Helping More by Doing Less

I don’t think I’m much different from most people. When I get a good deal on a product or service, I usually brag about it.

I still talk about the 20 postcards I purchased in the Czech Republic in 1997 for 6 cents. A sports card store owner once sold me a Joe Montana career set for $5, including tax.

My favorite pizza chain sells pies half-price on Mondays. That’s when I buy. When I bought a $25 gift card, I received a free pizza. Then, I get points for future purchases online as well as credits for a free pizza via a punch card.

When I fill up with fuel, I look for the gas station that offers points for freebies. Many of my restaurant gift cards came from credit card rewards programs.

All of our family meals are eaten on the table we purchased from our local Habitat for Humanity for $25. We bought it on a half-off sale. All of the in-line skates that my three daughters own cost me less than $15. Our after-Thanksgiving shopping splurge was a 50-inch television. We paid $218.

In 2001, two Michigan gas stations near my home engaged in a price war. One of the stores lowered its per-gallon price to 89 cents. I held on to that $16 fill-up receipt for years.

In all of these exchanges, two parties voluntarily agreed on the exchange. No one forced either party to act a certain way. That’s the civil society at work, and it demonstrates the difference between freedom and force. Civil society is the opposite of political society. Mackinac Center Fiscal Policy Director Michael LaFaive explains the difference by saying, “A political society is a coercive one that requires countless mandates and regulations and rules to function while a civil society relies on peaceful, voluntary association in a free market economy.”

While the intentions of most policies are noble, their consequences are often more harmful than beneficial. Consider the prevailing wage requirement. The intention is to increase the cost of work so that the people involved can make more money. But it artificially increases the cost of taxpayer-funded construction projects and prevents government from getting a better deal through competition. Tax dollars would purchase more goods and services for everyone in the state if Michigan’s prevailing wage were repealed.

Policy Analyst Jarrett Skorup has written about price controls on cherries, to pick another example, and how the government keeps prices high by reducing how many cherries are available. Cherries are left to rot or are destroyed, all to control how many cherries are placed up for sale, and thus drive the price up.

This policy hurts all consumers, but it hits lower-income residents the most. A surplus of supply would normally drive the price down so that a struggling family could afford more food, but government control keeps the farmer and the buyer from making an exchange that would be mutually beneficial. Sometimes, the best thing that government can do to help the most people, especially the most vulnerable among us, is to do nothing.