Monday, February 06, 2006

Individualism vs. the Public Good

Some may find it ironic that anti-tax activist Orville Seymer would sue Milwaukee County for one million taxpayer dollars simply for being removed from a public meeting. It’s actually not ironic at all. In fact, it fits perfectly with the ideology of Seymer and his organization, Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG).

The so-called “taxpayer revolt” that has swept through Milwaukee and other parts of Wisconsin over the past two-plus decades is not really about taxes in and of themselves. And it’s not anti-government, either, as some critics allege. In actuality, Seymer and the CRG are part of a much larger movement in the United States to reinvent the relationship between citizens and the government. It’s a movement brought to political life through the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater and driven into the mainstream during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Rather than view government as a clearinghouse for the public trust, as people did for much of the twentieth century, CRG activists like Seymer see government as they would a business. They value government for what it can provide to them as individuals, not for its promotion of the general welfare. It makes complete sense that Seymer, despite considering himself anti-taxes, would threaten to sue the county for $1 million. The county did not provide the services—in this case the open forum—that Seymer expected, therefore he is seeking individual reparations.

Seymer claims his free speech rights were squelched by the county through his removal from a Milwaukee County Board meeting. And, to be sure, they were. His reaction, however, is not aimed solely at defending free speech rights—it’s about individual retribution. Seymer is choosing to pursue individual compensation from a government he feels wronged him personally in this situation. His removal from the public meeting was a transaction gone bad, and now he’s looking to square-up the deal. Even if the move is largely symbolic, as Seymer claims, to choose it as a tactic highlights the individualized mindset CRG activists operate under.

While it is without question the duty of citizens to hold the government accountable for the services it provides and how it provides those services, groups like CRG have taken this to an extreme and subsequently transformed themselves from citizens into taxpayers only. Part of citizenship is caring for the community at large and demanding that government is responsive to the public good as a whole. For the taxpayer, on the other hand, there is an individual relationship with the government that comes first and foremost. When this individual relationship is taken to an extreme, as it is with groups like CRG, the investment in the public good becomes completely lost.

Losing track of the public good derails public policy, making it into a means for cuts and freezes rather than allowing it to respond to the needs of the community at large. Simply because one individual or even a group of individuals cannot see a personal reason for a public service does not make that public service unnecessary or wasteful for the community as a whole. In the last week alone, the Journal-Sentinel reported on two major public services—the Milwaukee County Parks and the North Shore Fire Department—on the brink of fiscal collapse due to budget cuts stemming from arbitrary tax freezes. Legislation like TABOR or its reinvented form, the “Taxpayer Protection Amendment,” would make the situation even worse for even more communities by making public policy responsive to arbitrary freezes on individual cost ahead of public need. Some local governments have already turned to charging more fees to just keep above water in the face of tax freezes.

Democrats are not immune from this either. To stave off the rhetoric of groups like CRG during the 2002 campaign, Governor Doyle pledged to cut 10,000 state jobs, which has wreaked havoc on the atmosphere and productivity of numerous state agencies. Instead of being about trimming government as was necessary and possible, which would’ve been keeping the public good in mind, the policy became about reaching an arbitrary number of cuts.

The public good needs to be consciously reinserted into the debate by the media and politicians alike. It’s not good enough to simply start proposing policies with the public good in mind. In order for those policies to have a chance at enactment, there must be a concerted effort to reassert the primacy of the public good into the public debate and thereby recreate the existence of a true citizenry.

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