by Craig J. Cantoni
April 6, 2007
My hometown newspaper periodically asks me and other pundits to contribute to a sound-off feature in which we provide 100-word answers to a question posed by the newspaper. For the most recent feature, the newspaper asked us if the city should spend taxpayer money to expand its performing arts center. I responded with these questions:
Should my neighbor pick up the tab for my family’s many intellectual pursuits and leisure activities? Should he buy an amplifier and other band equipment for my son, and books, subscriptions, artwork, movie tickets, hiking boots, and membership fees for various social/intellectual clubs for my wife and me?, If the answer is no, then why should my family subsidize his preference for city-sponsored performing arts? Why is his preference more important than ours, and where does he get the right to take our money for his preference?
A tempest in a teapot? Not at all. To use another cliché, the city’s performing arts center is the tip of a huge iceberg. It’s the iceberg of the common good, and it’s an iceberg that is growing in spite of global warming.
Sticky-fingered subsidy seekers use “the common good” as their justification for taking other people’s money, whether they are hoity-toity patrons of the performing arts, beer-guzzling sports fans who attend games in subsidized stadiums, environmentally sensitive light-rail riders who receive an eight-dollar subsidy each time they board the train, or well-off retirees who send the bill for their medicine to future generations. It’s all for the common good and not for their own selfish good (wink).
In my hometown, auto dealers even convinced the city council to give them public money for advertising so that they wouldn’t relocate their dealerships to another city. It wasn’t extortion. It was for the common good.
There is so much common good at the national level that over 60 percent of federal spending, or over $12,000 per family, is money that is taken from some people and redistributed to other people in the form of handouts, subsidies, tax breaks, earmarks, and various kinds of packaged pork. Is this what the Founders meant by “the general welfare?”
What do the terms “the common good” and “the general welfare” mean? Shouldn’t we be having a national debate about this? Shouldn’t presidential candidates be asked to define the terms?
The more ambiguous a term, the more political mischief it causes. George W. Bush proved this with the term, “the war against terrorism.” Hillary Clinton proved it with “It takes a village.” And Barack Obama, who is the reincarnation of Rousseau, will prove it if he is elected on his platitudes, pedantry, bromides and sophistry about a social contract and the common good.
Is the common good whatever a majority of voters decide? If so, could the majority decide that it would be for the common good to confiscate all of the money of the minority?
That’s not a hypothetical question. Plenty of Americans believe that the estate tax is for the common good. What they really believe is that they have a higher claim to someone’s money than the person’s family has, and that the rights and property of the individual are secondary to the desires of the collective.
This will get me in trouble, but a similar “common good” argument is used to justify public education. People accept the argument without question and get extremely irritated and insulting if someone has the temerity to question the argument. Well, get your insults ready.
It’s certainly good for the populace to be educated. And it might also be good to make K-12 education compulsory and to subsidize the education of children who have the misfortune of being born to poor, irresponsible, drug-addicted, or mentally-deranged parents. But why is it for the common good for parents who can afford to pay the cost of their children’s public education to be subsidized by the 20 percent of Americans who remain childless all of their lives, by the one million parents who home-school their children, and by the approximately 10 million parents who send their children to private school. Clearly, it’s good for the recipients to be given other people’s money, but why is it good for the givers to have their money taken? Don’t the givers belong to the common good?
Please take a deep breath and let your intellect catch up to your emotions before responding. By asking these questions, I am not a mean-spirited, selfish person, or whatever pejorative comes to mind. Incidentally, that’s what the former dean of the Arizona State University College of Education called me when I asked him similar questions at a public forum. So much for intellectual discourse at the College of Education.
I’ll answer my own questions by offering a definition of the common good. The common good is those government services that benefit all people equally or as equally as practical, such as national defense and public safety, the cost of which are borne by all citizens equally or as equally as practical, within constitutional limits. The cost of services that benefit a select group, even if the group is in the majority, are not for the common good and thus should be charged to the beneficiaries in the form of user fees or targeted taxes. Exceptions can be made for the truly indigent and their children, but only if they do not have the physical or mental ability to support themselves.
If the common good were defined this way, George W. Bush wouldn’t have made his millions from subsidized baseball, my neighbor with the BMW and three kids in public school wouldn’t be able to take public education taxes from his neighbor with the Toyota Corolla and three kids in parochial school, patrons of the city’s performing arts center would pay the total cost of the center in the ticket price, government would shrink by at least half, and campaign contributions would slow to a trickle.
And that’s why politicians refuse to define the common good.