Hard Choices, Not False Choices
The Tour of Missouri website encourages Missourians to lobby for restored funding. Here are some of the reasons it gives:
Contact your local representatives and let them know how important this event is to you and for what reasons, whether it is because of the economic impact it has on the local communities and state as a whole, the educational aspect of providing an interesting curriculum to the schools, that it promotes healthy lifestyles for children and adults alike (Bike sales increased the week of the event in 2009), the Tourism exposure as the eyes of the world focus on Missouri for a week each year, or the increased sense of community as all of the host cities unite to put together a special welcome to the visitors from nearly 100 countries and all 50 states. Or maybe you can just tell them you want it because it is a heck of a lot of fun!
The Tour of Missouri, like other potential recipients of state funds, does a lot of constructive things. But that’s not enough reason for the state to continue subsidizing it when revenue decreases.
In order to show that Tour of Missouri deserves a subsidy, supporters would have to demonstrate that a dollar spent on the Tour gives Missourians more benefit than that same dollar would if spent on anything else. There are other programs out there that claim to accomplish some of the same things as the Tour. For example, it’s been suggested that archery is a good basis for interesting curricula. Film tax credits are said to boost the economy, local food initiatives to engender healthy habits, and Census promotional events to build community.
This state representative gets the idea:
“You wouldn’t want to cut something that was proven to have brought money back,” he said, adding that the money has to come from somewhere. By way of example, he said you could ask educators if they would cut $1 million from Parents as Teachers or Career Ladders programs to fund the race.
Some people have told me that comparing programs like that is a “false choice.” They say that we don’t have to choose between Parents and Teachers and a bicycle race, because we can have both. They imply that it’s unfair to bring up education funding when you’re discussing a subsidy for an unrelated program — as if no program could appear deserving when held up against the schools.
If by “false choice” people mean that we shouldn’t fund one program we like best to the exclusion of all others, then they’re right. We don’t want to fund public schools and nothing else; government funding is not winner-take-all. However, at the margin — when we’re deciding where to spend that last dollar of state funds, or where to make the next cut to balance the budget — we do need to compare programs. We need to make sure that we’re cutting funds from the program that is least necessary, not the program that is most productive.
People who still think these decisions at the margin are “false choices” are making a mistake. They’re assuming that their favorite program doesn’t need to be as productive as others when, in fact, it does. Resources are scarce. Tax dollars can’t go toward funding just any program that does a nice job. Deciding to increase funding for one program but not another would be a false choice only if there were some way to give every program the full funding increase its supporters want. There isn’t — so, as the state representative pointed out, a dollar spent on one program is a dollar that could have been spent on something else.
It’s also a mistake to think that schools would gobble up all the money if only the most deserving programs were funded. Suppose we decided to spend tax dollars where they’re most needed, and we started funneling dollar after dollar into education. Pretty soon, the state would be in dire need of other services that schools can’t provide. In that situation, a dollar spent on one of several other programs would be more productive than a dollar spent on schools.
Besides comparing programs as I’ve discussed, legislators also have to consider whether the last dollar spent on a state program would have been put to better use if left in the private sector. If the answer is “Yes,” it should be returned to the taxpayers.
Choosing between funding a program that’s “a heck of a lot of fun” and funding a program that’s boring but productive may be a difficult choice, but it isn’t a false choice.