Now, don't get me wrong. I am not a masochist trying to make things unpleasant for myself. During the last few years, for the first time in my life, I have had a small amount of money for what they call "discretionary spending" -- that is, after what has seemed essential for food, clothing, shelter, medical care and other family needs, there has been a little money left over that we could save or decide to spend as we wished. A good feeling.
Then a strange thing happened. As I was making out my income taxes, it occured to me that I would get a better bargain if I spent somewhat more of my money on those things that benefit us all and a little less on what I selected individually. That is, I found I had a marginal preference for public goods versus private goods. This will not lead me to make a gift to the federal government, but it will lead me to vote for those who will see that everyone helps pay a fair share of increased expenditures.
Let me take first that bete noir of my liberal friends: defense expenditures. For many of them, the decisions about federal expenditures seem to be easy -- just cut the defense budget and leave social programs alone. But I am glad we are planning to increase our defense capability over the next decade relative to the Soviet Union's, and that shouldn't be hard to do. We have a gross national product almost three times as large as theirs, and they are apparently locked into a very low-growth or no-growth situation for many years. Now, I am annoyed by the fact that we seem to be letting the Germans and the Japanese get away without paying a reasonable share of their own defense and thus increasing the total cost to us, but that doesn't change my main point: there is nothing that I can do in the marketplace with my money that will do so much to help create the conditions of a safe and stable world as what the federal government can do if it spends some of that money for me.
And I feel the same way about area after area in the federal budget. Although it is not supported by the income tax but rather by special contributions, I like the idea that I live in a country that has a contributory social insurance system that provides dependable and inflation-proof benefits to retired elderly people, the totally disabled, widows and motherless and fatherless children. I like the fact that we have a Medicare program taht sees that older people and totally disabled people (and their sons and daughters) are not made bankrupt by serious illness. I like the "entitlement programs" that are supported by income taxes, too -- veterans' benefits, the federal government's contribution to the unemployed, to poor women and their children, food stamps for the hungry, medical care for the poor, and so on. I like that these programs are "uncontrollable"; taht they are a commitment in law that people can count on.
I want to buy more not only in these areas of very large expenditures, defense and "entitlement programs." But how can I as an individual help to protect the food and drug supply through expenditures in the private market? How can I buy the new knowledge to reduce disease and promote health? How can I buy in a way that prevents water pollution and promotes clean air? I like the Forest Service, the Park Service and hundreds of other services I get for my federal tax dollar. I want to buy more of these public goods. In my opinion, they do much more toward creating the kind of world I want to live in than anything further I can buy in the marketplace.
Now, all was not sweetness and light as I made out my tax return. I wish IRS would spend more money to catch the cheaters. I feel about them as I do about the shoplifters who run up retail prices. And I am annoyed at waste, inefficiency and dishonesty that run up the cost of either public or private goods. I guess I am even more annoyed when it is a public agency that is at fault. If some of the people in the General Services Administration, say, stole public money, I would hold them to a stricter accounting than those private enterpreneurs caught bilking the public. Public service should have the highest standards, and they are usually observed. All in all, I'm greatly pleased that less than two cents of each dollar contributed to the Social Security program is spent on administration and 98 cents-plus goes out in benefits. That's what I call getting my money's worth!
There was one matter above all that I found irritating on April 15: the notion I kept running into in casual conversations that "they," the government, were taking away "my" money for "their" purposes. It has always seemed to me that, almost exclusively in the history of the world, the U.S. government is not "they" but "us," and it has always seemed to me fatuous that whatever income one could manage to lay one's hands on was somehow to be thought of as entirely the result of one's own work. Obviously, the major part of our income derives from the collective capital that we have all inherited from the past. Our income comes not only from our own effort but also from the knowledge, skills and technology that others have developed and, for example, the advantages we all derive from public health activities and the products of our educational system (it makes sense to print this paper only because someone else has taught children to read).
And we not only stand on the shoulders of all the generations before us when we earn our living, but are also dependent on the current contributions of others in a collective, interdependent economic enterprise. It seems to me, therefore, that the government, expressing the collective will of the people, has the responsibility to take back for broad social purposes a significant share of what we like to think of as our own earnings.
Anyway, I hope when the next budget is submitted and the focus is again on the value of public goods versus private goods that those who make the decisions will keep in mind that there are some of us out here who like what we buy from the government, and that goes for local and state government, too.