Making Rules and Spending Money When It Doesn't Make Sense
On both the political left and right, there's a persistent habit of trying to regulate tastes and preferences using taxpayer dollars. On the right, it's usually a sin of omission: Public outry against the "gay" Teletubbies or against Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" being leveraged to call for public funds to be spent on keeping some things out of the public view. On the left, it's usually a sin of commission: Using public funds to subsidize public broadcasting or the arts.
The problem with expenditures in either such direction is that they are purely derivative of tastes and preferences. That is, one cannot produce a sound logical argument for or against Robert Mapplethorpe photos nor for or against Mickey Rooney's naked rear end in a television commercial. They are, like the Cola Wars, purely functions of individual tastes. What is at once popular, like the Macarena, may later become unpopular without itself having changed.
Tax Money Should Be Spent Only On Logical Grounds
A reasonable litmus test for any public expenditure ought to be that the spending improve the overall utility (or happiness) of the people paying for it. This is certainly the case when tax dollars are used to redeem market failures -- like the need to provide a national defense or to provide sanitary sewers in populated areas. But to spend tax money where it's not otherwise imperative is a real failure of policy. Taxes are involuntary, by their very nature. Otherwise, they would be voluntary contributions or commercial payments in exchange for goods and services. Taking an individual's money for taxation, when it fails to redeem a market failure or otherwise increase the taxpayer's overall utility, reduces the taxpayer's ability to use those dollars in ways that would make him or her happier.
In fact, when tax money is spent or regulations passed on something that is a matter of tastes and preferences, it violates the market concept of Pareto optimality: The exchange fails to "do no harm", since the individual paying for it is neither compensated for his or her loss, and is simultaneously made less able to do what he or she wanted to do in the first place.
Are There Exceptions? Sure.
There are certainly some isolated exceptions to the rule:
- Where payment is voluntary or can be easily controlled or avoided by the taxpayer. If there exist two neighboring communities and one through democratic means decides to spend tax funds on, for instance, public art, then it could be argued that dissatisfied residents on the losing side of the democratic vote could move to the other community and form a bloc to oppose public art there. This is a tenuous exception at best, but many communities already exhibit this kind of behavior.
- Where the community is sufficiently small that the people authorizing or supervising the spending can be easily held directly and immediately accountable. This exception is similar in tenor to the preceding one; essentially, it suggests that in a community in which individuals can have a recognizable voice in the argument and a decent shot at a fair hearing in the public view, then an exception might be made. It's difficult to see this sort of exception working on a scale any larger than a college campus, for instance.
- Where some issue of tastes has to be recognized fairly in order to achieve some larger Pareto-optimal goal. The case here is most likely to be that of the college campus in which, in order to preserve an atmosphere of academic freedom, it may be necessary for tax funds to be used to employ those whose expressions of taste (professors of art, for example) may be at odds with the payers, but whose presence is necessary for the whole system to remain reasonably intact.
The Bottom Line: Do It In Your Hometown, But Keep It Off the National Stage
Until tastes and preferences become a matter of logic, there is no sound logical reason to impose the cost burden of those feelings on others -- whether it's in the form of subsidies for what one likes or prohibitions and regulations on what one doesn't. In order to sustain the fabric of civil society that's necessary to keep a vibrant market economy alive, we may sometimes have to suspend our logical opposition and accept a small burden on a local basis. But when parties, from left or right, seek to subsidize their own tastes and preferences at universal expense on a state or national basis, it is a matter of basic responsibility to act in opposition.
A Further Argument: Regulation of Tastes and Preferences is a Hallmark of Oppressive Societies
Oppressive societies almost always actively regulate tastes and preferences, often using force to do so:
- Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance reserves the right to restrict freedom of the press, and gloats when it allows the press to criticize the government
- China's Ministry of Culture censors Internet access for a billion people, primarily to restrain dissent movements