THE NATION'S governors sent out a warning the other day that they will oppose any attempt to shift responsibilities off the federal budget and onto their own. This reflects a legitimate, but by no means controlling, concern. What Congress should remember in weighing the Reagan proposals is that, in some cases, a simple shift of responsibility to lower levels of government, or even to individuals, may be a sound and efficient step.
In the past two decades of aggressive national government, we have become accustomed to thinking that if something is good, at least for some people, somewhere, the federal government should subsidize it. But the case for federal intervention should rest on at least two grounds. One is the existence of a national purpose to be served; the other is an inability or unwillingness on the part of local governments or private individuals to do the job themselves.
Some things fall quite clearly within this scope -- air and water pollution control, for example, since polluters have little incentive to control effluents that are quickly carried downwind or downstream.
The basic needs of the poor are also a properly national concern. This is because the poor tend to be concentrated in areas that, as a result, don't have a local tax base sufficient to meet their needs. And even where the tax base may be sufficient, the altruism of their neighbors can't be relied on to keep them above starvation levels. If you doubt this last fact, take the case of Texas, which despite its booming economy and oil riches has seen fit to reduce its welfare grant level over the last decade while prices have more than doubled. Texas now provides the princely sum of $116 a month to a mother with two children who has no other income.
There are other cases where most of a need can be met locally, but special conditions warrant adding dollars for special problems. Compensatory education for poor and handicapped children is one such case -- but general education is not.
Another case for federal intervention may be where by subsidizing an activity suitable only for a limited number of users -- mass transit riders in dense urban areas, for example -- a benefit can be gained for all citizens, in this case less national use of scarce energy.
But there are lots of other businesses the federal government is in that it should simply get out of -- with due regard to the expectations and continuing liabilities created by past policies. The development of a balanced national transportation system is a proper national concern, but subsidizing the operation of competing transportation modes is not. Other examples are the various subsidized loans and grants that support construction of middle- and upper-income housing, and the interest subsidies for the college education of the middle and upper class, and the grants to local arts and crafts.
Yes, we like all these things. But remember: When people choose to have them paid for through the federal government rather than by their own savings or by local governments, they pay more for them than they would otherwise. It costs money to collect taxes, evaluate applications and proposals, pay out the grants or loans or subsidies through the various levels of bureaucracy and, finally, monitor the whole business to make sure that the fraud and abuse don't get out of hand. And when Americans lock in their buying decisions by establishing a self-perpetuating federal program, they also give up a lot of personal and local control in changing those decisions.
So here are two handy rules of thumb to use in evaluating federal budget-cutting proposals: If the benefits to be gained from a federal program -- no matter how worthy its purpose -- are restricted to a few people or a few jurisdictions, and if those people and jurisdictions are quite capable of raising the money to pay for the benefits themselves, then the federal government shouldn't be involved. And if there are some important national benefits to be gained, but local resources aren't sufficient in some places, send the federal money only to those places that can't afford it by themselves. Otherwise, everyone's better off to get the feds out of the business and keep the money at home.