Of fireworks, liberty, and big government

It turns out life’s a lot more fun when you get to pick how you spend your money.

That’s what I learned after I spent twenty hours this summer staffing a fireworks booth that was set up by my daughter’s school to raise money for a class trip.

I saw people from all walks of life. I thought a thirty-something man in a shiny new black mustang would buy lots of fireworks, but he simply walked inside WalMart to buy a sunscreen for his new car. Then, a Prius-driving mom bought $270 worth of our most explosive items.

I saw lots of people, including some who looked like they really couldn’t afford it, pay lots of money for private fireworks. There was a kid who brought his own money so he could pick out his own fireworks, separate from what his mom was buying (she then gave me the money, since it would have been illegal for me to sell to a minor.)

Most of these folks were going to take them to a family gathering or neighborhood block party. These weren’t rugged individualists, they knew that collective action would make for a better show. The city was nice enough to close down a street by my house where we held a block party with a truly amazing display of our own fireworks.

If someone had suggested that people pay the same amount in taxes as they paid for their fireworks, there’d have been a revolution – even if we collectively used those funds to buy an even greater amount of fireworks and distributed them to neighborhoods for local shows.

Sacramento spends $80,000 a year to produce a public fireworks show at the state fairgrounds. Its free, although some of the costs are offset by $10 in parking fees paid by folks who go to CalExpo to watch them.

Contrast that to the $10 to $20 million in annual revenue estimated for TNT fireworks, one of two suppliers of private fireworks in Sacramento.

Government spends a lot of money finding ways to make money – printing it that is. They’ve devised currency that is remarkably hard to counterfeit. Despite that, our booth took in four fake $100 bills – money that will come straight out of the kids’ class trip budget. Without government making secure currency, providing police protection so our booth wouldn’t be robbed, and providing firefighters to inspect our booth and put out any fires our products would start, there could have been no private fireworks sales.

TNT Fireworks also works with the government to shut down illegal fireworks stands, ones that sell stuff that can hurt you or start a fire. Even with those precautions, 11,100 people went to the emergency room last year with fireworks injuries. A man in Kentucky killed himself with fireworks this year. If terrorists used fireworks to kill and injure that many Americans, we’d outlaw them and institute a travel ban on those who sell them. But when we do it to ourselves, we’re willing to accept the risk.

It’s interesting that we’re willing to part with our money and take risks when we feel like we are in control. It’s fun to pick out fireworks and even more fun to shoot them off. Watching the city shoot off fireworks that they picked out with your tax money somehow isn’t as fun, even if they are much bigger, better, and safer. But even the private fireworks I sold this year, and enjoyed at my neighborhood block party, wouldn’t have been possible without big government and a host of regulations.

I’m not sure if this means we all need to adjust our attitudes about collective action through the government, or find ways to make governmental decisions seem more fun and inclusive. But either way, I’m glad we’ve worked out a system that accommodates both the big public shows and safe, neighborhood fireworks displays. It’s a great way to blow a lot of money up into the sky and have some fun doing it.

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