In the wake of the barely-averted federal budget showdown, I've found myself pondering a question: "What do I want and expect the federal government to do for me?"
What I do want (and am more than willing to pay for through my taxes):
- National Security. I expect the federal government to protect the citizenry from enemies foreign and domestic. This includes maintaining trained and well-equipped military and security forces capable of repelling foreign invasions, providing border control and immigration control, monitoring potential terrorist groups and other threats, investigating and prosecuting federal crimes, etc.
- National Health & Safety. The free market would never produce the FAA, the CDC, USDA, EPA, NTSB, the National Weather Service or the FDA. The free market would never provide emergency relief, enforce workplace safety standards, put out raging wildfires, fund massive medical research efforts, make buildings handicap-accessible, or force corporations to clean up after themselves.
- National Infrastructure. The free market didn't build the interstate highways or the internet or the sewer system, it didn't electrify rural America, and it sure won't fill that pothole on your street. Roads, bridges, locks & dams, power grids--they are all essential to the nation's productivity, and they all require capital on a grand scale.
- Education. Making education free and compulsory for all American children stands as one of the finest achievements of this country--one taken too much for granted today. Yes, it's a flawed system, but not irredeemably so, not if we can make a national recommitment to it, financing it democratically and fairly instead of allowing vast inequities between rich districts and poor ones. The American Dream starts with equal access to quality education for all our children.
- Preservation & Management of National Resources. This includes natural resources--national parks and forests and other public lands, rivers, lakes, oil/gas/mineral reserves, biological diversity of plant and animal species--as well as what I'd call heritage resources: the Library of Congress, the national archives, the Smithsonian, and other precious archives of knowledge and history.
- A Justice System. Government-run justice may be imperfect, but it is infinitely preferable to lynch mobs and vigilantism.
- A Basic Social Safety Net. Nobody in a country as rich as America should have to starve, freeze, or sleep on the street. Nobody--but especially children--should be denied access to basic medical care.
Some of the things I do NOT expect my government to provide:
- International Security. I don't believe my government is obligated (or entitled, depending on your viewpoint) to protect or police the citizenry of other countries, except in the most extreme cases of humanitarian need, e.g. widespread genocide or enormous natural disasters. American tax dollars should not be spent to build empires, influence elections, redraw borders, arm rebel forces, or dictate the political structure of other nations unless failing to do so would directly imperil the U.S. (and no, the simple existence of communism or socialism elsewhere in the world does not threaten the U.S., and no, the protection of corporate profit margins is not ample reason for U.S. military intervention). Most of the time, the U.S. needs to butt out and mind the Prime Directive.
- Subsidies. Not for corporations, not for any specific industry. The only case I can see for subsidies is to keep afloat an industry without which we would be dangerously dependent on unfriendly nations for a linchpin of our national security or economy (you know...like we already are with oil).
- Arts Funding. This isn't a popular position for a liberal like me, but I just don't see this as the role of government. I can see a case for government preserving the finest works of art of each generation, but not for subsidizing its creation in the first place. When it comes right down to it, I believe art has to be tough enough--strong enough--to survive in the real world without help from Uncle Sam. It may be food for the soul, but I think we've established long ago that the government is not in the soul business. I can't justify spending a tax dollar on the arts that might've been spent on housing the homeless or retraining displaced workers or researching cures for devastating diseases. Those who care about the arts need to vote with their own dollars through donations to private foundations and arts organizations.
- Limitless support of able adults with no dependents young enough to require childcare. I'm not saying that the poor and unemployed should be cut off without a dime after X number of months. But if an adult of sound mind and body with no childcare expenses is going to continue to get benefits after a reasonable job-seeking period has elapsed (and the length of that period could/should be extended during economic downturns like this one), then I think the taxpayers ought to at least get something worthwhile in return, like public service. What if, after X months, an unemployed person who wanted to continue getting government aid had to do a mandated amount of volunteer work that benefits the community, like picking up roadside trash or doing odd jobs for the elderly/infirm or delivering Meals On Wheels or planting trees or swinging a hammer for Habitat for Humanity?
- Tax deductions for home ownership. Owning a home is a privilege, not a necessity of life, and it is entirely possible to live a perfectly nice lifestyle in rental property. Why then should people get a tax break for having a mortgage? I like my mortgage interest deduction, sure, but I don't feel entitled to it and I don't feel the government ought to privilege my lifestyle over that of a renter.
- Tax breaks for...just about anything. Set fair tax rates and stick to them. For everyone, individuals and corporations alike. Close the loopholes, eliminate the exceptions, and get the tax form down to a single unambiguous page: Your income. What tax you've already paid in. What % of your income you owe in taxes. Difference between the two.
Undoubtedly I'm forgetting a dozen equally important issues, or being hopelessly naive about why government should (or shouldn't) be involved in any of the above-mentioned. But for what it's worth, this is my list. What's yours?