The Detroit News reported on Nov. 4 that, "The city of Livonia is canceling Christmas this year ..." Behind the headline was a prudent decision by a city council facing a $7.5 million gap between desired spending and expected revenue. Eliminating an annual display of lights around municipal buildings and downtown streets would save $75,000.
Then, a week later, it was announced that the holidays have been restored thanks to a contribution from local businesses. The display will be somewhat less expansive than in recent years, but the lights will go on in Livonia. A similar sequence of events has been reported in several other metro-area communities.
But wait a minute. What about the claim that, "If the government doesn’t do it, nobody will?" Well, as is often the case, if something is worth doing, the voluntary associations and institutions of civil society — as opposed to the coercive institutions of "political society," or the governmental sector — will do it.
Mackinac Center Director of Fiscal Policy Michael LaFaive has described civil society as "…that network of private institutions, community associations, schools and religious organizations, families and friends and coworkers, and all their voluntary, from-the-heart interactions." In the introduction to his in-depth analysis of state budget issues for 2003-04, LaFaive noted that tough times present "… a magnificent opportunity to make a huge difference in how government relates to its citizens — to regroup, stick to the basics and do them well, and trust the people. There is room for politics in our lives, but most of what enriches and defines us as a progressive and compassionate people emanates from other, deeper sources."
As the news from Livonia shows, LaFaive is right. Yet some might ask if there is anything wrong with government sharing the burden. In fact, there is a price to pay. The late Joseph P. Overton, former senior vice president of the Mackinac Center, described this cost in an earlier budget study published by the Center:
"When governing institutions establish programs that attempt to improve upon private intermediary institutions, three damaging things occur. First, there is a prevailing sense that the problem is being solved by government — an idea promoted by the politicians and bureaucrats responsible for the plan — which causes individual citizens and their private organizations to disengage or moderate their involvement. Second, resources are taken from private individuals and organizations through taxes, which reduces their ability to provide assistance independent of the government. Finally, government programs often generate numerous rules and regulations that prevent or hinder private organizations from dealing effectively with the problem."
The on-again-off-again saga of Livonia’s holiday lights shows the limits of political society, and the power and capacity of civil society. That is something we should remember in this season of choices between budget cutting vs. tax raising. There will be plenty of voices calling for the latter because they lack faith in the former to provide some vital public good.
There are certainly legitimate roles for government action, such as national defense and law enforcement. But there is every reason to believe that many of the functions handed over to government in the past century — Christmas decoration being one among many — can be safely placed back into the hands of voluntary institutions.
Jack McHugh is manager of MichiganVotes.org and legislative analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.