An author was invited to speak in Stillwater in May as part of a metrowide book series. According to the Star Tribune, the series was "started to expose suburbia to authors of national acclaim." The author was paid $45,000 out of voter approved "Legacy" funds for an afternoon enjoyed by about 500 people.
The story caused a minor uproar at a time when the state faced (and still faces) a massive deficit. Would the $45,000 fee have been acceptable if the state was in good economic shape?
Most people would agree that literacy and meeting authors is a good thing. But there are many reasons why this episode should not sit well, even in good times. It is not that the author was paid too much money. It is that he was paid with public money.
Authors have been featured at untold events for as long as we have had authors, but this is not the kind of thing we should pay for with public dollars. This event should have been paid for by private benefactors, or not at all.
Defenders of the program will protest that cultural literacy is an important function of government. I disagree; the state should not be in the business of picking winners in the arts, governed as they are by the First Amendment. Voters did, for better or for worse, approve the Legacy Amendment in 2008 which includes "protecting our arts and cultural heritage." The majority of voters may have had something like this author event in mind, though I think if you put it to a vote most folks would not spend $45,000 in one afternoon.
The problem is that there is no limit to good things. Despite our great wealth, we are running up against limitations and find ourselves in serious debt for one simple reason: we have gone well beyond the core functions of government. We are funding so many good things that we no longer properly fund core functions: constitutional duties and protecting life, liberty and property.
Government is supposed to keep us safe and civil (national defense, police, civil and criminal laws enforced by an impartial judiciary) and freely moving on a national infrastructure of roads, bridges and waterways. I think the core includes a state safety net for the most vulnerable.
Meanwhile, the list of good things that we'd like to support is infinite -- serious things like alcohol and drug rehabilitation, and fun things like stadiums and bike paths. And culturally enriching things like an author series to widen our world and reward the talented among us.
The problem is that when we fund these good and often noble things, we often underfund the core functions of government -- especially during tough economic times. Cities are cutting police and fire protection and looking to the state and federal governments for more tax dollars to pay for basic local services. Our infrastructure is aging and full of potholes. We have made promises to public employees that are now underfunded and often well beyond the wage and benefit packages of private sector workers who must honor those promises. And the vulnerable, who count on public money to survive, are at risk.
How do we know if government should fund a good thing? Ask yourself these questions: Is this a proper function of government, or is it best left to the individual (family/community) or a charitable organization? If intervention is necessary, is it best left to local government, which is closer to the people? And, finally, does it increase taxes, regulations or the size of government? If so, is this justified (do the benefits outweigh the cost)?
I submit to you that the more government does, the less we have to do as citizens and members of our communities.
This is not a good thing.
Kim Crockett is president of the Minnesota Free Market Institute