For supporters of limited government, Bastiat's What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen summarizes our fundamental lament:
When a government official spends on his own behalf one hundred sous more, this implies that a taxpayer spends on his own behalf one hundred sous the less. But the spending of the government official is seen, because it is done; while that of the taxpayer is not seen, because—alas!—he is prevented from doing it.
This difference leads to bigger government because the electorate is lulled into believing that big government offers great benefits to society while limited government and private decisionmaking offer little. If it were not for government, the thinking goes, people could not respond to emergencies, or the poor and unfortunate would have no protection and assistance, or there would be no economic development and community life.
But once in awhile, we can see what usually goes unseen. Credit my hometown of Washington County, Maryland, for a recent example.
Rising tax receipts resulted in a budget surplus for FY 2006, and the county's commissioners decided to refund some of that surplus to taxpayers. The local newspaper asked readers to write in, describing what they did with the money. Today's edition included those letters. Among the uses:
- Pay for home repairs required after recent flooding.
- Contribute to the medical fund for an area child with a heart defect.
- Purchase a bicycle, movie tickets, a dinner and show, and the various goods and services of a local festival.
How about that? People will make sensible and altruistic decisions with their money, without the orchestrations of government