08/20/2012 11:00 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

Taxing and Spending: A Conservative Challenge and a Liberal Response

I have come to realize that Liberals (among whom I count myself) generally have a flawed understanding of Conservative attitudes towards taxing and spending. The mistake, I would suggest, is to focus on the first of these, the taxing. Instead, the spending is the key to understanding Conservative opposition to the Affordable Care Act, Social Security, and many other programs designed to help people.

I would further suggest that Conservative arguments over government spending present an important challenge to Liberals, who in the arena of public opinion have largely failed to articulate a persuasive defense of government spending, even (or especially for) worthwhile causes.

The central Conservative question is, in truth, a reasonable one: Why should I think the government will do a better job of spending my money than I would?!

After all, governments are made up of individuals, and how could these individuals have a better incentive than I do to spend my (hard-earned) money? Indeed, they have much less at stake, much less incentive not to squander this money. Therefore, the Conservative thinker reasons (and the Libertarian takes this reasoning to an even greater degree), we should keep as much money as possible in my pockets and therefore out of the hands of government. In this sense, it is quite possible that the opposition to taxing is something of a by-product of the opposition to someone else having decision power over how to spend my money.

Is there a Liberal answer to this, especially given the long, evidential history of absurd and out-of-control government spending, all the pork-barrel spending and earmarks, and those tools costing hundreds or thousands of dollars? And, in terms of helping people, well perhaps we should leave that to charitable institutions and not see this as a government responsibility or role?

These are serious, reasonable, challenging questions. Can Liberals answer them in a satisfying manner? Well, I do think there are cogent, persuasive arguments in favor of responsible government spending. Here are four such points worth considering:

1. There are some things only governments can do well. These generally fall under the rubric of common interests or collective goods, activities such as securing a clean water supply, or responding to disease epidemics. Such matters simply cannot be left to individual citizens to choose how to spend their money. It would be a nightmare, for example, if clean drinking water were denied to people who could not afford it, or if the frontline against potential epidemics were left to private, voluntary groups or individuals. And despite some recent attempts to privatize police and fire-fighting services, are we truly prepared to allow houses to burn to the ground if the owner has not purchased such service in advance?

2. There are some things requiring universal participation to function effectively and affordably. Of course, this notion has been central to debates over healthcare reform. Perhaps the reality of universal participation is more evident in the justice system. What would it mean to privatize the court systems, and make participation subject to subscription? Likewise with policing. If we privatize this, then those who can afford police, whether for protection or to catch criminals, would benefit, while the rest of us would be at the mercy of a lawless society. It takes government, whether federal or local, to make these sorts of things work at all, let alone well.

3. Government does some things no one else will do. For all the controversy over President Obama's statements about building businesses, his basic point remains valid. That despite the importance of individual ingenuity and perseverance, wealth is not earned alone and is not possible outside of a society and polity providing basic infrastructure and stability. One might suggest that therefore there are implicit social contracts, that those who succeed in our society ought to contribute to building and maintaining the infrastructure and stability that allowed them to earn (or maintain) their fortunes.

4. Government does some things we are unwilling to stop. We already guarantee certain things to our citizens and even non-citizens, such as emergency medical care. Unless we are willing to become a society that turns away people from the emergency room and leave them to die of serious but not life-threatening ailments, then we are already committed to a certain amount and kind of government spending, so does it not at least make sense to rationalize this system and provide care in a more affordable and productive manner?

One might counter that this is not the job of government and that people will not die like this, because religious and other charitable institutions will pick up the slack (and will be better funded if taxes are lower). But will they? What will happen with a voucher program for Medicare when a person's care exceeds the value of the voucher? Will we let them die? What will happen if we privatize Social Security? Some individuals will be able to earn greater returns than they would receive under the current system, but what of those who make poor choices and squander their private accounts? Do we let them wander the streets and die?

Social science tells us rather persuasively that most people will not or cannot make good decisions about many things, especially when confronted with too many choices, and especially about their long-term future needs. We easily say "Sink or Swim," but are we truly prepared, as a society, to stand by while people drown? I realize that to some extent we already do this, but do we wish to make it official policy, a guiding principle of government?

We can see, then, that there are some strong reasons why we must rely upon government to tax us and spend our money, to provide necessary services that cannot or will not be provided by the private sector or private individuals. The debate is and should be around the extent of this government role. Perhaps almost all of us and even most Libertarians (Anarchists aside), agree that government must play this role in terms of national security and court systems, so the core of the debate must concern matters such as health care and the regulation of food safety and of Wall Street.

We have little choice but to trust that government authorities will secure our safety and clean water, among other goods, but of course we must maintain the right and responsibility to keep officials in check, to monitor for (in)efficiency, and to protect against the abuse of power.

However, even if we overcome the challenges and establish that sometimes government does do a better job of spending my money than I would, there remains a moral challenge: Why not allow people to make bad decisions, to sink and drown if they cannot swim? In this regard, it does not matter if the government spends well, because the taxation could still be considered theft. Does the government have the moral right to take my money to save someone else from drowning? And even if so, who ought to have the power to decide who should be rescued from drowning and by what means? To this problem also I believe Liberals can offer a thoughtful response, but that is for another essay.