All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1973

Down with National Priorities

Dr. Mode is an M.D. in Stamford, Connecticut.

There is a great deal of talk about “re-ordering our national priorities,” and insistence that the public must speak up and be heard. Seldom identified is the fact that the concept of “national priorities” refers to objects of government spending. Seldom noted is the fact that consumers, acting privately in a free market place, always have had a choice of priorities. Whenever a person chooses product A over product B, he is ordering his priorities. Only busybodies try to tell their friends what the latter’s priorities—tastes, values, preferences — should be. Therefore, the whole notion of setting “national priorities” reduces us, in effect, to a nation of busybodies.

The concept of “national priorities” implies that a choice exists between governmental functions of unequal importance. When government is restricted to its proper functions — the police function, the judicial function, and providing for the defense of the country — there can be no question of “priorities.” Each of these functions is equally necessary if the preservation of individual rights is to be more than a slogan. The army, the police, and the courts are all equally indispensable for such protection. To ask citizens to compare in importance these three functions with other government activities — for example, the police function versus the development of a mass transit system — is to miss the difference between the essential and the nonessential, between jobs that must be done by government to carry out its purpose and jobs that could just as well be done by private enterprise, with no loss of individual rights (with a gain in fact).

Note that the need for police, judicial, and military services is, by the nature of the adversary, limited. But when the government is funding a whole raft of economic, social, educative, and health programs, where the goals are always, by their nature, unlimited and nebulous (for example, “a decent life for every American”), there can never be enough resources available to fund all of them as much as their backers would like, so some have to be funded less than others. But by what standard should the “mores” be selected? Answer: there can be no reasonable standard for selecting one over the other, because there is no common denominator by which to measure the relative values of such diverse endeavors as, say, cancer research and the Tennessee Valley Authority. So, arbitrary standards must be used.

One way of picking priorities is to have an autocratic leader, but Americans have traditionally shunned overt totalitarians. A variation of autocracy is unlimited majority rule — democracy — with dictatorial powers wielded by “the 51 per cent” rather than by the individual leader. Again, Americans traditionally have had too much respect for the rights of the minority to permit unlimited majority rule. Another way of selecting is by continual tests of strength between vying special interest groups. This is what we have now. Less politely, we have gang warfare between different groups, each with a vested interest in government funds. Medical researchers lament when “their” funds are threatened. Welfare rights groups lament any diminution of “their” funds. And so it goes. Of course, they do more than lament: they issue frightening forecasts, demonstrate, occupy buildings, start legal suits, and the like. In time, the politically strongest groups get their desires met first. This necessarily leaves many other groups (or non-organized individuals) with their desires for public funds unmet. Therefore, the initial idea of giving the entire public a voice in setting “national priorities” is doomed to defeat. Some voices will be heeded, others will not. This is inevitable under our present system.

Therefore, I say: down with “national priorities”; up with individual priorities! In the free and competitive market place, all voices can be heard. Each citizen arranges his own preferences, but not his neighbor’s. No one has his choices overridden by stronger political pressure groups. For instance, a worker who wants to buy an automobile doesn’t have to cancel his order because the mass transit lobby convinced legislators to make mass transit a “national priority,” resulting in higher taxes that left the worker with insufficient funds to buy the car.

In that case, the government can devote itself wholly to its three essential functions. It can serve simply as an umbrella, protecting I us from the reign of force and fraud, as each of us pursues his own brand of happiness.