The Life of the Party

The pursuit of happiness-not happiness itself-is one of the unalienable rights of citizens listed in America's Declaration of Independence. This distinction between happiness and its pursuit was intentional on the part of America's Founders. It marks the difference between a government that imposes results that it considers desirable and a government that preserves individuals' freedom of opportunity to pursue what they desire as long as their activities don't obstruct the freedom of others.

Americans have been fighting over the distinction between results and opportunity ever since. In fact, over the past several decades, the distinction has become increasingly obscured in the minds of those who view government as society's primary problem solver.

Today, we see government trying to guarantee the "right" result in matters large and small, from economic prosperity to education-and even to old-fashioned neighborliness. That's right: The Detroit News reported recently on just two examples of government-imposed neighborliness, one in Canton Township and another in Sterling Heights.

Canton officials are looking to purchase a $20,000 "Mobile Recreation Unit." According to The News, this recreation truck will come "chock full of yard games and grills." The idea behind the truck is to facilitate neighborly interaction. The township already employs a "neighborhood specialist" to help throw parties and settle small disputes. Meanwhile, in Sterling Heights, senior citizens are treated to an annual "Older American Festival," which costs county taxpayers $30,000 for a single day of food, dancing, and camaraderie.

Of course there is nothing wrong with wanting to express neighborliness or celebrate the contributions and achievements of older citizens. But taxpayers ought to wonder whether it is the place of government to decide when neighborly interaction is lacking, in what ways it is lacking, and what ought to be done about it. After all, government action carries the force of law behind it. Empowering the local neighborhood cheerleader with the force of law is bound, sooner or later, to yield results at variance with what might be voluntarily hosted by associations such as churches, the local PTA, Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, and private citizens.

Leon Drolet, a Macomb County commissioner, is a long-time opponent of the Older American Festival. He says that many of his colleagues on the commission and in county government refer to the festival as "the absentee voter picnic," illustrating the types of abuses to which such civic lapses lend themselves. He says the festival is simply a political program for local politicians. Using tax dollars, politicians are able to gather 5,000 likely voters in a small park and work the crowd for votes.

The civic problem government officials encounter with all programs like the party truck and Older American Festival is that such programs redistribute the earnings of people who may or may not desire the particular form of entertainment provided. Governments have subsidized everything from community swimming pools, ice rinks, golf courses, sports stadiums, theatres, concerts, and art exhibits, just to name a few. But it is fundamentally unfair to force one person to subsidize the recreation of another. If the citizens of a community want to organize large festivals, the success of those festivals should be derived solely from the voluntary contributions of those who support them.

Local governments across Michigan have been subsidizing entertainment for years. But is throwing parties a proper role for any unit of government? Michigan Privatization Report has reported time and again on city, county, and state governments using tax money to entertain their citizens. A better approach is to leave entertainment to private initiative, where the market can cater to citizens' diverse tastes without unfairly burdening some people with the bills for others' leisure activities.

Michael LaFaive is managing editor of Michigan Privatization Report.