In a discussion last week about the fact that Bryan Caplan, who opposes government funding of higher education, nevertheless works in a government-funded university, one commenter, Chipotle, wrote:

If you were walking home one night and you saw a cat burglar emerge from the home of a stranger with a bag of loot and, upon his seeing you, he offered you some of the cash he had pilfered, would you take it?

I know Bryan well enough to be positive that he wouldn’t. Chipotle used this analogy to argue that Bryan shouldn’t take government funds.

But the analogy doesn’t work. Here’s why. If Bryan or I or you see a cat burglar stealing, not only would we not share in the loot, but also we would likely call the cops or whoever is enforcing the law. We could have some confidence that the cops would stop the guy and return the loot to its rightful owners. That’s where the analogy breaks down. If we “call the cops” on a government that forcibly takes people’s wealth, they would think we were nuts. If we don’t call the cops but also refuse to take jobs in organizations funded by coercion, the entity apparently analogous to the cat burglar still goes scot-free.

So what’s the best we can if we can’t call the cops on the government? It’s what Bryan and Arnold and I are doing: argue vociferously against government taking people’s stuff.

I dealt with this issue before starting my second year of college at the University of Winnipeg, a government-funded institution. Earlier that summer, I had quit a cushy, well-paying job in a government-run national park because I couldn’t justify the government engaging in the particular activity it had engaged in. I wrote about this in Chapter One of my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey. The rest of the summer, I was re-reading and pondering Ayn Rand and started to conclude that I shouldn’t go back to college and receive government funds. Then I realized that by that same principle, I shouldn’t walk on government-funded streets. Then I realized that government had its hand in so many things that I couldn’t live a normal life (and, indeed, probably couldn’t even live–think of getting food or going to work without going on government roads or sidewalks) without using many things funded by government. That caused me to, as Ayn Rand liked to say, “check my premises.”

Here was the conclusion I reached. I would take advantage of these things that government funds but never let those funds stop me from criticizing government when I thought it was wrong and would NEVER advocate funding of those things government did that I thought were wrong. So, for example, I have never advocated that the Naval Postgraduate School exist and have never fought, wrote, or argued for funding it. I would bet that Bryan has reached a similar conclusion about George Mason University.

I thought that in that same thread, rpl had it right when he said:

Count me among those who see nothing hypocritical in Bryan’s stance. Is Bryan excused from laws on taxation, or drug use, or jaywalking if he happens to disagree with them? In fact, he is not. Why, then, should he be expected to refuse benefits when the state chooses to grant them? I don’t see anything inconsistent in simultaneously advocating against a policy and accepting the benefits of that policy should you happen to be outvoted. To declare otherwise is to create a social order in which being principled means being a sucker.