Bad Premises Waste More Than Mere Foolishness

Monday, November 10, 2014

The latest column about the government "playing" with tax dollars -- this one by A. Barton Hinkle -- has come out. Hinkle does admit that "[n]o amount of pork-trimming can offset the huge outlays for entitlements," but he falls for the temptation to focus on what he regards as the goofiest ways the government spends money. Hinkle even compiles two bulletted lists, one devoted to funding for scientific research he personally finds ridiculous. (More on that in a moment.)

The grand total of the sixteen itemized examples? $42,106,976,000. That's over $42.1 billion. Almost all of this comes from the $41 billion "missile defense system with a 70 percent failure rate", which is, for all I know, a legitimate use of money: Given the government's proper role in defense and the possibility that the science behind such a system might be difficult enough to make a thirty percent success rate look pretty good, that's possibly money well spent.

But it's when Hinkle starts listing scientific projects that the failed premise behind his article becomes apparent. I am not defending government funding of science in general, but journalists (and politicians) are notorious for not appreciating why scientists study certain seemingly inconsequential things. (Search "fruit fly".) I don't wish to pick on Hinkle, whose work I find thought-provoking, but consider what his article is looking at (foolish government spending)  vis-a-vis the greater problem (unsustainable government spending). What offends Hinkle and most others who look at things like the items on his lists, some of which are not necessarily wastes of money? Our money is being taken forcibly from us and being spent on things we'd never buy.

Or is it?

Most people buy into two ideas -- two philosophical premises -- that make everything Hinkle decries possible: (1) It is proper for the government to fund itself by taxation; and (2) "I am my brother's keeper." The first forces open your wallet. The second, thanks to the common, but mistaken belief that we are a "democracy" (vice a constitutional republic that is supposed to protect individual rights), puts what your confiscated money is spent on at the discretion of officials chosen by a majority who regards the government's job as watching over them. This is why entitlement spending, a subject Hinkle may be afraid or morally unable to address fully, makes everything he discusses look like chump change. On some matters, like science, we have laudable attempts to delegate this spending authority to experts, but mis-spending will occur due to error or politicization. It is a mistake to hold these things up as folly when the general, unchecked will of the people is so calamitous. If we accept the idea that our money is there for the state's taking, and that others are entitled to it, we really have no room to complain about how that money is spent, do we?

It's time to stop bickering over how other people spend our money and begin finding ways to stop having it forcibly taken from us. This means either really asking why we are supposed to be our brothers' keepers or, for anyone who already has, helping others begin to do the same. There is no satisfactory answer to that question, but focusing on minor outrages will keep many of us from ever realizing it.

-- CAV

PS: Yes. The government has legitimate functions and those have to be funded. We should also consider other ways of funding them.

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