As a classical liberal, I believe that government can sometimes act in ways that help people to lead lives that are happier, healthier, and more secure. The problem, though, is that the circumstances under which it is able to do so are very narrowly limited, difficult to foresee, and prone to exaggeration by politically interested factions. So while government is, in principle, able to do some good, there are very often (almost always?) superior non-governmental alternatives for better achieving the same end.
I think all of us know this on some level. Even people like Warren Buffett who publicly beg for the government to tax them more. After all, if Buffett really believes that he ought to be paying more taxes, then what’s stopping him?
The Federal Government of the United States accepts donations. Seriously. They go right into the general fund, just like your taxes. Here’s the address to send them to. If you’re so inclined, you can apparently even earmark your donation for the specific purpose of reducing the federal debt.
Of course, not a lot of people do this. About $3.2 million was given to reduce the debt in 2011, and you can find the (generally much lower) figures for others years here. And while $3.2 million might sound like a lot, bear in mind that it’s about two-tenths of one percent of what Americans spend on ice cream in a given year.
Why so little? One possible explanation is that people are selfish – they’d rather spend the money on themselves, and they aren’t going to give it away to help others unless they’re forced to, as they are in the case of taxes. But this explanation is difficult to square with the large amounts of money that Americans give to charity each year – over $300 billion in 2009, the vast majority of which came from private individuals and bequests, not big corporations looking for a tax break.
So if selfishness isn’t the explanation, what is? I suggest the following: most people know that there are better and more efficient ways of using their money to help other people than giving it to government. Even Warren Buffett knows this. Otherwise why didn’t he make that $37 billion dollar check out to the US Treasury?
We’re careful about how we spend our own money. Not just when we spend it on ourselves, but when we spend it on others too. Whether it’s consumption or charity, we want to get the most for our money. We’re understandably less cautious when it comes to spending other people’s money, but just because something is understandable doesn’t make it right. If we wouldn’t (and don’t) give our own money voluntarily to government, doesn’t this tell us something about whether we should try to force other people to give more of theirs under threat of legal penalty?