What do Citizens Owe Government?

The Future of Freedom Foundation posted online today my article from Freedom Daily on citizens’ duties to their rulers.

What Do Citizens Owe Government?  by James Bovard     Freedom Daily

When politicians are not promising new benefits to citizens, they continually remind citizens what they owe the government. From their first years in government schools, children are indoctrinated with the notion that government provides them some grandiose benefit. This seed often produces a harvest of servility in later life.

But few people stop and try to accurately calculate this supposed debt. What does the citizen owe the state? Or, more accurately, what does the citizen owe the politicians and bureaucrats who claim to represent and embody the state?

Every extension of the welfare state results, directly or indirectly, in politicians’ and bureaucrats’ feeling entitled to demand more obedience from people. What does the government do for citizens that citizens could not do as well or better for themselves? This is the first question that must be answered before gauging how much obedience people might owe a government. Insofar as government busies itself doing things worse for the citizen than he could have done himself, the citizen is justified in viewing government as a nuisance and a poacher.

In the vast majority of cases, governments possess only what they first seize from private citizens. How can citizens owe government when practically everything the government has it first took from them? The fact that people are forced to pay for certain goods and services indirectly, by taxation, cannot create an ineradicable debt to the people who seized their paychecks. People who are government dependents have a debt not so much to the government itself, but to their fellow citizens who earn the money the government seizes and then renders to them.

Some statists insist that the citizen should be grateful for such government services as mail delivery. Yet, the government is more vigilant in attacking private threats to its monopoly over first-class mail delivery than in expediting the mail. First-class mail service is significantly slower than it was 40 years ago, in part because of an intentional policy of reducing next-day mail deliveries. In areas in which the postal service competes directly with private companies, such as overnight express mail and parcel post, the government has been whupped shamelessly. Citizens cannot be indebted to the government for mail service when it is federal restrictions that prohibit a far wider array of private services.
Public schools

Others will insist that people are indebted to government for public schools. But the parents of most children pay more in taxes than government spends educating their kids. Besides, despite sharp increases in government spending for education in the last 15 years, American high-school students score at the rock bottom in math and science compared with students in other countries.

The government routinely effectively confiscates parents’ money to pay for schools and then fails to educate their kids, yet faces no liability for its de facto breach of implied contract. An investigation by the New Jersey State Department of Education concluded, “The Newark School District has been at best flagrantly delinquent and at worst deceptive in discharging its obligations to the children enrolled in public schools.”

Public high schools graduate an estimated 700,000 functionally illiterate teenagers each year. Regardless of how badly school officials fail to serve students, parents are left no recourse but to file complaints with the same unresponsive bureaucracy. As law professor Judith Berliner Cohen observed,

No plaintiff to date has been able to convince a court that a school owes him or her any more than “a chair in a classroom.” … Insofar as they have been “deluded” into believing that it is not necessary to find alternate means of education, the students are arguably worse off than they otherwise would have been.

Without quasi-monopoly public schools, a far more extensive network of private schools would be available — schools that would be responsive to parents’ desire for their children to learn. The rapid spread of the home-schooling movement (whose students consistently outscore public-school students on standardized tests) vivifies how parents can do better on their own.

Government-provided roads

Nor are citizens indebted to government for providing goods such as roads. Despite heavy federal taxes levied on gas buyers, politicians are allowing more and more of the Interstate Highway System to deteriorate to Third World road conditions. Roughly three-fifths of all interstate highways are in poor or mediocre condition, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Drivers pay more than $140 billion in gas taxes each year, but only about half of that money is actually spent on maintaining and building roads; the rest is spent on other political wish lists.

Roads are a good example of the contempt that government shows for citizens in the services it forces them to finance. As road expert and author Gabriel Roth observed, “U.S. roads suffer from the typical command economy characteristics: poor maintenance, congestion, and insensitivity to consumer needs.” Because traffic jams cost government employees nothing, government agencies scorn sound traffic-control measures. Federal Highway Administration traffic-safety engineers Samuel Tignor and Davey Warren concluded in a 1990 study that most speed zones were “posted 15 m.p.h. below the maximum safe speed; that, on average, speed limits are set too low to be accepted as reasonable by most drivers, and that the posted speeds make violators out of motorists who drive reasonably and safely.” Politicians profit from unnecessarily low speed limits because of the increase in the number of drivers eligible for speeding tickets. Accidents and traffic jams result from policemen’s fixation on ticketing drivers who pose no threat to public safety.

