Monday, March 15, 2010

Solving Houston's Budget Deficit, Part 2

The city of Houston is facing a $110 million budget deficit over the next two years. Ma Parker has raised the possibility of furloughs and layoffs for city employees if they aren't willing to make salary concessions. According to the Chronicle Ma said that "some job losses are possible if City Council determines certain services to be unnecessary."

Why does it take a budget deficit to consider whether "certain services" are unnecessary? Shouldn't this be an ongoing process, regardless of the city's financial position? And more importantly, what standard will be used to determine what is necessary and unnecessary?

Since the proper purpose of government is the protection of individual rights, including property rights, most of the items on the city's budget are unnecessary--they are contrary to the city's proper functions. For example, putting light bulbs in citizen's homes, helping them with the down payment on their homes, patrolling sexually-oriented businesses, monitoring the actions of taco trucks, keeping an eye on "attention-getting devices", and generally butting into our lives. Of course, the city also spends millions trying to stop development, cracking down on renegade taxis, regulating valet companies, harassing veterinarians, and generally making life more difficult for businesses. Eliminating these immoral programs and policies would be a good place for Ma to start trimming the budget.

But I seriously doubt that she will consider such steps. Doing so would be contrary to her view that individual rights should be sacrificed to the politically popular idea du jour. Having ruled out tax increases (for now), Ma is considering raising rates for water, sewer, and other city fees. Considering the fact that the city holds a monopoly on water and sewer services, such rate increases bear a striking resemblance to a tax increase. Further, given the fact that many city fees are related to securing permission to operate a business, remodel your home, or engage in other activities, individuals will have have the choice of paying the bribe fee or foregoing the activity. That really isn't a choice, just like paying taxes isn't really a choice.

Of course, Ma sees things much differently:
For years now, we have spent more money than we have taken in. You can't spend more than you earn. It is a very unbusinesslike approach to running things.
This is either gross evasion, or extreme naivety, neither of which is a particularly characteristic for a mayor. Governments do not earn their revenue (or at least most of it)--they extract revenue by force. To earn money one must exchange value for value. The city offers no value when it forces developers to secure a building permit, or compels businesses to pay a fee to erect a sign, or demands payment in exchange for permission to engage in activities of one's choosing. The only "value" offered in such situations is the granting of permission, a permission which the city has no moral right to grant or withhold.

If Ma truly wishes to solve the budget deficit, she would do well to begin by recognizing the nature and proper purpose of government. Government is an agency of force, and that force is properly used only in retaliation against those first use force against others, such as robbers, kidnappers, and murderers. Recognizing this fact is the first step in meaningfully solving the budget deficit.

The city's problem isn't a lack of money. The problem is from spending too much money, and spending it on improper purposes. Ultimately, the problem stems from the wrong ideas about government, its purpose, and its function. At its root, the financial deficit arises from an intellectual deficit.

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