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What Do Citizens Owe Government?

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When politicians are not promising new benefits to citizens, they continually remind citizens what they owe the government. From their first years in government schools, children are indoctrinated with the notion that government provides them some grandiose benefit. This seed often produces a harvest of servility in later life.

But few people stop and try to accurately calculate this supposed debt. What does the citizen owe the state? Or, more accurately, what does the citizen owe the politicians and bureaucrats who claim to represent and embody the state?

Every extension of the welfare state results, directly or indirectly, in politicians’ and bureaucrats’ feeling entitled to demand more obedience from people. What does the government do for citizens that citizens could not do as well or better for themselves? This is the first question that must be answered before gauging how much obedience people might owe a government. Insofar as government busies itself doing things worse for the citizen than he could have done himself, the citizen is justified in viewing government as a nuisance and a poacher.

In the vast majority of cases, governments possess only what they first seize from private citizens. How can citizens owe government when practically everything the government has it first took from them? The fact that people are forced to pay for certain goods and services indirectly, by taxation, cannot create an ineradicable debt to the people who seized their paychecks. People who are government dependents have a debt not so much to the government itself, but to their fellow citizens who earn the money the government seizes and then renders to them.

Some statists insist that the citizen should be grateful for such government services as mail delivery. Yet, the government is more vigilant in attacking private threats to its monopoly over first-class mail delivery than in expediting the mail. First-class mail service is significantly slower than it was 40 years ago, in part because of an intentional policy of reducing next-day mail deliveries. In areas in which the postal service competes directly with private companies, such as overnight express mail and parcel post, the government has been whupped shamelessly. Citizens cannot be indebted to the government for mail service when it is federal restrictions that prohibit a far wider array of private services.
Public schools

Others will insist that people are indebted to government for public schools. But the parents of most children pay more in taxes than government spends educating their kids. Besides, despite sharp increases in government spending for education in the last 15 years, American high-school students score at the rock bottom in math and science compared with students in other countries.

The government routinely effectively confiscates parents’ money to pay for schools and then fails to educate their kids, yet faces no liability for its de facto breach of implied contract. An investigation by the New Jersey State Department of Education concluded, “The Newark School District has been at best flagrantly delinquent and at worst deceptive in discharging its obligations to the children enrolled in public schools.”

Public high schools graduate an estimated 700,000 functionally illiterate teenagers each year. Regardless of how badly school officials fail to serve students, parents are left no recourse but to file complaints with the same unresponsive bureaucracy. As law professor Judith Berliner Cohen observed,

No plaintiff to date has been able to convince a court that a school owes him or her any more than “a chair in a classroom.” … Insofar as they have been “deluded” into believing that it is not necessary to find alternate means of education, the students are arguably worse off than they otherwise would have been.

Without quasi-monopoly public schools, a far more extensive network of private schools would be available — schools that would be responsive to parents’ desire for their children to learn. The rapid spread of the home-schooling movement (whose students consistently outscore public-school students on standardized tests) vivifies how parents can do better on their own.
Government-provided roads

Nor are citizens indebted to government for providing goods such as roads. Despite heavy federal taxes levied on gas buyers, politicians are allowing more and more of the Interstate Highway System to deteriorate to Third World road conditions. Roughly three-fifths of all interstate highways are in poor or mediocre condition, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Drivers pay more than $140 billion in gas taxes each year, but only about half of that money is actually spent on maintaining and building roads; the rest is spent on other political wish lists.

Roads are a good example of the contempt that government shows for citizens in the services it forces them to finance. As road expert and author Gabriel Roth observed, “U.S. roads suffer from the typical command economy characteristics: poor maintenance, congestion, and insensitivity to consumer needs.” Because traffic jams cost government employees nothing, government agencies scorn sound traffic-control measures. Federal Highway Administration traffic-safety engineers Samuel Tignor and Davey Warren concluded in a 1990 study that most speed zones were “posted 15 m.p.h. below the maximum safe speed; that, on average, speed limits are set too low to be accepted as reasonable by most drivers, and that the posted speeds make violators out of motorists who drive reasonably and safely.” Politicians profit from unnecessarily low speed limits because of the increase in the number of drivers eligible for speeding tickets. Accidents and traffic jams result from policemen’s fixation on ticketing drivers who pose no threat to public safety.

Will Rogers suggested long ago, “The way to deal with traffic congestion is to have business provide the roads and government the cars.” But though this hasn’t been done, politicians still expect thanks from citizens, despite potholes as far as the eye can see.
Police protection

Do citizens owe a vast debt to the state for keeping the peace? Many big-city police departments have effectively abandoned serious efforts to solve robberies and other cases of nonlethal violence; the District of Columbia police, for instance, make arrests in fewer than 10 percent of burglaries and robberies. But D.C. police have set records for arresting citizens detected drinking alcohol on their front porches. They have also been valiant in cracking down on drivers with unfastened seatbelts.

Insofar as government prohibits people from owning or carrying weapons for self-defense, it is scant consolation that a policeman arrives after the crime to chalk off the body. There are more than twice as many private security guards as uniformed policemen in the United States. More citizens than ever before are living in gated communities or relying on home alarm systems. Private citizens use guns to defend themselves more than 2 million times a year, according to Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck. After comparing the effects of more people carrying guns with other popular reforms, economist John Lott concluded that “of all the methods studied so far by economists, the carrying of concealed handguns appears to be the most cost-effective method for reducing crime.”
Military defense

The one area in which it is most plausible that government could provide a unique service is national defense. However, if a government busies itself making enemies, and then praises itself for pledging to protect citizens from the enemies it makes, there is less than a transcendent benefit. The war in Iraq will very likely cost Americans more than a trillion dollars — a high price for Bush’s May 1, 2003, victory strut aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

What have politicians given to the citizenry that they did not originally take from them? This is the bottom line that must permeate all thinking about the “goods” or “services” that government “provides” to the citizenry. In reality, in the vast majority of cases, politicians give back far less in value than they take. The more the government takes, the less the citizen owes to the government.

Insofar as the government takes from the citizen more than it renders to the citizen, the citizen owes the state the same contempt that he would have for any other con artist.

Citizens cannot be indebted to the state for any political promise that the government fails to fulfill — just as any citizen’s obligation to fulfill a private contract is dissolved by the other party’s failure to fulfill his obligations. Nor can people owe obedience to government for any activity that the people could have done better themselves.

It is the government that owes obedience to the citizens, rather than citizens who owe obedience to the government. But the bigger government becomes, the more difficult it is to make it heel.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.