All Commentary
Tuesday, October 1, 1991

Welfare State on the Street Where You Live

Tibor R. Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama.

Like many fathers, I take my children to city-run recreation facilities. My 7-year-old daughter takes gymnastic lessons, and my 11-year-old son plays baseball. All three of my children have attended summer day camps provided by the city parks and recreation department.

But I’m not happy about this, at least about the way it fits into the large picture of our society. While, of course, the kids have fun and get something out of it, there is a definite downside to counting on the city to provide such facilities.

Already at this point people are learning to depend on government to do a great deal for them that it shouldn’t be doing at all. In short, a city government should have no parks and recreation department. It isn’t what government is supposed to be about. It has nothing to do with justice, with protecting, maintaining, and preserving the rights of individuals at the city’s level of jurisdiction. Rather it is the sort of activity that people should organize for themselves, via their social clubs, churches, the extracurricular activities of their firms, and so on.

City-run recreation facilities instill the belief, at a very early age, that if you want something, it is only natural that the government should provide it. And from this belief, of course, has sprung the gradual but certain bureaucratization of nearly all of human life.

As I was waiting for my daughter to finish her gymnastics lesson one night, I overheard a brief conversation between members of the board of our city’s parks and recreation department. They were walking out of a room in which they had just held a meeting. One was noisily complaining that the city never has enough money to do this business right, and there isn’t going to be any relief soon, so they might as well learn to live without.

Of course. Whenever government tries to provide for people what they should provide for themselves, it never will be able to do well enough—indeed, it’s most unlikely that there ever will be a well enough! One can always think of some additional support, yet another basketball or tennis court, more lifeguards at the city’s swimming pool, still another baseball umpire to hire, and so forth. It never ends, does it?

“The Moral Tragedy of the Commons”

This is what I have come to call “the moral tragedy of the commons.” When there is a supposedly common pool of resources, people always have their own idea of how to make the best use of it. And the most use of it. So no matter how much one resolves to tighten the belt, there always will be a good reason to want to do more and better—after all, it’s for the children, for the future of the community, or for some other noble cause.

What few people stop to think about is that government programs are costly—they require people’s labor, ingenuity, skills, and innumerable resources. And the taxpayer pays the bill. But since he or she is being forced to put money into a common pool, no one worries about how much a particular taxpayer has contributed so that there can be some idea of how much each family might take from the pool. Instead, everyone just wants more money and resources for their favorite projects.

Why are cities, counties, states, and national governments going broke all over the world? Because we all want to improve things with more funds, but no one has any idea what the limit is. Private property solves this problem, but was abandoned a long time ago when taxes reached the point where we can steal our way to being provided with all sorts of things we desire, never mind thinking about paying for them or long-range budgeting.

If you want to understand why we have deficit spending at the Federal level, think about it in connection with your own parks and recreation department. Ask how one can control costs when the funding source is an impersonal common pool of resources belonging to no one. The answer isthat without a reasonably precise relationship to a person’s own limit of expendable income, there is no hope of putting a lid on government spending.

It doesn’t begin with S&L scandals. It doesn’t have to do with Pentagon extravagance. These are but symptoms. It has to do with the gradual expansion of the public sector and corresponding contraction of the private sector. As Aristotle said:

That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.