In a discussion about public education at Catallarchy, there was a bit of a side debate about whether it was feasible to let people “opt out” of paying taxes for services they don’t believe the government should provide. I took the position that it’s not, on the basis of the following should-be-obvious statement:

You can only truly opt out if your forego all benefits, both direct and indirect, that you gain from the service. Otherwise you are not opting out but freeloading.

The indirect benefits are the killer. If you want to opt out of funding the EPA’s efforts to improve air quality, you would have to stop breathing the higher-quality air they provide. Furthermore, you’d have to pay the cost difference due to increased productivity (e.g. agricultural, fisheries, forest products) from cleaner air and less acid rain. If you want to opt out of paying for a new road, you’d not only need to pay your share for the otherwise unnecessary sensors to make sure you never drove on it, but you’d have to pay the cost difference for products that are delivered to you more efficiently using that road. If you want to opt out of paying for the SEC to regulate the stock market, you’d have to guarantee that you weren’t using information currently provided in SEC disclosures, and did not benefit from others doing so either, unless you could figure out some way to pay. The examples go on and on and on, from Social Security to emergency services and national security to management of invasive species and genetic contamination. The point should be clear: we’re too connected, engaged in too many “transactions” with our neighbors every day, to opt out.

If we tried to track all of those transactions and know everyone’s opt-in vs. opt-out status, we would not only create or exacerbate some serious privacy issues but we would fail anyway. We can never completely identify, attribute, or quantify those costs and benefits without being omniscient. Let me repeat that, for those inclined to pretend that any problem they don’t know how to solve must not be important: never, without being omniscient. No individual-transaction solution was ever found to the Cheshire salt-works problem, nor could it be even today without great advances in hydrology. If ten of your neighbors grow some invasive but ornamental plant which then ruins your crops, does anyone really think it’s feasible to track whose pollen got into your field? As in a bad crime drama, they could all – rightly – claim it probably wasn’t theirs, and you’d be out of luck. Damage was done, and nobody paid for it. Again, other examples abound. Some problems simply have to be solved in the aggregate or not at all, and “not at all” is not a moral option.

In the Catallarchy thread, I said the only three options were to participate fully in the system, freeload, or move. Actually there’s a fourth. If you can seal yourself up in a Biosphere-like environment, hermetically sealed and not using anything from outside (including sunlight or information) you can opt out. Otherwise, the only defensible options are to pay for the benefits you receive or apply your own free-market ideals to government services and try to find a better provider. Maybe someone will sell you Greenland, or part of Afghanistan. Enjoy.