The Corner

Re: Starve the Beast

Jonah — while I agree with your skepticism that it doesn’t seem like Americans’ make economic assessments of where their tax dollars go, I wouldn’t dismiss entirely the idea that people do sometimes do it. It actually can in some ways be related back to the contrast Niskanen and Ferguson point. Yes, Americans have appallingly low expectations and standards for the return on their tax dollars, but that’s maybe because they don’t pay much in taxes and don’t need to expect much from that “investment.” That is to say, perhaps people demand better results from government if they actually do feel a real bite out of their paycheck, but given our relatively low taxes and highly progressive system, maybe not enough of them do.

How can we determine whether that’s the case? Well, look at countries with huge governments and flatter tax burdens, basically European social-welfare states like France or the Netherlands (Britain is generally considered somewhere in the middle). In countries where most citizens have skin in the game, thanks to systems much more regressive than the U.S.’s, it’s possible they expect more from and get more out of government, all other things being equal (I would not, however, suggest this as a sensible way to bring about government reform . . .).

A few ways this seems to be the case: Countries with flatter tax systems tend to have much more generous and redistributive welfare states than those with progressive ones; ones that spend a lot of money on public infrastructure and transport get those projects done much more quickly and cheaply than the U.S. does; countries where all citizens, not just the poor and the elderly, rely on government for health care get much more efficient care per dollar spent (if not better outcomes). 

If you live in a society where, as Jonah pointed out Arthur Brooks has argued, the state is considered the main conduit for meeting societal needs and caring for the poor and vulnerable, you’ll care more about how well government works and whether it can care competently for you, and that’s a cultural matter. But it’s also important to homo economicus, because Leviathan has taken most of his paycheck, and he now has to hope, and should ensure, that government will provide for society at large, the poor and vulnerable, and even him at times, and do so as efficiently and competently as possible.

#more#There are obviously other explanations for these differences: Charlie Cooke has lamented to me on many an occasion that in Britain, the conversation about almost all government policies ends up being debates over efficacy of programs, not whether the programs should exist in the first place. Leaving aside the financial constraints Britain and elsewhere are now experiencing, if you don’t have a constitution with enumerated federal powers, a truly conservative and independently minded political movement, etc., you’re going to spend more time on making government work, not on making it smaller, and that’s for other reasons than I’ve just proposed.

In fact, I’m willing to accept that non-pecuniary factors tend to be the main determinants in people’s opinion of what the size of government should be, but I don’t think financial considerations are irrelevant. People might be a lot more likely to start caring about where their tax dollars go (whether the ends are efficient and whether the money comes back to them) when those taxes are really substantial, broad-based, and they actually have to pay them.

And it’s amazing the degree to which this is much more the case in continental Europe than it is in the U.S.; thanks to huge payroll and consumption taxes, they tax their middle class as substantially, or even more, than we tax our rich. The makers-and-takers/47 percent narrative is a poor talking point, but it’s still a fact that many Americans don’t notice the burden of government, and to some degree, don’t bear it at all, especially relative to other countries.

As far as “starve the beast” or “serve the bill” goes, thus, Ferguson and Jonah are right that people here will not act as homo economicus, but that could be because America doesn’t have a remotely flat tax system or, I’d add, a seriously burdensome government; in places that do, people might be slightly more likely to think like economic actors about their taxes.

A final point: It’s difficult to assess my thesis inasmuch as big government and the cultures that give rise to it have other negative effects on efficiency, so it’s possible citizens subject to a huge government and a regressive tax code get a more efficient government than they would if they didn’t have higher expectations than free-riding Americans, but still not a very efficient one. It’s been suggested, in fact, that it’s highly efficient yet regressive taxation (like light capital taxation, competitive corporate-tax rates, consumption taxes, etc.) that’s allowed places such as France and Scandinavia to have functional economies despite the burdens of absurdly large governments; perhaps it’s also the relative efficiency and usefulness of their government spending programs, and not just their tax system, that’s allowed them to manage as well. Thus again, economic preferences force the hand of citizens and politicians in a completely government-dominated society but not in one like America.

Patrick Brennan — Patrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...

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