We’re All Welfare Queens

One thing I hate about discussing politics with pretty much anyone is how little people tend to realize the extent of the benefits they receive from the government. Most people have a tendency to notice only the most direct of government benefits (particularly those that they don’t receive themselves), as if the only benefits the government provides to some groups and not to others are cash payments. And I’m not just talking about oblivious morons who think welfare and food stamps don’t count as help. I’m talking about the subtler ways people benefit at another’s expense and don’t even realize it. The government provides all sorts of benefits to everyone, not just the people getting a US Treasury check in the mail.

A good example is deliveries performed by the US Postal Service. Believe it or not, the US Government subsidizes rural living. How? Well, guess what’s a huge pain the ass for mail carriers? Delivering to rural homes out in the middle of nowhere. It takes a lot of extra time and gas to deliver a given amount of letters when the houses are all half a mile apart, so delivering 100 letters to 100 rural homes costs the Postal Service far more time and money than does delivering 100 letters to 100 urban homes. But guess what? No matter where you’re sending a letter, the price of the stamp to get it there costs the same amount and package deliveries are based on size and weight, not location.

In other words, Uncle Sam and leechy, socialist, city dwellers like me are subsidizing the lifestyles of hardscrabble, independent, red meat rural folks who think they’ve never sucked at the teat of government a day in their lives. I’m literally paying a rural living tax to keep them in their current lifestyle every time I pay to send a letter or package that goes to an urbanite instead of a country mouse, which in practice is basically every letter or package.

And you know what? I don’t care.

There’s nothing wrong with this situation. It makes sense from a public policy standpoint. Everyone should be able to have access to affordable delivery service. It’s good for our economy and promotes increased market participation, something which benefits all of us, myself included. Plus, I just like living in a country where people have the choice of what type of place they want to live in.

So my only point is this: get off your damn high horse about how independent you are. None of us are Ron Swanson. We all suck off the government teat in some way.

Consider public schooling. Unless you’re a diehard libertarian, most people agree that having universal education is a good thing, and whether the parents have “earned” the right for their children to attend school is irrelevant. Having an educated populace is extremely beneficial to our economy in countless ways. It increases productivity, advances technology and promotes the flow of ideas. After all, if your postman doesn’t know how to read, he might have an issue getting that package of ammo you ordered to your survivalist compound in Montana.

But, that said, some people get a better deal than others out of the public education system, at least on the surface. If the schools in your area are funded through property taxes, people with more valuable properties will pay a higher tax despite the fact that their kids will go to the exact same school (if they even have kids). The fairest way to do it, at least in the sense of treating everyone identically, would be to charge a flat rate per child to all parents sending their kids to the school. This is, in effect, how private schools work. The problem is, if universal education and the massive economic benefits that come with it are your goal, that’s never going to work. Some people will inevitably be unable or unwilling to pay the fees, and their kids won’t attend the schools. So having wealthier tax payers in some way subsidize the poorer tax payers is really the only practical option. Therefore, unless you have above average property values or income (or however your schools are funded) or no kids (like me), someone is effectively subsidizing your child’s education.

But once again, I don’t care.

For any sort of public thing, be it a school, a road, a library, a stoplight, a pool, a park, a court, a rec center or a free digital television signal coverter box when we made that switch from analog to digital, one group of people is always going to be subsidizing another. Typically, the subsidized group is going to be the one making below average wages or using the public thing more than others. But just because you’re making a little less than the local average or use the local library or park a little more than average doesn’t make you some leeching welfare queen. It’s just how things must work as a practical matter.

And just because you don’t use a public thing directly doesn’t mean you don’t benefit from it, either. A wealthy business owner who never sends kids to the local public school might still benefit from it in the form of having a better educated workforce that performs a better job at his company, which allows the company to succeed and make mad stacks of Benjies.

People never think this way, though. It’s always about the simplest, most direct causes and effects and the most immediate, short-term burdens. But the world isn’t a zero sum game. Too many people in America act like the piñata just burst open and they need to scramble and jam as much candy in their pockets as possible before it’s too late. This is counterproductive. Fighting and blaming are always counterproductive. There are many massive benefits our civilization can only realize through cooperation. Of course, it’s impossible to know the complete trail of effects any given policy has, and sometimes public programs really are unfair or a horrible idea. I’m not saying that any public program is a good thing just because of the myriad benefits we might not even think about. I’m just saying we need to think a little bit deeper about the total costs and benefits of these programs and not just who is footing the bill right this moment.