I’m leaving for D.C. this Saturday. I need to do some laundry or something. I also have to wrap a lot of things up before I head out of town. I have two friends who want me to stop by and help them with computer problems and/or do some computer training for them, and I compelled to do that. So there’s an evening or two gone. Plus I teach a class on Monday nights and bass lessons on Wednesdays (though only every other Wednesday). I should work up a program homepage for my class. I could have used it this week myself, since I left the syllabus up in my office and didn’t want to go get it (the first educational use I ever made of a web site was to post my syllabi and handouts to it when I was teaching freshman [sic] English back in the Fall of 1995).
Working for a non-profit puts you in the position somtimes–especially in election years–of justifying an existence based on tax proceeds. I’ve even run into this from middle school students, whose parents no doubt bitch about paying taxes and may or may not realize that a lot of good things come from paying taxes (I like to remind them that having paved roads is quite a luxury and they’d all be toll roads w/o taxes. The internet itself was developed by the US military. And even if the purposes we make of it today are different than the original goal–the creation of a means of communication that could survive a nuclear blast–it’s still a fine example of a tax-funded project that has come to be an essential part of many of our daily lives).
But yesterday, I thought through the problem from another direction. The assumption, at least in libertarian and conservative circles, is always that private sector enterprises should have no guilt in taking your money because you volentarily fork it over for goods and services that you’ve decided to purchase. On the other hand, government services are based on coersion (the assumption being that no one would voluntarily pay taxes). In the most staunch of libertarian circles, taxation (with or without representation) is nothing more than theft. But both cases, as is typical of arguments of this sort, are oversimplifications. To take the latter first, taxation comes through debate in legislative bodies of elected officials who can be ousted by their constituents. Taxation w/o representation, as that famous phrase goes, is tyranny. Taxation with representation is a legitimate function of democratic government. But not take the first case: the idea that we freely give our money over to corporations and businesses because we, rationalists that we are, have deamed their products worthy of our income. Smell anything fishy there? Every heard of advertising? No matter where you go, you are not free from the grip of advertising media. Unless you live alone in the arctic circle, you cannot escape a continual bombardment of images, sound, and text design (with the help of psychology) to create desires in your dark little heart for products and services you can surely live without and which you would not even know of (much less construct as objects of desire) if it were not for the relentless assault of the advertising industry.
My conclusion to the little delima sketched above? Neither for-profit nor non-profit goods and servies are truly free choices. The for-profits motivate a good percentage of their profits to create and intensify desires in consumers for their products, causing people to buy things they neither want nor need (since advertisers learned many years ago that the virtues of the product or service itself were never enough to create the sorts of profit margins they dreamed of). The non-profits fund themselves off tax dollars, generally in the form of grants, and are kept in business so long as they can show some level of productivity and on favorable terms with the legislature. You can knock them out by putting pressure on your representatives or by ousting them in favor of others who promise not to fund this or that. It’s a slow process, but it’s the best one we’ve tried so far.
There are a great many wonderful non-profit programs which do great things. But in election year, all we hear about is how bad a system welfare is (and it really is a bad system) and how bad it is to have to pay taxes. It’s a sick cycle. And I wish the American public were not so stupid as to buy into it every four years. But we do, we have, and we’ll probably continue to do so.