Will Rogers suggested long ago, “The way to deal with traffic congestion is to have business provide the roads and government the cars.” But though this hasn’t been done, politicians still expect thanks from citizens, despite potholes as far as the eye can see.
Police protection

Do citizens owe a vast debt to the state for keeping the peace? Many big-city police departments have effectively abandoned serious efforts to solve robberies and other cases of nonlethal violence; the District of Columbia police, for instance, make arrests in fewer than 10 percent of burglaries and robberies. But D.C. police have set records for arresting citizens detected drinking alcohol on their front porches. They have also been valiant in cracking down on drivers with unfastened seatbelts.

Insofar as government prohibits people from owning or carrying weapons for self-defense, it is scant consolation that a policeman arrives after the crime to chalk off the body. There are more than twice as many private security guards as uniformed policemen in the United States. More citizens than ever before are living in gated communities or relying on home alarm systems. Private citizens use guns to defend themselves more than 2 million times a year, according to Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck. After comparing the effects of more people carrying guns with other popular reforms, economist John Lott concluded that “of all the methods studied so far by economists, the carrying of concealed handguns appears to be the most cost-effective method for reducing crime.”

Military defense

The one area in which it is most plausible that government could provide a unique service is national defense. However, if a government busies itself making enemies, and then praises itself for pledging to protect citizens from the enemies it makes, there is less than a transcendent benefit. The war in Iraq will very likely cost Americans more than a trillion dollars — a high price for Bush’s May 1, 2003, victory strut aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

What have politicians given to the citizenry that they did not originally take from them? This is the bottom line that must permeate all thinking about the “goods” or “services” that government “provides” to the citizenry. In reality, in the vast majority of cases, politicians give back far less in value than they take. The more the government takes, the less the citizen owes to the government.

Insofar as the government takes from the citizen more than it renders to the citizen, the citizen owes the state the same contempt that he would have for any other con artist.

Citizens cannot be indebted to the state for any political promise that the government fails to fulfill — just as any citizen’s obligation to fulfill a private contract is dissolved by the other party’s failure to fulfill his obligations. Nor can people owe obedience to government for any activity that the people could have done better themselves.

It is the government that owes obedience to the citizens, rather than citizens who owe obedience to the government. But the bigger government becomes, the more difficult it is to make it heel.

James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy [2006] as well as The Bush Betrayal [2004], Lost Rights [1994] and Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil (Palgrave-Macmillan, September 2003)


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22 Responses to What do Citizens Owe Government?

  1. Tory August 6, 2007 at 4:17 pm #

    “Insofar as the government takes from the citizen more than it renders to the citizen, the citizen owes the state the same contempt that he would have for any other con artist. ” (JB)

    They’re a bunch of liars, con artists and plunderers.

    There is no such thing as an honest socialist – they’re all liars.

  2. Tory August 6, 2007 at 4:40 pm #

    “In other words, comrades, whenever it seems as if they’re handing out “hero” medals for free, look out: There’s usually a hidden price.” (Rosa Brooks)


  3. Joe August 6, 2007 at 4:53 pm #

    Hi Jim,

    You wrote …

    “But the parents of most children pay more in taxes than government spends educating their kids.”

    And even singles and married couples without children or with children no longer of school age, have to ostensibly pay for those wonderful schools.

    “… politicians are allowing more and more of the Interstate Highway System to deteriorate to Third World road conditions.”

    Since I’m originally from and have visited many Third World countries, my first reaction was “that’s a bit exaggerated.” But then the Minnesota bridge seems to prove your point.


  4. charlie August 6, 2007 at 5:39 pm #

    I get a kick out of how our “leaders” tell us how we owe the government/them. What a load of BULL. They are our employees! Short and sweet, that is ALL that the elected fools really are. They work for US. And we the people need to make them aware of this and force them to be honest about it.
    semper fi

  5. Tom Blanton August 6, 2007 at 7:10 pm #

    A fine piece of work, Jim.

    Now, if you had asked David Walker, Comptroller General, the question about what citizens owe the government, his answer would be about 50 trillion bucks.


    Personally, I think we owe our hard working government a perpetual holiday.

  6. Jim August 6, 2007 at 7:15 pm #

    Thanks, Tom!

    That’s a great joke about the $50 trillion.

    As far as a perpetual holiday – I take solace that congressmen are taking the whole of August off and paying themselves @$500 a day for the sacrifice.

    They were in such a rush to leave town, they barely had time to sodomize the Constitution on the way to the airport.

