Friday, October 05, 2007

Government & Forced Riders

Tim Haab takes a look at survey results that speak to this question: Would you be willing to support climate change policy if it cost someone else money? And, the survery said. . . .? It said that about 70% of respondents would answer yes.

This reminds of a recent visit by a government official to my class on economics of the public sector. The discussion was about funding public universities and the difficulties of this task these days in Colorado. One of my students asked if we shouldn't just provide higher education privately and without public subsidy or public provision. The answer sounded a lot like: "No, because there are positive externalities." Now, this government official was also unaware that we had discussed this idea in class just the period before he spoke, and he was unaware of my explanation to my students that I thought the idea of positive externalities associated with higher education was likely an illustration of what I call "externality abuse." But, I guess this point is sort of an aside.

What was really interesting was the government official's suggestion about the reason for public funding or public subsidy. His story went something like this: "I realize that I'm better off or that I get some benefits myself because you are here taking classes at the university. That's why I'm willing to tax myself to pay for part of your education." It seems the idea was that we should all recognize the external benefit to us and therefore we should all be willing to tax ourselves.

Now, I'm thinking this is not really what supporting the public policy of subsidizing higher education is really about, because I'm thinking that if this official realizes he is personally better off because my student is at the university, then he can simply give my student some money to pay for tuition or books. Or, this government official can choose to give his money to university scholarship funds.

Professor Haab's question and answer suggests the same sort of things I talked with my students about after the public official's visit to my classroom. The argument offered for subsidizing higher education sounded like it was personal (I'm willing to tax myself), but it seems to me this was really about taxing others to pay for something he personally valued. I'm thinking that we are considering an aspect of politics and public policy that is pretty much the opposite of the free rider we economists talk about with respect to public goods. That is, it is an effort to use government's power to tax to force others (many of whom probably don't believe they are benefitted by my students being my students) to pay for things a person values for themselves. It seems very much an effort to make use of forced riders.

1 comment:

The Mother Jug-a-Rum said...

These surveys always make me sick to my stomach.

It's funny how people never seem to learn from the past! Nobody remembers the excuse made for income tax? Oh, the rich will pay it! Turns out as soon as the government got a taste for money it wanted (and needed) more. What started out as a punishment for rich capitalist, trickled down to the middle class and the poor!

Sure, a climate change policy would be good if someone else is paying for it. Problem is as soon as the government gets a taste of the money coming in, it will want more and more for subsidies and other useless programs. Government and those that run it have no incentives not to spend insane amounts of money. What was once free will no longer be.

This is always the cycle of these things!