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Bentonville and Bigelow have at least one thing in common. They get a whole lot more than they give. Last month, the U.S. Congress approved $37 million to widen and extend a street in Bentonville (pop. 19,730) that leads to the headquarters of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. That comes to roughly $1,875 per city resident — just to improve one street. And when the state legislative session ended last week, the small town of Bigelow (pop. 329) received $400,000 — more than $1,000 per person — for improvement projects, according to an analysis by Doug Thompson of the Arkansas News Bureau. These are not isolated incidents. Every government budget has its share of pork. But in the context of Arkansas’s current political landscape, both appropriations are examples of how we have everything backwards in terms of priorities, efficiency and jurisdictions. That is, the people of Bentonville and Bigelow are profiting from a redistribution of wealth that is unfair because it serves narrow local interests. It is worse than any form of socialized public welfare, because no one benefits except them. For instance, when the government subsidizes basic needs, like health care and education, costs are spread throughout society to ensure a degree of social stability. We even derive benefits when we send money overseas as foreign aid, because our trade and security interests are tied to an improving global economy. But it is the height of absurdity to ask taxpayers in Michigan and California to contribute to fixing a traffic problem in Bentonville. And it is equally ridiculous for residents of Forrest City and El Dorado to underwrite a new sewer system in Bigelow. It’s equivalent to taking a collection from your neighbors to pay for an addition to your house. Besides the economic inequity (every city in America doesn’t get $1,875 per person to improve a street, and every town in Arkansas doesn’t get more than $1,000 per person for infrastructure needs), there is a broader philosophical problem with this kind of grant-making, and it revolves around the definition of responsibility and community. The people of Northwest Arkansas protest the idea of using more of their tax dollars to educate poor people in the Delta. But they would undoubtedly benefit from the rising tide that would result from a better statewide education system, whereas someone in the Delta will probably never use the Bentonville street that they helped pave. And the residents of small towns like Bigelow resent interference in their local affairs and consolidation of their public schools. But they accept a handout from the state for a local improvement project instead of assuming the responsibility as a community to pay for it themselves, and likewise they won’t enact sufficient property taxes or similar measures to ensure their children get an adequate education. That, in a nutshell, is why everything is backwards. Where there is a true state and federal interest — in providing for a healthy, educated and employed population — there is resistance to state- and federally-funded mandates. But where there is at best a negligible state or federal interest, the money flows freely and is welcomed with open arms. Wal-Mart says: Don’t tell me I have to provide health care benefits to my employees, allow them the right to organize, or abide by environmental standards ... Now build me a street. Bigelow says: Don’t tell me I have to contribute a minimum amount to my children’s education or relinquish control of my school’s administration and curriculum ... Now build me a sewer system. The state ought to seriously consider adopting provisions that restrict its appropriations to broadly defined public needs. One especially distressing aspect of the Bigelow money is that it came from a fund that some legislators were trying to direct toward education. In the end, that is the real struggle, pitting self-interest against the greater good. Together we can make a difference by contributing to the education and general welfare of our fellow citizens, but when it comes to streets, buildings, and local infrastructure, cities like Bentonville and Bigelow should take care of themselves.
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