  7. Sean O'Neil August 6, 2007 at 8:20 pm #

    Nice essay, Jim. The details provided valuable examples and the conclusion says it all —

    “It is the government that owes obedience to the citizens, rather than citizens who owe obedience to the government. But the bigger government becomes, the more difficult it is to make it heel.”

    The present government won’t be brought to heel, I fear. Not through the usual methods, anyway.

  8. Jean August 6, 2007 at 8:25 pm #

    Jim, I remember asking Sen. Susan Collins to comment on her remark when she said that the Postal Service needs to be a “21st Century Company”. I reminded her that the law governing the PO was passed in the 19th century, so how can this place move forward with 21st century technology, and governed by 19th century law. Needless to say, her response was what I call the Fred Flinstone remark. “Aba Aba dooooo”.

  9. Marc August 7, 2007 at 10:33 am #

    Great article Jim. You’re right, servility is taught in the public schools.
    In the aftermath of the Minneapolis bridge collapse politicians were quick to point out that the bridge had received all scheduled inspections. After examining photos of the debacle I detected a lot of rust/corrosion on the steel girders. Apparently inspections cost government a lot less money than timely paint jobs.

  10. Alpowolf August 7, 2007 at 12:56 pm #

    But…but…government gives us so many great things! Nuclear bombs, world wars, mass murder, mass starvation, mass thievery, misery beyond anybody’s worst nightmares, stuff like that!

    (BTW have you seen The Simpsons Movie yet? I thought it was wonderfully anti-government, and I thought some of the other gags were good metaphors for government even if the writers didn’t intend it, such as Homer’s “pig crap” silo:

    Marge: Homer, it’s leaking!
    Homer (impatiently): It’s not leaking. It’s overflowing)

  11. Mace Price August 7, 2007 at 6:18 pm #

    …What do a 15 to 20 year War of Occupation in Iraq, $11 billion dollars per year in Assistance for the purpose of indemnifying Israel, Veterans Heath Care at The Walter Reed Army Medical Center, The “Generational War” on Terror, 48+ million illiterates in the US and The Minnesota Bridge Collapse have in common??…They’re all examples of your Tax Dollars at work!

  12. Jim August 7, 2007 at 10:46 pm #

    Jean – good ol’ Susan Collins. I’m glad you put her on the spot, though too bad she wasn’t smart enough to realize it.

    What is with Maine? The folks I have met from Maine have generally been sharp. The ladies I have seen from Maine have durn near all been above average.

    And what does Maine send to the Senate?!!?

  13. Jim August 7, 2007 at 10:47 pm #

    Sean – I think you’re right about the current government.

    My doubts are growing about Bush’s fidelity to his oath of office.

  14. Dirk W. Sabin August 8, 2007 at 5:29 pm #

    After being blissfully unaware of anything in this besotted former Republic as a result of 3 weeks in Alaska (where the old Porker Uncle Ted is finding his personal space a tad abridged), I return to find a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis and the wanker El Grandioso Leavenothoughtremembered granting the Executive (and his little latin Pinnochio Gonzy) free reign at wiretapping anybody it sees fit while the Congress looks the other way in search of balls. Immediately, I relapse into dyspepsia only to be becalmed by this fine essay on how we owe the Government virtually nothing.

    However, it will soon become hard to ignore that we owe alot due to this government’s drunken port-side spending habits. Don’t be surprised if they think inflation is a solution to the problem of our foreign obligations.

    Some time in the remote past , a few farmers were finally aroused by governmental fiscal impropriety enough to start a Whiskey Rebellion. While I no longer imbibe, I still greatly admire that dusky liquor and would cheer any concerted effort at a Neo-Whiskey Rebellion to fight the Neo-Conservative Government that practices Neo-Thought on a Neo-Public that has half the brains God gave a learning disabled Pug.

    Hillary is to be nominated and all but the good Mr. Paul of her opponents look to be like a bunch of competing Padrones in a backwater Latin American Show-Election. This calls for concerted rebuke and the best we got is fears about the evil Rupert “corrupting” the Wall Street Journal as if it aint already idealogically corrupted beyond measure.

    You know, I’m a laissez-faire Capitalist to the bitter end but these morons and mountebanks are sure giving the old pastime a black eye.

    Let us now watch as the authoritarian government goes populist and right into the hands of the democrats and we can really see what over-mortgaged governmental benevolence produces. This public is about to be richly given what it thinks it deserves. But that’s in the future and right now, we must watch as the mad Bus Driver From Crawford spins the suicide knob from one disaster to another.

