On Cheap Shots

by Don Boudreaux on June 8, 2013

in Civil Society, Truth-seeking & ideology

The mysterious Aaron the Aaron e-mails me to “demand” (his word) that I answer the question “Do you [Boudreaux] believe all taxpayers support for colleges including George Mason U. [should] be ended now and with no grandfathering?”

I normally ignore questions based on ad hominem assumptions or that imply ad hominem arguments: they’re just too juvenile to treat with anything but laughter.  But because I do indeed work for a state university (although one which gets much less than 50 percent of its operating budget from taxpayers – and my department gets an even lower percentage than the entire university) I’ll answer Aaron the Aaron:

Yes.  If I could push a button to end all taxpayer funding of higher education, I would emphatically do so immediately, even if doing so meant the elimination of my job.  No qualifications; no conditions; no transition period.  I would end it all, now and unconditionally.

Now you might accuse me of offering here a “yes” answer only because my offering here a “yes” answer is cheap.  Talk is cheap – which is one important source of government and political failure.  Each of us gets to have a say in how other people lead their lives without having to bear personal consequences that result from expressing that say.  See Bryan Caplan’s vital 2007 book, The Myth of the Rational Voter.  See Geoff Brennan’s and Loren Lomasky’s pioneering and essential 1993 book, Democracy & Decision.  See – if you’ll pardon my vanity – this article that I wrote in 1997 with Dwight Lee (and in which footnotes #4 and #6 are especially relevant here), and this article that I wrote in 2003 with Eric Crampton.

Nevertheless, it’s fair to ask if my “yes” answer – combined with the fact that I continue to draw pay that is largely (although by no means fully) taken from a pool of funds extracted from taxpayers – makes me a hypocrite.  Perhaps I am a hypocrite.  (I’ve dealt earlier with this question.)  But, hypocrite or no, the merits of the argument for reducing, perhaps even to zero, the role of the state do not turn on the answer to the question of whether or not I’m a “shameless hypocrite” (to quote Aaron the Aaron’s description of me).

….

Is it hypocritical for people who believe that the use of petroleum will destroy the earth to drive or to ride in petroleum-powered automobiles and airplanes?  To buy food from supermarkets and books from Amazon or Barnes & Noble if these retailers are supplied by trucks fueled with petroleum?  To accept, in the midst of a heart attack, a ride to the hospital in a petroleum-powered ambulance?  I actually don’t think so.  I accuse such people not of hypocrisy but of obliviousness to the enormous benefits of modernity.  Now you might accuse me of obliviousness to the enormous benefits of state intervention.  That’d be an acceptable line of argument – unlike the unacceptable line of argument that, because I work at a state university, my arguments against state intervention should be ignored.

BTW, suppose that I – an employee of a state university – argued in favor of high taxes and state intervention.  What is it about my status as a state employee that would give that argument more credence than is the credence accorded to my arguing against my narrow self-interest that society would be well served by a dramatic roll back of the role of government?

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