“Public Interest” is Not in the Public’s Interest

Following the point-counter-point published here on The Record over the One Day’s Work program, I feel compelled to issue a counter-counter point disagreeing with both sides. The original opinion article suggested that the program is a good way to support a good cause. The anonymous dissenter thinks the program is a bad way to support a good cause.  I, on the other hand, think that One Day’s Work is the best possible way to fund an unworthy cause.

First, the nice part.

One Day’s Work seeks funds through individual voluntary charity.  There are, undoubtedly, people who want to give their money away so that others can work for the government or charities.  One Day’s Work allows them to give a fairly large amount in an exoteric way.  This is a remarkably efficient solution: literally no one is worse off than they are under the status quo.  Saintly spendthrifts can give, curmudgeonly Scrooges like me can decline.

Note that this “give if you want, don’t if you don’t” model is far more forthright and fair than coercive measures like the Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP) or Summer Public Interest Funding (SPIF).  The only difference is that LIPP and SPIF draw their funding through the money we students pay as part of our general tuition.

The powers that be could jack up tuition 200 percent and there would still be a line of people a mile long willing to mortgage off another few years of their working lives to come here.  Knowing this, HLS can force us to pay for every little feel-good capricious frill that someone in power wants.

A Green Living program that demands that we sacrifice paper cups as piacular penance?  Absolutely, those paper cups have a carbon footprint roughly equivalent to a grasshopper’s flatulence.  An ice rink in front of the Science Center?  Definitely, we don’t want the Canadians to feel homesick during this mild winter.  A computer lab full of high-end computers so that law school students can print out their readings and surf Above the Law?  Well, would you print readings from your own laptop if you could do it from one of 20-odd beautiful new machines?

Each of these silly expenditures is a tax on tuition that results in the absurd outcome of one section of HLS students paying about four million dollars worth of tuition each year. Just imagine what we might save if these urgent measures, like One Day’s Work, were left up to the conscience of individual students rather than the disinterested whim of administrators.

Kudos to One Day’s Work for being up-front and honest with their request for charity.  The only problem is that the purpose of One Day’s Work is highly suspect.

A brief note on the provision of legal services.  Imagine a law student named Ames Greenleaf.  He works as a summer associate at a private firm and makes quite a hefty haul.  He spends his days that summer writing research papers on civil procedure esoterica to help, say, a can manufacturer get out of a suit.  His efforts raise the probability that the can manufacturer survives the suit and can continue employing dozens of workers who would otherwise end up indigent.

Now, imagine a law student named Barry Chosenone.  He works at a public interest firm that files copyright paperwork for indigent NEA-grant artists.  One such artist gets his copyright and airs to the world his passionate magnum opus “Piss Christ.”  Barry loves this work, but he is worried because it does not pay well enough to support an uptown New York lifestyle.

Which of those two students has done more to help the community?  Who can honestly claim that Barry deserves Ames’s money?  Baldly, public interest work is more emotionally rewarding because it involves directly helping people, a fact which leads many good-hearted people to choose public interest vocations.  Private firm work does more ultimate good, however.  The clients pay more because they ultimately provide more benefit for their communities than individual down-on-their-luck litigants.

Personally, I don’t want to pay an extra couple hundred dollars to incentivize my fellow students to get a legal job at the Department of Health and Human Services that will be paid for with the tax money I already have to pay to the government anyway.  But that’s just me, and One Day’s Work proponents can at least say that I don’t have to pay for more government bureaucrats if I don’t want to. Would that LIPP and SPIF possessed the same basic honesty.

John Thorlin is a 3L. His column runs Thursdays.

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