Taxes and the role of government

Published 9:36 pm Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Especially when taxpayers’ money is at stake, public officials have a responsibility to make frugality the guiding principle of their spending habits. Every public spending decision should be a result of careful examination of the community’s needs weighed against the fact that every dollar spent on every program or salary or piece of equipment must be taken from someone.

There is little exaggeration in the suggestion that officials should hold onto a mental image of that money being taken at the point of a gun, since the government has the actual and theoretical enforcement power of the law behind its tax collection efforts.

The consideration should be the same, no matter what level of government is involved in the spending decisions. The fact, for instance, that the federal government is further removed from the people who are actually paying to fund it should not give legislators the feeling that they can spend money in a profligate fashion — though, of course, we know that’s often exactly what happens.

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Similarly, local communities should not be eager to spend money collected by the federal government and then dispersed in grants, even though the actual cost to local citizens might seem minimal. Such schemes cost taxpayers all over the nation many billions of dollars a year, whether they directly benefit from the grants or not.

In such cases, taking the moral and frugal high ground requires officials from the communities that benefit from federal largesse to treat the money they’re taking as if it comes directly from their own communities’ bank accounts. With the matter seen in that light, they must ask themselves, are the benefits worth the cost?

Considering the nation’s deficit, it’s clear that the important questions are asked far too infrequently, that legislators forget too easily the people who ultimately are responsible for the debt the nation incurs at the behest of its governing bodies.

Still, there are some proper roles for government in a democratic society, and taxes are required to pay for fulfilling those roles. One of those roles is the protection of citizens, and that protection does not come cheap in these days of easy air travel and high-tech weapons of mass destruction.

Suffolk recently received a grant for $656,503 from the federal government to purchase a mobile command center that it could use in the case of terror attack or natural disaster. We’ve been blessed in the city not to have faced the former, but the destruction of the latter — and the chaos that ensued as emergency response tried to catch up to the emergency — should still be fresh in most folks’ minds after a tornado ravaged hundreds of homes here less than three years ago.

Even the Founding Fathers envisioned the need for the government to raise money and to spend it, and protection of the populace was one of the original purposes for raising taxes. The Suffolk Police Department’s Mobile Command Center — bought today as insurance against the time when it might be needed in the future — can be an important part of that protection, and Suffolk should be thankful for the help of taxpayers around the nation who have contributed to that protection.