A government continues generation after generation, carrying with it the hopes and dreams of citizens for a good life for themselves and their descendents. Good governments are designed to create and maintain institutions that serve order and stability. Good governments strain to impede the mad and irrational acts of individuals, while allowing creative and positive impulses to move forward unchecked.
In the Information Age, however, some of the methods governments employ to forward their mission are showing signs of wear -- taxes and regulations for example.
Taxes serve two purposes. They create revenue, and they are a method of social control. "Sin taxes" on liquor and tobacco, for example, not only bring in revenue, they are intended to discourage drinking and smoking. Tax credits for charitable donations encourage donations, the social benefit outweighing the decrease in revenue.
Today, amid the three-year moratorium on new Internet taxes and fees, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Christopher Cox of California are pushing to continue the moratorium indefinitely, while Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina is pushing for a five-percent tax on all interstate commerce, trying to tap the explosive growth in Internet sales.
Those jurisdictions around the globe that wish to become economic powerhouses will eliminate sales taxes altogether. In order to salvage any revenues from Internet commerce, some kind of uniform international tax may be necessary. One could hypothesize that "holdout nations" who refused to levy taxes would be subject to an economic embargo by signature nations. But in whatever form, uniform taxes defeat the social control function of taxation.
Then there's the regulatory function. Can government really expect to regulate the Internet? Recently, an online casino sent out $20 credits by e-mail. Log on, fill out a form and start gambling. Lose the $20? Use your credit card. Governments are accustomed to closing illegal businesses within their jurisdictions, but this is different. Recently, the New York Supreme Court closed an online casino with a "gambling server" in Antigua. The prosecution succeeded because although the server was in the Caribbean, the casino's headquarters were in New York. If the entire operation were located offshore, prosecution becomes much more difficult -- perhaps impossible.
In the future, governments may need to carefully pick the battles they can win. While regulations fly out of state and local governments regulating online gambling, pornography, racist speech, fraud, etc., the inescapable fact is that, like it or not, governments are losing control of what citizens in their jurisdictions read, the pictures they look at, the activities they engage in online, who they associate with and what they say. In spite of the best efforts law enforcement, even the ability to intercept and record the communications of citizens is drawing to a close. From this, perhaps, has sprung the aberration of class-action lawsuits by governments against the manufacturers of legal products -- licensed and taxed by those same governments -- for the lousy choices and criminal actions of individual citizens.
It is time to rethink the relationship between government and citizen. We might consider the high esteem in which Thomas Jefferson held the citizen. It's time to continue the devolution, to pass the power along to the citizen.
The popular media will continue to exploit the exceptions, the fringes of the bell curve and the sometimes-horrific examples of what isn't working: the abusive parent, the child who kills. But those exceptions -- while they sell newspapers and create endless dialog -- are not representative of the vast majority of citizens who work, raise families, contribute to their communities and live productive lives.
Perhaps a more libertarian approach would serve, backed up by improvements in education. Education is, after all, the method by which the values of a culture are sent forward, generation after generation. In the online age, children need different lessons. Happiness is not -- as it was in the Industrial Age -- earning $5 per day on an assembly line. One's value today is more a function of what one produces, rather than if one arrives at work on time or seems busy.
In addition to the old standards of reading, writing and arithmetic, add such subjects as logic and how to detect propaganda and public-relations techniques. Make personal ethics a requirement, and educate students in the causal relationship between choice and consequence. Stop trying to outlaw the Budweiser frogs and instead help children evaluate information on their own. Stop promoting the thin hope of "get-rich-quick" government lotteries, and start promoting a culture in which challenges and opportunities abound, and in which the skills and values to succeed are treasures available to all. *
Letters to the Editor may be faxed to Maria Fusilero at 916/932-1470 or sent via e-mail. Please list your telephone number for confirmation. Publication is solely at the discretion of the editors. Government Technology reserves the right to edit submissions for length.