Cait Lamberton from the University of Pittsburgh writes in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas about a fascinating experiment she ran. What happens if you give people a list of broad areas of public endeavor and tell them that they get to take 10 percent of their tax dollars and decide which functions they’ll be allocated to? The result is less guns and more butter. Defense spending went way down and a bunch of other stuff went up:
Comparing actual current allocations to how our survey respondents said they would allocate tax dollars yielded some intriguing results. Respondents across the board shifted spending toward education, training, and social services—all areas that are major job-creation engines and paths to sustainable improvements in standards of living. Democratic respondents allocated 25 percent of their allocable tax dollars to education, training, and social services, while Republicans allocated about 21 percent.
Other categories also saw substantial gains. Most notably, energy, the environment, and science increased from approximately 4 percent to 16 percent of spending. Even Republican respondents showed substantial upward movement in this category, allocating about 14 percent to energy and scientific issues. Bipartisan consensus also prevailed on housing and community development funding, which more than doubled for both parties, from 5 percent to about 11 percent. Interestingly, dollars for anti-poverty measures did not change substantially, holding at approximately 13 percent of the budget overall, but higher among Democrats, who allocated 16 percent to such efforts, compared to 10 percent among Republicans.
People also reported feeling happier about the overall tax situation, which seems like a natural consequence of choice.
This is a reminder that one of my least-favorite sayings about politics is the idea that democracy is the worst form of government except for the alternatives. Not that I favor dictatorship, but this often seems to me to reflect a failure of imagination. There are lots of non-authoritarian modes of governance, including selecting people by lottery (like we do for juries), plebiscites, direct citizen input (as in this tax choice concept), along with different balances between elected officials, appointees, and civil servants. It’s important to actually think about the flaws in our current approach and whether better ideas exist.