    We owe American Traditions alot but this current government, a government that rebukes American Traditions as a matter of course is owed nothing so much as a swift kick in the ass end of the pants. Expecting Bush to Defend and Protect the Constitution is like expecting to find a Lido Deck on the Staten Island Ferry. He is the apogee of a Generation that will swallow as much piffle as is possible to convey in the average 24 hour media cycle.

    Sure, we’ll survive these reprobates but exactly what will remain in the rubble? The institutions and history remain but this generation has amply demonstrated that it is not up to the task of continuing the Revolution because it thinks fantasy consumption an existence worthy of note.

    I got dem ole Ressentiment Blues.
    Oddly enough, the comic value, however dark, only seems to be growing.

  15. Jean August 9, 2007 at 7:17 pm #

    Jim, two words. Empty skirts. Maybe it’s the time of year too. The lobsters here have their soft shells. Maybe it’s affeting the brain as well.

  16. Sean O'Neil August 11, 2007 at 8:58 am #

    I like Dirk’s post. Dirk, your statement about leave-be capitalism pretty much hits the bull’s eye on why I say it’s not feasible in a society that is full of corruptible, weak-willed humans. The greed wins over the weak, it already holds the conscience of the avaricious and lustful. Laissez-faire capitalism is a fine idea for a small society in which the members of that society know each other and each other’s values, have respect for each other, desire to do no harm to each other.

    But throw a few genuinely weak humans in the mix, add a few greedy ones, a few lustful and envious ones, a few angry ones… you have corruption par excellence!

    I wish we had a Galt’s Gulch in America. Unfortunately we have Washington DC as a gigantic roadblock on the way there, and it is at the mouth of a box canyon filled with the worst mutated human spirits on Earth. Looks like the idea of leave-be capitalism is best left to science fiction. But I’d like to see that change.

  17. Dirk W. Sabin August 13, 2007 at 1:54 pm #

    Sean, Thanks for your comments…you must be a masochist….. but I think the excesses we are watching unfold are more a matter of the abuses of Fiat Money in the hands of amateurs than they are abuses of laissez-faire capitalism. We have not had laissez-faire capitalism for a good long while. It’s become an inside game with Monopoly Money and a decked-out “Preferred Customer” Lounge. Truth be told, the mockery that is unfolding is more from government mucking about and creating gold-mines of dysfunction than it is from any kind of real prosecution of a properly run, real…ie “tangible”, asset-driven economy. Agricultural policies are a good example of this. A government that would inflict our current agricultural policies and laws on their people’s food supply is a government that would build a submarine to fly to the moon.

    Sure, there are excesses and unfairness but rest assured, laissez-faire capitalism has a far shorter list of problems realting to this than does government of virtually any type you might care to explore. The American Republic was founded as a conversation but right now, we’ve got a lecture going on and the folks appearing at the lectern may be greedy, but unfortunately, they’re also crazy, dumb or both. If they were greedy but smart, we wouldn’t find ourselves in the daft situation we are in.

    We dont have a Gold Standard, we have a bullshit standard.

  18. Tory August 14, 2007 at 8:30 am #

    Americans don’t respect the constitution, the Bill of Rights and the concept of limited government. If they did we’d have a country full of brave and cocky citizens who despise an unarmed (by law) and corrupt legislature. Death by hanging should be typically used only for members of the legislature who demonstrate contempt for the consitution.

    We need to reincarnate all the sheep into wolves…”arms are the only true badges of liberty,” providing “the distinction of a free man from a slave.”

    When sheep learn to point their guns at the legislature then they can roam free.

    Make government your terrified servants not our bullying masters. Make every candidate shiver with fear while contemplating political office. Make the word ‘democracy’ synonymous with the ‘n’ word ! Silence the next politician who claims “the people have spoken.”

  19. Lawhobbit August 14, 2007 at 9:36 am #

    Jim, the short answer to the question posed as the title to your essay is easy: “A good hearty slap upside the head.”

  20. Jim August 14, 2007 at 12:37 pm #

    Hobbit – I think I might prefer a clodhopper-based response.

  21. Jim August 14, 2007 at 12:38 pm #

    Dirk – excellent analogy on the submarine to the moon.

    I wonder if NASA is working on this now.

  22. ed Pandolfo August 15, 2008 at 9:32 pm #

    Excellent article, but, many of us forget, much of the mess that we are facing today with big Government, is our fault. If we cannot accumulate enough citizens to rise to the occassion to fight this corruptness, then we are not, as a nation going to win. Its going to take millions to fight and march together to bring this Government back to the basics, theat the people come first, not party or government. We can do it, we just need a rallying group and enough of the silent majority and middle class will move their feet. Ed