While reading “The Privatization of Roads and Highways” (I highly recommend it and you can access it for free), the author, Walter Block, discusses the unwillingness of people to even begin to think about the complete privatization of roads, which are widely considered to be a public good. The point of the book is to quell these concerns and prove objections to road privatization wrong, and on page 178, he makes a profound comment.
He mentions that his call for the separation of “roads and state” is really no different from other “radicals” calling for the separation of things like mail and state (eliminating the US Post Office), schools and state (completely private education), and welfare and state (voluntary charity). This immediately made me think of the most famous separation: the separation of church and state.
Individuals on both the right and the left have reason to cherish the idea of keeping separate the church and the state. For many on the left, there is a fear that the various churches will seek to enter into the political arena and assert their wills in politics. For many on the right, they fear the flip side of that—that the government will tell religions how to operate. Of course, this separation has been anything but perfect, but I believe that most would agree that the separation is an ideal that should be continuously sought.
“If you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you” is the essence of the relationship. And in theory and in practice, each institution can exist without the other despite the tendencies for both to try to direct the other’s business. But the point is there is a general desire among people to keep them separate.
And it works. Despite virtually no assistance from the government and the freedom to practice as you wish, the various religions have flourished throughout the United States’ history. People under their own free will attend church, synagogue, or mosque services on a regular basis and the churches are able to financially sustain themselves from the money donated by the attendees. Sometimes churches close down, but they also pop up in other locations. This shows the market at work.
So if churches and religion can sustain themselves without the managerial and financial help from the government, why don’t people accept that other functions in a society can be sustained in the same way? Many statists argue that if the government didn’t control the roads, they would be kept in terrible condition if they even existed at all. The same goes for the postal system, industrial and financial regulation, etc. If the government doesn’t handle X, they say, then X will cease to exist. So how is it explained that religion exists?
And how have the quality of religion and the available options of various religions improved when various governments abolished policies of state religion?
One of the predictable responses to this will be: “Religions are only working out well because they are being subsidized by the government—they’re exempt from taxes!” If you think about subsidies this way, you don’t quite understand them. Not taxing something—that is, allowing the market for it to be based purely on voluntary exchanges—is allowing it to exist in its natural form. The price of a loaf of bread is no longer natural when the mutually agreed upon price is subject to manipulations like taxes and price controls. As healthcare and insurance costs rise and rise to the point where many people can no longer afford them, it’s not due to a failure of the market. Take a look at the stress put on by the state that drives up the price.
This shows that if you want to penalize an industry, you can do this by taxing it. This is the theory behind sin taxes for things like alcohol and cigarettes. Ironically, this concept isn’t extended by most people to demonstrate the effects of any tax.
The purpose of separation of church and state is not to try to bring about the end of religion. The purpose is to keep the interests separate and allow each to exist without the aid of the other. Why is this not extended to other markets? With religion, people pay money to their churches in order to receive spiritual utility. Rarely is the item received in return for their money a tangible good. Why is there a refusal to acknowledge the ability for other markets to function the same way, especially when other markets produce a good or service whose utility is much more easily observed?
Finally, if the state administers the production of a product or service because people wouldn’t voluntarily support its existence otherwise, you have to begin to ask the question of why a government would continue something that no one seems to want.