. From the fact government intervention is justified where free markets would lead to an inferior outcome, it doesn’t follow that any particular existing intervention is justified.

  • That’s one way to look at it. Another way is whether the free market is justified if you think the starting point is some kind of control. That would present a whole different thought experiment, though perhaps not very interesting– then again, neither is the present one.

  • George Crosley

    Wow, I can’t think of a lot of public services I’ve used beyond the ones you’ve included (minus any public schooling or licensing). I can think of a lot of public services I’d like to abolish without ever having used, but that’s not really the point of this post …

  • It would seem fairly obvious that the point of the thought experiment is: If you think that there should be less government, name three programs whose removal you think would result in superior outcomes to the status quo.

    I’d fairly happily second Blackadder’s suggestions for trimming — and I’d also suggest: abolish government run public schools and instead use the same funds on a per-student basis to pay for whatever privately run school parents select.

    I’m not sure if that quite counts as getting rid of a government program, since the money would still be used to pay for universal education, but it strikes me that getting rid of the fiction of “neutral” government run schools would be a positive cultural move.

  • David Nickol

    abolish government run public schools and instead use the same funds on a per-student basis to pay for whatever privately run school parents select.

    DarwinCatholic,

    Are you limiting this to elementary and secondary education, or would you like to see Penn State, UCLA, UC Berkeley, the College of William and Mary, Georgia Tech, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia, and all the other public colleges and universities gotten rid of as well?

    Also, why collect my tax dollars, when I don’t have any children, to pay for the private education of other people’s kids? Why not get the government out of education altogether? It would lower things like property taxes and let people decide what to do with their own money.

    It seems to me you can make a “conservative” case for the government getting out of education altogether, but it seems far from “conservative” to me to require all taxpayers to pay for the private education of children.

  • David Nickol

    DarwinCatholic,

    I would add that it’s only because we already have universal public education in the United States at the primary and secondary level that the idea of taxing everyone to send everyone’s children to private schools isn’t immediately seen as outrageous.

  • M.Z. Forrest

    I can’t speak to the gentleman’s book. My understanding is variation has a lot to do with allocation, like heavy users (commercial/industrial) carrying more of the burden than residential. Our community is one of the lowest in the Wisconsin for cost. They don’t cite the claim, but I’m not shocked by it either: “On average, municipal utility rates are competitive and often lower than those of investor-owned utilities.” 30%-40% in a pretty standardized industry is a pretty large variation. Looking at some of the reviews of the book, I would speculate the number in part comes from public utilities often being established in areas neglected by the private sector.

  • blackadderiv

    It would seem fairly obvious that the point of the thought experiment is: If you think that there should be less government, name three programs whose removal you think would result in superior outcomes to the status quo.

    Actually the point of the thought experiment was a little different. The idea was that it’s easy to oppose government programs that one is never likely to use or benefit from, and if someone spouts anti-government rhetoric while conveniently supporting every government program that actually benefits him, then his anti-government rhetoric can’t be taken all that seriously.

  • blackadderiv

    it’s only because we already have universal public education in the United States at the primary and secondary level that the idea of taxing everyone to send everyone’s children to private schools isn’t immediately seen as outrageous.

    I’m not sure I understand. Is the idea that if we didn’t already have universal public education in the U.S., any attempt for the government to provide it (whether by providing funding or by setting up schools) would be seen as outrageous? Or is there something about having the government pay for schooling that make it outrageous whereas actually having the government build and run the schools is not?

  • blackadderiv

    Mr. Forrest,

    I can’t really say. I can say that my step-father (who was a professor of electrical economics and a lifelong Democrat) thinks privatizing electrical utilities is generally a good idea.

  • blackadderiv

    That’s one way to look at it. Another way is whether the free market is justified if you think the starting point is some kind of control. That would present a whole different thought experiment, though perhaps not very interesting– then again, neither is the present one.

    Now I’m even more confused. Didn’t you just say that “standard economic and Catholic social teaching call for government intervention when free markets would lead to an inferior outcome.” It certainly isn’t the case that either standard economic or Catholic social teaching presume that government should do something unless it can be shown that this would lead to an inferior result.

    In any event, even if our presumption is in favor of government action, this doesn’t mean that government action is justified in any particular instance. So I don’t really understand the relevance of your comments here.

