When speaking about the different ways to spend money, famed free-market economist Milton Friedman had this to say:
“There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get. And that’s government.” [emphasis mine]
Friedman’s description is, of course, spot-on. The act of spending other people’s money on stuff for other people is an invitation to waste. An example of that was on display recently in Midland County.
Earlier this year, the Midland County Commissioners’ Court approved spending $50,000 set aside in a “promotions account” to host The Doobie Brothers at an upcoming concert. The reason given for spending all that money? “The investment is you enrich [the community’s] lives with entertainment that they haven’t seen out here,” according to the county judge.
Worse yet for taxpayers, this wasn’t the first time that the account had been tapped for entertainment purposes either.
According to the Midland Reporter-Telegram: “The county used this account one other time – when it spent $160,000 to bring in comedian Jeff Foxworthy for the Pavilion’s opening night event in 2015. Initial reports after the event indicated the county lost more than $80,000.”
The fact that Midland County had spent other people’s money on a concert for other people didn’t sit well with some, including Dr. Kevin Roberts, the Executive Director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. In a recent article, Dr. Roberts summed it up well: “…that’s not the proper role of county government. It’s not an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.”
At the end of the day, governments exist to protect life, liberty, and property rights—not to provide the public with entertainment options. If enough Midlanders, or any Texans for that matter, want to see a comedian or a concert, then there are market mechanisms in place to help make that a reality, without the need for public tax dollars.
Incidences like these, illuminated through the lens of Milton Friedman, are a good reminder that governments can, at times, tilt toward activities that are wasteful and unproductive. Because of this tendency, there’s a need for strong structural reforms to help guide the decision-making process and control instances of waste, fraud, and abuse. And while there are many reforms to speak of, some of the Foundation’s best and boldest ideas are in its Texas Prosperity Promise.