As students who have gone through grades K-12, we have all taken advantage of our state-funded school system in order to get our high school degree. The school system is an example of a public good, which is a good that doesn’t become less available as more people take these goods, and from which no one is excluded.
Every child in the U.S. can go to their nearest public school, at no upfront cost—nor does one additional child going to the school make the education any less available to others (there is the issue of overflowing classes, lack of teachers, etc., but for the purposes of this article, the example works).
There are many other such public goods and services which we often take for granted. The roads we take to go everywhere don’t need to be payed for to drive on, and we can’t be prevented from driving on them so long as we have a license.
There are TV channels which are completely free to watch without a cable package, which allow kids nationwide to watch shows like “Sesame Street.” Our national defense against foreign threats is given to all within the borders of the US. and no one can be excluded from it.
One of the common factors between these public goods is that they are all provided by our federal, state or local governments. This makes things tricky as a libertarian, when one is trying to advocate a society with a minimal or nonexistent state while being surrounded by the goods the state provides to us for free.
However, while these goods are public, they are not “free” in the purest sense; they are paid for by taxes, which come from us, the citizens. The only difference is that we pay our taxes in a lump sum to the government, which handles all the transactions for us, paying for roads, schools, defense, etc. Were these standard goods and services, we would have to pay for these goods as we used them, and so we may not be able to use them if we didn’t have money. For example, a road may be inaccessible to someone who can’t pay several dollars for a toll, or a family would have to pay to send their child to elementary school or each town would have to solely fund its own police force.
On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a good thing. When thinking about goods we deem as necessities, it can feel uncomfortable, even immoral, to subject the provision of these goods to market transactions. We most certainly don’t want people to go without an education, to not be able to travel freely or to be vulnerable to violence.
However, it’s important to question whether these goods have to be provided by the government, or if they can be provided better without the government involved. While providing something like a massive, continent-wide highway system seems like an impossibly daunting task without government oversight, I hope to show that there are alternative systems we can use to implement the provision of public goods in a more efficient way, thereby improving everyone’s lives.
The first issue is that of the middle man in our current system, that being the government. The government is an incredibly expensive middle man between us and public goods. For example, the federal budget of 2016 proposed $4 trillion in expenditures, which comes in at more than 20 percent of the national GDP.
Not all of that money goes directly to providing roads, schools, healthcare, etc. Quite a large portion goes into paying the millions of employees in the massive bureaucracy that makes up our federal government, the costs of the buildings they work in, their many internal activities and so on. If we had all the money from our taxes returned to us, we could likely form our own local and regional organizations to manage road building or schooling at a lower cost and with local oversight and influence.
Besides cost, the quality of the public goods we use are also subject to criticism. I’m not sure what you may have experienced, but I know that around my home town, our roads are in horrible shape. I’m sure anyone from New Jersey could rant about their roads as well.
At present, despite most Americans paying more in taxes than ever before, the government doesn’t seem inclined to provide us with smooth roads. Likewise, as I wrote about previously, our school system is horrible, even damaging to those within it, and yet many want the government to provide even more “education” than it already does!
The main issue is, as these goods are provided by a monopolistic single provider, these questions of quality aren’t, and realistically can’t, be easily handled at the local level. Therefore, quality stagnates. In some cases, as we recently experienced, these tensions can lead to widespread malcontent and situations like the strike of our underpaid and overworked professors.
Now, imagine that the 20 to 30 percent of the income you lose every year to taxes shows up back in your account, as it does to everyone in America, and it is up to you and your community to manage public goods. Perhaps a new highway leading to the city has a toll to fund it instead of taxes, but that toll is much easier on your bank account with all that money back. Also, since the road managers want your money, they probably will avoid letting potholes lay about and fix them quickly, instead of letting them lay there for months.
Perhaps you will have to pay to go to high school, but will that cost outweigh that of the property taxes on your home, or of the sales taxes in your state?
Maybe now you and your local community can directly manage your education instead of submitting to teaching to the tests, Common Core and the typical “Big Four” topics which bore us all for 12 years. I doubt your local community will be as likely to disrespect the plights of your teachers as some bureaucrat in Harrisburg making six figures, either.
Since these would be much bigger topics to discuss, in the future I will write separate articles on the topics of healthcare and defense, and how they can be provided without a government, and how they would be even better when approached in this way as well!
Alexander Habbart is a second-year student majoring in economics, math and finance. He can be reached at AH855514@wcupa.edu.