Today’s Globe op-ed page features two columns, each from a distinctly libertarian point of view, and each by an author whose last name is Young. I have a couple of thoughts on the substance of both pieces. I leave to your imagination the significance of the "Young" commonality. (Coincidence…?)
First, Cathy Young takes on the Supreme Court’s medical marijuana decision, labeling it "bad legal reasoning" and "bad moral reasoning." I can’t agree with either characterization. As to the case being "bad legal reasoning," her only argument is to quote the views of Randy Barnett, a BU law professor, hardcore libertarian, and the lawyer for the plaintiffs. Well, surprise, surprise, that Randy would think the Court got it wrong! The fact is, however, that most legal observers – including some quite conservative ones – are neither surprised by the ruling, nor of the view that the Court necessarily got it wrong. Young’s opinion that the ruling "directly contradicts" recent Commerce Clause precedents is, of course, directly out of Randy Barnett’s brief, but that view was rejected by the majority of the Court (which included two Justices – Scalia and Kennedy – who were in the majority on those recent precedents). And Barnett’s view is not – to put it mildly – universally accepted by the legal community. Young may not like the ruling, but that’s different from saying, as she in effect does, that "the Court got it wrong and everybody knows it."
And as for the case being "bad moral reasoning," that’s just dumb. The case isn’t about "moral reasoning" at all (the NY Times fell into this trap too, more on that here). In fact, the majority opinion specifically expresses sympathy with the plight of the plaintiffs, while the dissent (with whom Young agrees on the merits) specifically notes that it does not support exempting medical marijuana from the drug laws. The ones using "bad moral reasoning" here are the overzealous federal prosecutors who are stupidly prosecuting people who represent no threat of any kind, and the cowardly congressmen who won’t amend the drug laws to exempt medical marijuana for fear of being labeled "soft on drugs." Credit where credit is due, please.
Elsewhere on the op-ed page, David W. Young opines that no town should ever vote to override Proposition 2-1/2 because towns are wasteful and should make much more extensive use of user fees. Oh, come now. Of course, no one wants their town government to be wasteful, and I have no doubt that most town governments could make some progress on that front. But to say – as Young says – that families of students who use anything other than the most basic school services, e.g., athletic programs, high-achiever academic programs, school nurses, etc., should pay extra fees, and in addition that any family with more than (say) three kids should pay tuition, seems to me to be going a bit far. First, Young grudgingly acknowledges that this might be the teensiest bit unfair to poor families, but suggests that we might have a "scholarship fund" to offset the unfairness (he only mentions scholarships with respect to academic achievement programs, but it seems to me you’d have to extend it to athletics, large families, and all the rest of it, otherwise you’ve eliminated "public education"). Well, who is going to administer this "scholarship fund"? You’ve just created a whole new layer of bureaucracy – as if local school boards need that. And where is this "scholarship fund" going to get its money? From tax revenues, of course. So you now have new municipal employees, more forms for parents to fill out, and more headaches for everyone, just so we can nail a few wealthy families who are greedily soaking up tax money. Unless Young has some real numbers to back up his view that this will be worth it, it sounds to me like a big waste of time, effort, and probably money.
Young also wants to send you a bill after the fire department puts out a fire at your house. I assume we’d have to have a "scholarship fund" for that too, though Young doesn’t say so. Or maybe the fire department just shouldn’t go to poor people’s houses.
Oh, and don’t forget snowplowing. Young wants every family to get a bill for snowplowing based on "their linear feet of frontage on a public road." This one strikes me as particularly stupid, for a couple of reasons. First, bigger parcels of land generally pay higher property taxes. They also generally have more "linear feet of frontage." So the people that Young wants to pay more for snowplowing are already in general paying higher property taxes. Again, he’s just creating more bureaucracy, more paperwork, more headaches, to accomplish basically nothing. Second, if he really wants a "user fee" for snowplowing, it should reflect not "linear feet of frontage," but rather how much you drive on the roads – those are the people who benefit from snowplowing. If I own a house with 50 feet of linear frontage but I don’t own a car because I take the T everywhere, I benefit not a whit from snowplowing, so why should I pay for it? Far better to install cameras everywhere to record exactly who is driving on the roads within 24 hours of a snowstorm, don’t you think?
Young seems not to realize that setting up these elaborate user fee arrangements is not free. To the contrary, it will be complicated and it will be expensive, and I seriously question whether the savings will outweigh the costs. Also, I think Young misses the bigger point that many of these services – good schools (including those "extra" programs that he wants to charge you for), good fire and police, good snowplowing, etc. – are what make municipalities desirable places to live, which means that everyone’s property values go up. So it’s really not accurate to say, for example, that people without kids don’t benefit when the local school has a successful and widely-recognized academic achievement program.
Look, I’m a taxpayer too, and I don’t love shelling out big property tax bucks any more than the next person. Nor would I reflexively vote "yes" on any override that came before me. But I do think the "user fee" movement risks missing the forest for the trees. When you add up all of those little services, each of which at first glance only benefits a particular constituency (people with kids, people with smart kids, people with jock kids, people whose houses catch on fire, people who are crime victims, people with snow in front of their houses, etc.), pretty soon you’ve encompassed the entire town a couple of times over. Which is to say, pretty much everyone in a town is subsidizing pretty much everyone else, at least in some respects. Young says that it’s "time to eliminate the massive cross-subsidization that exists in our schools, and other municipal services." But that is not so easily done, because it’s not really fair to eliminate some cross-subsidies but keep others in place, nor is it a good idea to assess poor families for essential services (in which I would include education) without taking into account their ability to pay. At some point, living in a community seems to me to carry with it a certain responsibility to pay for those services that the community writ large requires, even if those services may not personally benefit every individual taxpayer. There are limits to that principle, but I don’t think the limits are as draconian as Mr. Young does.
UPDATE: Eisenthal Report has some thoughts on the Prop. 2-1/2 column here, and a response from Mr. Young with some additional thoughts here. If either Mr. or Ms. Young wishes to respond to this post, they are more than welcome to do so!