David R. Henderson  

Crowding In

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Austin Keegan kneels on a tiny footbridge on Garrapata State Park's Rocky Ridge Trail and replaces a damaged plank with pre-cut lumber from home. "It's just basic maintenance," he says. "It needs to be done."


His pal David Thiermann, carrying a garbage-pickup stick and a plastic bag, scans for litter and dog poop while Keegan drills.


"Nice service, guys!" chirps a toned runner waiting to cross the bridge. Then he asks what's up with the "FOG" baseball caps on the volunteers' heads.


Friends of Garrapata, Thiermann explains, is a community group picking up the slack as the California Department of Parks and Recreation prepares to abandon the park. 


As they hike, Thiermann and Keegan point out signs of their work. A FOG business card is screwed into the Soberanes Canyon Trail sign, which they sanded to erase graffiti. A couple walks by with five off-leash dogs, and Keegan cheerfully tells them dogs aren't allowed: "It really affects the quality of the trail."


FOG isn't an official nonprofit; it's not even sanctioned by State Parks. It's a loose network of about 85 park users communicating through the Friends of Garrapata Facebook page and fixing up the park on their own impulses.



I've long believed that when government steps in to do valuable things, it crowds out private sector (for-profit and not-for-profit) actions. The converse is that when government pulls back from doing these valuable things, the private sector steps up. Call it "crowding in."

Because of the California state government's large budget deficit, the government is cutting back on park services. And, as the above excerpt from an article in the Monterey County Weekly shows, volunteers are stepping in.


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
david writes:

I hope nobody ever decides to defy Austin Keegan's authority on dogs in the wilds. "Not allowed". Not allowed by who? Self-appointed authority backed by self-appointed force?

David, are you as enthusiastic about civil-society activism when environmentalists tie themselves to trees that states sell to loggers?

David R. Henderson writes:

@david,
“Not allowed by who?”
I think by the rules of the trail that the state government set. Notice that he tells them “cheerfully.” And notice also that if they decided to ignore him, Austin Keegan would have zero coercive power over them. So which would you prefer, david, voluntary persuasion or the threat of coercion?
David, are you as enthusiastic about civil-society activism when environmentalists tie themselves to trees that states sell to loggers?
No.

Chris Koresko writes:

david: David, are you as enthusiastic about civil-society activism when environmentalists tie themselves to trees that states sell to loggers?

I think the key distinction here is that your environmentalists are there primarily to impose their views on others in a way that disregards the property rights of the loggers and (such as they are) the state. The FOG are apparently organized to provide a public service that most would see as clearly beneficial to the community and, as David Henderson points out, without coercing anyone.

John Nevard writes:

david: And of course if the park was privately owned the owners would have an actual incentive to implement measures that would keep out dogs, enhancing the quality of the park, rather than farming tickets.

Mordecai writes:

The crowding in point is good, but the news about people taking care of Garrapata is great. It's one of my favorite places anywhere and probably what I miss most about living in Carmel. (Although it earns the name that translates to "Tick State Park". They should warn dog owners about that.) Places like that, you can probably count on "friends" who feel likewise to take care of it.

But more ordinary places need more incentive for care. They need private property interests lest they succumb to tragically common fates.

Xerographica writes:

When I was a libertarian I assumed that crowding out was a fact. I believed that if we didn't have to pay so much in taxes then people would automatically take up the slack.

Here's the HUGE problem with this belief. It's based on the assumption that congress knows what the optimal levels of funding are for government organizations. How could a committee of government planners possibly know what the optimal levels of funding are for government organizations? How could they know exactly how much scarce resources should be allocated to each public good? If you say that congress knows these things then you're saying that socialism is a viable concept.

If taxes are reduced...then we'll have no idea what people will choose to spend their "extra" money on. Maybe they'll buy more TVs...or maybe they'll save more...who knows?

So the problem with the crowding out concept is that it is based on the fatally flawed belief that any committee can know the optimal level of funding for any organization.

The solution, as far as I can tell, is to just allow taxpayers to choose which government organizations receive their taxes. For example, at anytime throughout the year you could visit the EPA website and submit a payment. The EPA would then send notice of your payment to the IRS.

This approach, known as tax choice or pragmatarianism, would allow taxpayers to reveal the proper scope of government. Rather than the supply of public goods being determined by the guesstimates of 538 congresspeople...the supply of public goods would be determined by the demands of millions and millions of taxpayers.

steve writes:

" Call it "crowding in."

The fact that this merits a news story, as in man bites dog, suggests this is not very common.

Steve

David N. Welton writes:

Despite disagreeing with you on a number of things, I occasionally enjoy reading your commentary because you seem like an intelligent, thoughtful person.

However, what you believe doesn't have much bearing on things - anyone can believe things, but what sets professional economists and other researchers apart is that you have the time and resources to actually study these things in a more rigorous manner.

Does crowding in/out happen across the board? More for certain sectors? Which ones? How much? Is there anything that ties together the ones where private individuals/groups step up vs things that private groups avoid? I'm willing to be convinced that there are situations where the government should step aside, but I believe that facts trump beliefs.

David R. Henderson writes:

@steve,
The fact that this merits a news story, as in man bites dog, suggests this is not very common.
I agree that it’s not very common. I have an hypothesis about why: it’s because until recently, government did not pull back on the services it was funding. If crowding in is more general, we will see it more as government, facing a tough budget constraint, pulls back.
@David N. Welton,
Does crowding in/out happen across the board? More for certain sectors? Which ones? How much? Is there anything that ties together the ones where private individuals/groups step up vs things that private groups avoid?
These are all good questions. On the last one, I do think I have something to offer. I think, for example, that if the government ended the drug war, there would not be crowding in. That is, people would not start breaking down their neighbors’ doors and shooting their dogs. I think crowding in has much to do with how much value people place on the services.

Colin K writes:

Where I live in east Boston there is a neighborhood group that gets together every spring to clean and spruce up the parks in the neighborhood. The city does provide groundskeeping but the locals go above and beyond, plant nice annual flowers, etc. this is a good but not upscale neighborhood. So I suspect lower-grade levels of this are quite common.

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