Does Government Simply Spend “Other People’s Money?”

In Tuesday’s editions, the Times-Dispatch followed up its creedal statement of New Year’s Day with a self-review of the ways in which the paper put that creed into practice in 2006.

We won’t take issue with that self-assessment just now; what is more revealing is the brief editorial note at the bottom of the page. Noting various proposals by local politicians to spend money bolstering community college, preschool for poor kids, and road construction, the RTD notes that “When you’re spending other people’s money, no tax ever is” enough.

This raises a serious question: do government officials simply spend “other people’s money” when they allocate public funds?

A positive answer to that question implies that “government” is something apart from the people, an alien power in our midst, a Leviathan to be tamed. That image of government derives largely from the views of John Locke, writing in the 17th century, over a century before the emergence of the first modern democratic states. Locke was writing in reaction to defenders of absolutism, whether traditional royalists like Filmer or more sophisticated moderns like Thomas Hobbes. In that context, his concern was to limit government’s power to dominate individuals–because government in his experience really was an alien power.

Democratic theories of government have a different premise: the government belongs to us, and is “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as a noted Republican president once put it.

This being the case, government officials who allocate public money are not supposed to be or be thought of as alien officials who spend other people’s money. Rather, they are to be thought of as our own representatives who make decisions on our behalf about how to spend our money for the sake of our common good. And when these representatives decide to raise revenues through additional taxation, they are authorized to do so by the power we have invested in them.

From the standpoint of democratic theory, then, the right question to ask is not whether government officials are addicted to spending other people’s money. The proper question is whether the proposals they forward and the decisions they make about raising and allocating public money are truly in the public interest and truly advance the common good.

Too little government spending on the right priorities can be as damaging to the commonwealth as too much, and if the legislature is persuaded that spending more money on these initiatives is the best way to advance the common interest, that’s exactly what they should do, without fear of being labeled as greedy, voracious consumers of “other people’s money.”

Published in: on January 2, 2007 at 10:05 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Right.

    The Richmond Green Party has been asking all along about how OUR money is being spent. That’s what being truly conservative is about

    The wasted MILLIONS on the Arts Center fiasco (which Media General/TD is an integeral part of) and the Broad Street CDA are shameful and should be brought up to City Council and Mayor again and again.

  2. I love the RT-D but have never understood their logic with spending tax money.

    Since money is taxed from my pay, it had better be spent on something! I do not want my tax money to just sit idly in somebody’s office (non-literal of course). At that point they are just hoarding it.

    The Virginian way is to hoard money. No thanks. Gimme some of that ol’ Yankee ingenuity. Spend my money where it is needed — and at once.

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