The Federal Budget, Part II

In the last post, I listed what I believed to be the top priorities of the federal government – and as you may have noticed, it was not an exhaustive list of every conceivable public good. That was deliberate. In my view, the federal government cannot – and should not – take responsibility for all of our needs and desires. That way lies fiscal insolvency.

Today, what I’d like to discuss is the concept of federalism. In reality, our government has at least four distinct levels:

  • Federal. Obviously, this is the government which meets and does business in DC.
  • State. There are fifty of these governments, and they all have their own treasuries.
  • County/Municipal. There are literally millions of these governments, and some of them are empowered to collect taxes.
  • Community/Individual. This is not a politically recognized level, but it does matter. We do need to take on the responsibility of governing ourselves in certain matters.

The mentality that I see among many on the left is a mentality that forgets that these four levels of government exist. At most, leftists will acknowledge the federal and the state governments, and they usually assume that if the top two levels don’t take care of something, it’s never going to get done. This is what SABR Matt might term a “failure of imagination.”

My first principle of fiscally responsible governance goes a little something like this: When reviewing an existing or proposed program at the federal level, our leaders should always ask, “Can this be done at a lower level of government? Does the federal government need to get involved?”

Now let’s apply this principle to some concrete examples. I’ll start with arts education for disadvantaged kids since SABR Matt brought it up in his reply to my last post. Can this be done at a lower level of government? Does the federal government need to get involved? My answer to both questions are yes and no respectively. Just for kicks, I googled “charitable groups that bring art to kids,” and at the top of the results page, the “Life Through Art Foundation” popped up. Co-founder and president Jeffery David Brooks has this to say about the genesis of LTAF:

Several years ago, I was teaching children’s theater when a fourteen year old girl stood up and began to recite Shakespeare. She performed Shakespeare with such passion, fire, and uninhibited confidence that I was blown away. I encouraged her to think about attending an arts school and decided that I would do whatever I could to help her achieve her artistic dreams. She recently graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy and is now attending the Royal Scottish Academy of Dramatic Arts on scholarship. Several thousand dollars, countless bottles of aspirin, and a handful of incredible volunteers later, my quest to help one child has blossomed into a dream to introduce the arts and provide meaningful experiences in the arts to as many children as we can reach.

This foundation has become my way of giving back what was once given to me and I have been fortunate enough to find people who share this dream. Whether it is painting, photography, music, acting, or the culinary arts, our goal is to aid young people in both their development as artists and as individuals. With the recent cutbacks in funding for community and school art programs throughout the country, it is particularly important that we do as much as we can to promote and support arts education. I believe that the gift of imagination is the greatest gift of all. With your help we can expand these artists’ minds to spark a new generation of creativity. Thank you for helping me realize my dreams and for opening the door for so many others.

Notice the sentence I took the liberty of emphasizing. Because the government is pulling out of arts education, Brooks feels more motivated to appeal to contributors and volunteers. Regardless of whether or not the government gets involved, arts education will happen for many young people because of this man’s individual initiative. (And by the way, as soon as I have $20 to spare, I’m going to buy one of his t-shirts because his cause is a worthy one – and because I believe in putting my money where my mouth is.)

Another example: The federal and state governments have been under a lot pressure recently to pass legislation designed to curb bullying and cyber-bullying. But can this be done at a lower level of government? Do the federal and state governments need to get involved? Again, my answers are yes and no. Bullying should be handled at the municipal and community levels by parents, principals, and local school boards. Parents have a responsibility to teach their children that bullying is unacceptable behavior; principals have a responsibility to enforce their schools’ codes of conduct; and local school boards have a responsibility to draft codes of conduct that are clear and consistent. We should encourage the fulfillment of these three responsibilities before we start passing upper-level unfunded mandates. Drafting state or federal anti-bullying laws may make legislators feel good, but it is really a waste of time and money.

In the social teaching of the Catholic Church, this idea that we should take advantage of our multi-layer government structure and kick some responsibilities downstairs goes by another name: subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity states that all acknowledged public goods should be achieved by the smallest entity capable of achieving them. Yes, in some cases, only the federal government has the resources and/or the constitutional authority necessary to accomplish a particular task, but we should not assume that this is true of everything under the sun.

Moreover, even in situations in which the federal government must take over, our leaders should ensure that they are not simply pitching money into the circular file. More on this later…

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