The Salem News
Tuesday, November 4, 2003
There was a passionate debate on Beacon Hill last month about givers and takers.
It wasn't a new debate, but part of an ongoing "give and take" between two ways of looking at government.
It didn't begin as a big defining deal: Eric Kriss, Gov. Mitt Romney's secretary of Administration and Finance, was speaking to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce about building courthouses. In passing, he mentioned a great idea - that instead of handling traffic tickets next to serious felonies, we could process them "in convenient places, like in shopping malls or police stations."
But this was not the part that got to be a media event. On his way to making his point, Kriss said that we have to look at the "ecosystem-like balance between those who contribute through taxes and those who receive government benefits," which he called "net contributors and net beneficiaries," and then shortened to "givers and takers."
Taken out of context, this last phrase seemed like a judgment on the intrinsic value of various Massachusetts citizens. And, of course, it was taken out of context.
By the end of the day, the state Democratic Party chairman, Phil Johnston, was doing a public relations whoopee, accusing Kriss of "social Darwinism" and railing about the "classic right wing Republican philosophy to believe that poor, elderly and disabled people contribute nothing to the society."
Whoa, Phil; get back on the medication! Nobody said anything about contributing nothing. But then state Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge, jumped on the hysteria bandwagon with a lecture to Kriss at a Statehouse committee hearing about "blaming the victim," completely missing the point, which was:
The ratio of people paying for government services to people using government services is roughly 3-1 at our state level, according to Kriss. If we reach a point where more people are using than paying, the system won't work for anyone.
Dampen the rhetoric, and do the math. Try not to say, "Duh!"
This general warning has been floating around for awhile, at least since Alexander Fraser Tytler, economist at Edinburgh University, wrote during the American Revolution: "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising them the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy..."
He was warning less, it seems to me, about the poor and disabled, than about what we now call "middle-class entitlements." But I can see the middle-class logic: The more taxpayers are made to pay for others who contribute less in taxes than they, the more they start looking for a direct return for their payment: more education subsidies for their kids, care for their aging parents, open space purchases for their "quality of life," subsidized prescription drugs, sports and arts facilities, and more convenient public transportation, not to mention narrow tax breaks for their own special interests.
But Kriss mentioned only the free health care that Massachusetts provides "to a million residents, or about 16 percent of our total population" (this is a reference to Medicaid, not Medicare, which is a federal program), and pointed out that "the health and welfare portion of our operating budget is about half of all spending." Obviously as the baby boomers age this will become unsustainable. And the state will also have to care for all those politicians whose heads get stuck in the sand as they ignore the oncoming crisis.
Kriss moved on to a discussion of consolidating courthouses, and asking, "Why do courthouses have large law libraries anyway?" (I'll answer that rhetorical question: To subsidize middle-class lawyers, of course.)
Back at Democratic Party headquarters, in the throes of his indignation, Phil Johnston said that "the reason government exists is to help us when we're having problems in our lives."
Really? I would say government exists to provide for public safety, the courts, infrastructure, and the care of those who really can't take care of themselves. There are people more or less libertarian than I, of course, who would choose different priorities. But would most of us expect the state to help us out whenever we're "having problems in our lives"?
Right at this moment, I have a window that should be replaced before winter, a cat that wets people's beds, and at least 20 pounds to lose. Government: Help me!
Thanks, Eric Kriss, for reminding us that we can't all get everything we want from the state, or the state will run out of money for what it is we really need.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem
News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence
Journal and other newspapers.