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Seattle Times' Danny Westneat: Government Subsidies Can Be a Good Thing

By Erica C. Barnett January 5, 2011

Over at the Seattle Times, columnist Danny Westneat addresses the flip side of the issue I talked about yesterday: The fact that government services (in the case of my post, roads), don't pay for themselves through "user fees"---nor, in many cases, should they.
When I lamented a few weeks ago that [the state ferry system] is both raising fares and cutting back on sailings, hundreds of readers e-mailed or called with no sympathy whatsoever.

It's a boondoggle that should be privatized, many said. Let the people who ride the ferries pay for the ferries!

If we did that — cut off all subsidies to the ferries — then fares, like college tuition, would skyrocket. Last year the fares covered two-thirds of the cost of running the system. So even if some private operator were able to cut out $100 million of that supposedly ubiquitous public waste, fraud and abuse, there still wouldn't be enough money to avoid slashing the system and raising fares.

Come to think of it, why not privatize the Metro bus system while we're at it? A bus ticket would then cost $6 to $8 per ride. Surely that's a small price to pay to be part of a truly free market.

The question, in a time of worsening budget shortfalls, is which government services we should "subsidize" with tax dollars, and how heavily. Buses, public universities, and schools are government services that benefit everyone, whether they use them directly or not. (Imagine the traffic nightmare that would result if the 50 percent of downtown commuters who ride the bus or light rail started driving to work alone). For that reason alone, even if you never go to a public college, send your kids to public school, or ride the bus, they're worth supporting.
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