The main justification given for taxation is that it solves a collective action problem. Everyone would be better off, we are told, with the construction of a road or a park, but no individual has the incentive to pay for it, and if a collection were taken up, everyone would shirk and expect the next guy to pay. If you know your few bucks won’t make or break the project and you’ll get the benefit either way, why pay?
There are many flaws in this analysis, but even if we accept it, consider the emergence of crowdfunding as an alternative. You can share the details of a project and the cost, and offer specific access or benefits to those who contribute a certain levels. The project does not move forward until full funding is committed. This is an amazingly powerful tool that is just starting to reach its potential.
If what is funded benefits the whole world, great! They needn’t be labelled free-riders, because everyone who pledged to support it knew ahead of time this would be the result, and indeed welcomed it. If it’s a project that can’t sustainably benefit everyone, crowdfunding allows the ability to restrict access to those who pay. It also utilizes the power of transparency and shame. If you claim to really want a project to succeed, yet you pledge no money yourself, you’ll incur the wrath of your peers. Crowdfunding harnesses people’s public spiritedness. It lets you openly demonstrate what you’ve pledged. It creates competition to cooperate.
I’m not just talking about bake sales for summer camp. There have been startups that raised ten million dollars on sites like Kickstarter. There have been massive research projects and prescription drug advances utilizing crowdsourcing (harnessing dispersed knowledge) as well as crowdfunding; not just the supply of capital, but the supply of human and intellectual capital can be done without central control.
The very projects that people worry wouldn’t happen without government funding are those most suited for crowdfunding. Works of art that won’t generate tons of popular sales through traditional channels. Highly speculative research. Space travel. Charity and welfare enhancing programs. Helping a single person pay for a costly medical procedure. Why couldn’t bridges or buildings be financed in the same way?
We live in an amazing world. Every day, more people voluntarily coordinate and co-create and make the functions the state tries to monopolize less and less relevant. Humans have always created free institutions that, under no compulsion and with no clear designer, enhance our individual and collective well-being. Technology just puts it in high relief and speeds the process.