False Choices

This article in The Washington Post centers on falling municipality revenues due to falling housing values and so falling property tax valuations, but it contains an item that wants attention.

The Post cites Thomas Fitzpatrick, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, making this remark in a study he co-authored titled “Municipal Finance in the Face of Falling Property Values:”

It appears that the dramatic fall in property values across the country will accelerate the financial distress of municipalities in the wake of the Great Recession.  If creative ways to make up for this lack of revenue are not found, local governments may face the undesirable choice of either raising property taxes or reducing funding for essential services.

But this is bad logic.  It proceeds from the false assumption that whatever a (even local) government does is perforce “essential.”  Further, Fitzpatrick presents the false dichotomy that the only two options available to such governments are either raising taxes or curtailing “essential services.”

In fact, most of what government does is highly desirable, in the short term, but very little of what government does actually is essential.  Moreover, much of the “essential services” displaces the moral responsibility of individual citizens and arrogates that morality to government, to the long term detriment of individual citizens, the local communities which are made up of them, and to society as a whole.  The only truly useful, essential services are police and fire, and refuse collection.  All the rest are better handled by individuals, churches, and charitable organizations, with (even local) government stepping in only as a last resort, not as the first.  And so government always can cut back on its spending and reduce its nonessential “essential” services.

The article itself concludes with this remark:

Instead, towns across the map have relied on an array of maneuvers to cut costs—renegotiated pensions, furloughs, salary freezes, hiring freezes and layoffs. Many also are charging higher user fees for garbage pickup, recreation centers and other services.  And many cities have explored entering into shared service agreements with one another to save money.

These sound like good solutions, not “instead” solutions.  When government is acting in its proper role of “common good” and as a last resort otherwise, it gets a whole lot cheaper to maintain.

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