It would be nice if we could fix our fiscal woes by simply cutting “waste, fraud and abuse.” We could have our government goodies without increasing taxes. Alas, it won’t suffice. But it is a start, a pretty good start if we define “waste” broadly. A broad definition of government waste would include these categories:
- Money spent to serve special interests vs. the general welfare.
- Money spent on projects where it’s obvious to all major factions that costs exceed benefits: c.f. the Bridge to Nowhere.
- Money spent on a good cause inefficiently: U.S. welfare policy for example.
- Money spent on the impossible, or at least incredibly difficult: collectivizing farms, developing controlled fusion, ending cancer, winning the War on—
Oops! I better stop there. The last category touches too many ideological land mines, and this is supposed to be a nonpartisan site. I may fold in some examples in the future, but not until after I’ve covered a great deal of other territory, and established this site’s neutrality.
The first two categories are clearly in the popular consciousness when politicians speak of cutting “waste, fraud, and abuse.” Actual attempts, by either major party, also include a bit of 3 and 4 as well.
In this section I’m going to focus on the first two forms of waste. Nearly everyone agrees they are bad. Even the special interests would be better off without them. When everyone is “special” no one is. And corruption and misallocation has reached the point where nearly everyone is special.
Think of this as the “good government” section. We have four pronged approach to cutting blatant waste:
Federalism done right brings government closer to the people, allows more choice, and makes government more intelligent and more accountable. Federalism done wrong leads to pork barrel politics and Bridges to Nowhere. We’ll look at how to do federalism right.
We’ll also take a close look at why this country abandoned federalism during the Progressive Era. There were some pretty good reasons for doing so. However, centralization is not the only remedy, nor is it always the best.
Campaign Finance Reform
You get what you pay for. He who pays the piper names the tune.
As a long time Libertarian the idea of public financing of elections was anathema to me. I’ve changed my mind. Corruption is more expensive than public financing of elections.
That said, public campaign finance can be the road to autocracy. Who decides who gets the public money? Either crackpots run for office to get the money, or the government decides who the real candidates are. Neither option is pleasant.
But we could do public financing for incumbents – along with fewer restrictions on challengers. When you are out of office, you are a politician. When you hold office, you work for The People, and only for The People.
We might just take a peek at how to pay public officials while we are at it.
Imagine having only two choices for private transportation: you can have a Chevy Suburban or a Toyota Prius. That’s it. No midsized cars, no motorcycles, no minivans, etc. It would stink, wouldn’t it?
Well, that’s what we have for most elections: only two real political parties. Come to think of it, many people think politics stinks. Maybe that’s why so many people don’t bother following the news and don’t bother voting: they dislike both of the available choices.
We have a two-party system because our voting system breaks down when we have more than two serious candidates.
There are other voting systems, better systems, available. Olympic judges manage to choose between more than two figure skaters. Every student in your high school was a “candidate” for valedictorian. With modern computer technology it is trivial to replace “vote for one” with “rate each candidate.”
Then again, the Vikings and Spartans managed to rate each candidate without the use of computers. Range Voting is an ancient voting system.
Civil Service Reform
When the country was founded, all bureaucrats were directly accountable elected officials. It didn’t work. The Spoils System was a major source of corruption. So we created the Civil Service System. A major source of corruption was staunched, but we grow less democratic every year as a result. Bureaucracies take on a life of their own.
Perhaps there is a middle ground between overly powerful elected executives and self-governing bureaucracies. We shall explore this middle ground in future articles.
Nation Building Begins at Home
We in the U.S. can probably muddle along without all these good-government reforms. We have quite a bit of wealth, education and institutional good will to keep our republic running.
Newly minted republics in poorly educated and/or deeply divided lands are another matter. Too much hiring power in the hands of the chief executive leads often to dictatorship. Plurality-take-all elections can lead to civil war. Autonomous bureaucracy can lead to poverty through low corruption. We started off as a set of wealthy republics with rule of law established (for whites). We had a frontier. What worked for the United States does not necessarily work in the developing world.
Today, our national debt includes well over a trillion dollars spent on unsuccessful nation building efforts. If we are to play World Police, it behooves us to get better at it. We’ve got the crush-the-bad-dictator part down pat. It’s the follow-through that needs work. We need to leave behind republican governments that last, governments that lead to stable prosperous future allies.
We can start by improving our government at home, to set a better example.