Government “Waste” Is the Least of Our Problems
Sometimes I swear we are living in a dystopian novel whose author is courteous enough to provide us mere extras in his story with plenty of comedic relief to make the days tolerable. The USA Today headline reads: “Obama, Biden again target government waste.” Yes. That’s in fact what it says. The administration that has given us a $3.7 trillion budget is so concerned about wasting money, you see, that its Vice President is heading up a “Campaign to Cut Waste.” The White House brags of having trimmed $33 billion of waste in the last year. That amounts to less than 1% of the budget—a budget that is, in nominal dollar terms, approximately double what it was a decade ago. Back in 2001 I remember thinking about how small our government was, and how if only we doubled its size, and were careful to cut back about a percent of that sum that happens to be “waste,” we’d be in great shape. Oh wait a second. That’s not what I thought at all.
Yet all this talk of waste misses the point. Perhaps there are better uses of our tax dollars than “waste,” but I must say, I prefer so-called waste to most of what the government spends money on. Government is destructive. Most of what it does is harmful. Being an agency of violence and the threat of violence, the institution of government runs counter to economic progress as a general principle. Even worse, its coercive grip strangles the freedom out of people as a matter of course, and, far more often than Americans seem accustomed to recognizing, it kills people.
If only the regulatory state’s budget were a matter of “waste.” If the federal government did not spend billions to hire and empower regulators who each spend hours a day sending out edicts to business, telling employers who to hire and not to hire, commanding state governments and industry on the parameters of infrastructure and architecture, imposing rules on pharmaceutical companies concerning which drugs they can produce and sell, strong-arming commercial enterprises into the advertising guidelines chosen by politicians, telling banks what interest rates ought to be, instructing telecommunications businesses on the rules of speech and the distribution of information, threatening farmers and corporations with invasive environmental regulations, imposing speech codes on workplaces, dictating what furniture and employment standards companies can utilize, forcing national standards on food manufactures, controlling the business practices of bars and restaurants, deciding which immigrants were free to enter the county to work and which ones were not, setting tariff rates for international trade, determining which education policies passed federal muster, overriding the decisions of doctors, medical professionals and patients, imposing billions of hours of ridiculous paperwork onto the private sector, spying on our communications, diverting resources from economical purposes to counterproductive ones, threatening peaceful entrepreneurs with fines and imprisonment for their consensual business activities, and otherwise obstructing the economic growth made possible by the free market, we would be so much better off it should make any thinking person angry to contemplate it. Indeed, if the government simply took the same tax dollars it spends on regulation, used it to buy up as many products as that money could buy, and dumped all those products into the ocean, the economy would rebound almost instantly and we would likely witness the greatest genuine boom in American productivity in three generations, as the money being wasted would be so much healthier for growth than the money being spent as it is now—on destroying wealth on an atrocious scale through the crippling burden of regulations. The pharmaceutical regulations alone, once unenforced, would translate into thousands of lives saved, as the FDA notoriously kills Americans in large quantities by depriving them of life-saving drugs. This would be a great and moral end in itself, but it would also be a boon for the economy.
Or what if the warfare state money were simply wasted? Pentagon waste has got to be the best thing coming from that department. When Obama decided to stop spending so much on Cold War weaponry that would never be used and divert the funds to 21st century killing machines to deploy against insurgents in Pakistan and other such places, many cheered but I did not. For a weapon that gathers dust is the best kind the military buys. One could correctly argue that the thousands of nuclear weapons, by their mere existence, pose an existential threat to humanity and should be eliminated, but the point stands that so long as they have the potential to be used, better that they not be. Nevertheless, the U.S. military establishment, at nearly a trillion dollars a year when all is carefully accounted for, makes us less safe, hinders our freedom, and, most important, actively and energetically pesters, harasses, oppresses, tortures and murders foreigners in numerous countries. Millions have been slaughtered, directly and by stealth means, by the U.S. warfare state, only in the last couple decades. If Obama wants to cut down the budget by more than $33 billion a year, he should look first to this monstrosity, probably the greatest threat to world peace currently existing, and slash away. But short of that, he should convert the entire military machine to one of “waste” as opposed to engagement and activity. A trillion dollars spent yearly on waste, or to pay personnel to sit around and play blackjack all day, would be far better for American freedom, American wealth, and global affairs, than allowing the status quo of murderous war to continue.
Then there is the U.S. police state. If only its budget was wasted! Instead, billions are spent tracking down, trying, and locking people into cages. Many of these people—about half at the federal level—are nothing but offenders with no victim. Drug offenders, tax offenders, gun offenders and other violators of laws that don’t belong in a free society. If this money were spent on building huge modern art projects and launching them into the sun, society would prosper significantly relative to where it is thanks to how the money is actually spent. Surely, building prisons and not filling them with peaceful people is infinitely morally preferable to building prisons and housing harmless souls inside their cages. These cages, which have in many cases become torture chambers and rape rooms, are the great domestic atrocity of our time, so putting an end to them is a moral mandate in itself, even putting aside the billions that could be saved by ridding of them. And with each innocent man caged, we lose the chance of that person being out there in the private sector actually producing wealth, which we desperately need in this time of recession. And this doesn’t even account for how much federal criminal justice programs, by their very nature, foment social conflict, subsidize gang warfare through drug and gun prohibitions, and generally make us less safe, less free and less wealthy.
Then there is all the welfare—corporate and individual—which distorts the economy and poisons the social fabric. In the long term this, too, is more destructive than mere government waste, as the opportunity cost of businesses catering to politicians rather than customers is unspeakably immense, and the encouragement of people to rely on the federal government rather than on each other for support is a rot at the core of the culture’s character and the key method by which the empire and police state maintain the trust and love of the oppressed masses.
I do not want to understate the evil of government waste. A billion dollars stolen from taxpayers and sent down the drain is an injustice and a moral disgrace of national importance. But government is an organ of plunder, economic dislocation, mass imprisonment, social destruction, persecution and mass murder. Given that it steals our money—certainly a great evil in itself—we’re generally much better off the larger portion of its budget goes purely to waste.