  • Top Ten government programs I benefit from that I would eliminate:

    1. State Highway Patrol. All they do is give tickets to folks driving 5 miles over the limit.
    2. Stafford college loans. Tuition would probably have been cheaper if these were never created.
    3. Post office. Bad service, long lines, crazed employees ready to snap and start shooting.
    4. The FDA. We have a strong enough tort system to deal with bad products.
    5. PBS. My kids love it, but we would be fine without it.
    6. Infant Early Development Therapy. My daughter gets in-home physical therapy from the local county government, though it is a national program. It’s been fabulous; I pay three dollars a month to have weekly in-home therapy sessions by a wonderful, loving therapist. I wouldn’t eliminate the program totally, but I would eliminate it for my income bracket or at least charge for it.
    7. Law licensing (husband’s a lawyer).
    8. Some public parks/monuements. Living in the DC area, I visit lots of public parks, museums, and the like. I would keep much of it open, but it could certainly be scaled back without much impact. Some of the parks/lesser known monuments are often empty. Certainly, we could limit building of new projects.
    9. HIPPA. Pointless overregulation that costs tax dollars to enforce and my health care dollars since my doctor has to pay to make all the forms, install new glass windows between all the waiting areas, etc. Plus it’s annoying to try to open the glass door to talk to the nurse while holding a newborn and coralling two toddlers.
    10. TSA. The airlines can provide their own security, which likely could be more efficient. Plus a TSA officer made me throw out a huge bag of frozen breastmilk through security. Do they have any idea how many hours I spent hooked to a milk machine to get that stuff?!? It’s liquid gold. And mother, infant, and toddler are such a likely terrorist cell. They’ve earned my wrath forever.

  • Michael Enright

    BA–

    I think you forgot two:

    (1) The interstate system
    (2) Government financed airports (i.e. the actual building of airports and the acquisition of land for their use)

    Both of these systems are government funded i.e. they are usually paid for out of general revenues. The general effect is to create cheap shipping. As far as roads go, their wear and tear is generally caused by shipping. However, it is paid for out of the general fund. This process is a subsidy to large factory labor which would not be as economical without it. Otherwise business would be more local.

  • Michael Enright

    MM–

    Are you comparing market failure to some abstract notion or do you consider government failure as well. If you compare the two, the world isn’t as clear as you seem to imagine.

  • David Nickol,

    Well, there certainly are those who claim that there should be no public education funding at all, just as there are those who oppose all social security and medicare funding. There are perhaps good arguments for all three positions, but I don’t think the “Why should I have to pay for other people’s [children/parents/disabled family members]” argument is a good one.

    In regards to whether having government education funding would be seen as “outrageous” if it was done through a standard per-student scholarship to any school rather than government run public schools — That was pretty much what we had in many parts of this country until the 20s, and it remains the way things work to a fair extent in countries such as France and the UK.

    Essentially, I’m saying we should keep universal public education, but instead of have the government actually _run_ the schools, all schools should be privately run while the city provides a standard amount of money per student. Given that the US currently has what is acknowledge to be one of the poorer public education systems in the developed world, while spending more per student than any other country, this would seem like a fairly reasonable approach.

    This wouldn’t necessarily mean shuttering all existing schools — I imagine that one would come up with a system whereby the existing schools would be given independant governance and would assume responsibility for a loan to pay the city back for its infrastructure.

  • Liam

    The US Postal Service may be a government creation but it has been private since the Nixon era, IIRC. It is subject to government regulation (as are all business), but its main public aspect is that it inherited the Post Office PP&E and certain privileges.

    The amount of public financing of PBS is actually pretty slim.

    It might be better to clarify the question to refer to purely public services.

    In my neck of the woods (north of Boston), municipal electric companies are cheaper than the private companies.

  • blackadderiv

    The US Postal Service may be a government creation but it has been private since the Nixon era, IIRC.

    Not really. To quote Wikipedia:

    The USPS is often mistaken for a government-owned corporation (e.g., Amtrak), but as noted above is legally defined as an “independent establishment of the executive branch of the Government of the United States,” (39 U.S.C. § 201) as it is wholly owned by the government and controlled by the Presidential appointees and the Postmaster General. As a quasi-governmental agency, it has many special privileges, including sovereign immunity, eminent domain powers, powers to negotiate postal treaties with foreign nations, and an exclusive legal right to deliver first-class and third-class mail.

  • Any European touting not funding a military as a virtue of their system is automatically disqualified. “Having the Americans protect us from Soviet invasion” was only a money-saver if you weren’t the USA.

    I can name 3 government services I benefit from that I would gladly close down:

    1. Federal Student Loans
    2. The Federal Reserve
    3. Social Security

    But do I really “benefit” from them? I had to take out exorbitant loans because gov’t-backed loans have driven the cost of higher ed sky-high. I use as much money as I do because the Federal Reserve is driving up inflation. And I pay into Social Security because I’m not allowed to actually save that 7.5% of my income for my own retirement.

  • Informative and entertaining. I’ve added your blog to my “reading material.” Keep me updated!