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Persuade if you can
Coerce only if you must
Should people be compelled to pay for government services they don't want?
Liberals try to figure out how to say yes; conservatives to say no. Liberals like public education, contending that an educated citizenry and workforce benefits all of society, even those who didn't go or send their kids to public schools. So if everyone benefits, everyone should pay. Conservatives contend that education is the responsibility of the individual or the family. These are the principle beneficiaries of education; these are the ones who ought to foot the bill.
But the question soon gets complicated. On defense, the positions are reversed. Conservatives like a big military, which defends the whole country, even liberal pacifists who wish they could opt out. Conservatives don't want to let them.
What's a democracy to do?
A few things. First of all, identify those areas of government activity that really are an all-or-nothing affair. Defense is a good example. If the country gets attacked, a victorious enemy won't distinguish between liberals and conservatives. The country wins or loses together. Liberals and conservatives can argue about how much defense to purchase, but once the decision is made, opting out is hard to defend morally or politically.
Environmental issues tend to fall into the same category. We all breathe the same air and mostly drink the same water. We suffer the same heat waves. In this case, it is the liberals who tend to want more government action, and the conservatives less. The debate is healthy and should be encouraged. But once the decision is made, everybody pays because everybody benefits.
What about programs that have particular and identifiable beneficiaries? Anti-poverty programs are an example. Should everyone be required to pay up? Liberals say yes; many conservatives say no. The liberals tend to argue from economic justice, saying that a country as wealthy as the United States can afford to ensure a minimum standard of living for all its citizens. Conservatives often counter that anti-poverty programs don't work and that they reduce the incentive for poor people to improve their lot on their own.
Unlike defense and environment, this area of government activity doesn't have to be all or nothing. In the days before the emergence of the welfare state, people of means who worried about poverty donated to charities. Hard-hearted people didn't. Presumably each group was satisfied with its level of contribution.
How about the poor folks—were they satisfied? Quite possibly not. But the question then becomes whether their satisfaction was anyone else's responsibility. People who felt responsible could always increase their donations. But should they have been allowed to compel others to donate?
This is the heart of the issue whenever government gets involved. In civilized societies, government is the only institution that can legitimately coerce people. It can fine them, imprison them, even execute them. In times of war, it can dragoon them into the military and make them risk their lives on behalf of the government's interpretation of what the nation's security requires.
This enormous power of government is what makes liberals like government and conservatives fear it. Liberals say that if government doesn't take on the big problems of society, those problems won't get solved. Conservatives say that if the problems can't be solved without government, maybe they shouldn't be solved.
An instance much discussed these days is inequality. Wrapping themselves in the Declaration of Independence, with its ringing assertion that "all men are created equal," liberals tout any number of programs designed to reduce inequality of various sorts. Anti-poverty programs aim to reduce economic inequality; affirmative action addresses racial inequality; Title IX levels the playing field between sexes and genders.
Conservatives respond that Jefferson was referring to political equality between Americans and Britons. And though almost no one defends racial inequality, more than a few note that economic inequality is what drives a capitalist system. LeBron James might have made a good schoolteacher, but he is a really good basketball player, and the difference a teacher's salary and what he makes on the basketball court is a signal that society wants him on the court. Conservatives often oppose the raising of minimum wages and answer complaints that an adult can't support a family on the existing minimum wage by saying that no adult should expect to support a family on the minimum wage. A family's breadwinner ought to find a better job.
Each response has its rejoinder. Any honest person ought to acknowledge that these issues are complicated. But a reasonable rule of thumb might be that government, with all its coercive power, should not be the first resort when something needs fixing. Where benefits can be subdivided and targeted, persuasion ought to be preferred to coercion. If people want to help the poor, let them give their own money. If that doesn't suffice, let them try to persuade other people to pitch in.
But government can be the last resort, not for problems that can be tackled piecemeal but for those where the entire nation is directly affected by the government's action or inaction.
"The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but can not do at all, or can not so well do, for themselves in their separate and individual capacities," wrote Abraham Lincoln. "In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere."
It was good advice then, and it makes a good starting point for discussions today.