Regulating Tastes and Preferences
Brian Gongol

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: These exceptions are pretty distasteful unto themselves, since they require at least some suspension of rigorous logic simply in order to preserve the sort of community ethos that itself is needed for a civil society to stay together. If a small town can never be allowed to pool a few tax dollars in order to erect a statue to the town forebears (clearly a matter of taste and nothing more), then we have placed such a heavy burden on our own choices that the kind of civil society that sustains a free market can never stick.

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: