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
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
"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
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.