William Voegeli writes a brilliant contrast between high-tax/high-benefit states and low-tax/low-benefit states. The archetypes are California and Texas.
In 1956, the economist Charles Tiebout provided the framework that best explains why people vote with their feet. The “consumer-voter,” as Tiebout called him, challenges government officials to “ascertain his wants for public goods and tax him accordingly.” Each jurisdiction offers its own package of public goods, along with a particular tax burden needed to pay for those goods. As a result, “the consumer-voter moves to that community whose local government best satisfies his set of preferences.” In selecting a jurisdiction, the mobile consumer-voter is, in effect, choosing a club to join based on the benefits that it offers and the dues that it charges.
America’s federal system allows, at the state level, for 50 different clubs to join. At first glance, the states seem to differ between those that bundle numerous high-quality public benefits with high taxes and those that offer packages of low benefits and low taxes. These alternatives, of course, define the basic argument between liberals and conservatives over the ideal size and scope of government. Except for Oregon, John McCain carried every one of the 17 states with the lowest tax levels in the 2008 presidential election, while Barack Obama won every one of the 17 at the top of the list except for Wyoming and Alaska.
It’s not surprising, then, that an intense debate rages over which model is more satisfactory and sustainable. What is surprising is the growing evidence that the low-benefit, low-tax alternative succeeds not only on its own terms but also according to the criteria used by defenders of high benefits and high taxes. Whatever theoretical claims are made for imposing high taxes to provide generous government benefits, the practical reality is that these public goods are, increasingly, neither public nor good: their beneficiaries are mostly the service providers themselves, and their quality is poor. For evidence, look to the two largest states in the nation, which are fine representatives of the liberal and conservative alternatives.
Lots of data follows, but I think the key point is that low taxes are easier to deliver than high benefits.
If California doesn’t want to be Texas, it must find a way to be a better California. The easy thing about being Texas is that the government has a great deal of control over the part of its package deal that attracts consumer-voters—it must merely keep taxes low. California, on the other hand, must deliver on the high benefits promised in its sales pitch. It won’t be enough for its state and local governments to spend a lot of money; they have to spend it efficiently and effectively.
But spending money efficiently and effectively is probably what governments are worst at, which is why the high-tax/high-benefit model never seems to work out very well. The cry is always for greater accountability and reduced waste, but the end result is always more of the same: tax dollars are redistributed to favored groups to the detriment of the public as a whole. Low taxes are so much easier to deliver.