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The Truth About Pork

Mises Daily: Monday, January 07, 2002 by

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Before the Christmas break, Washington labored mightily and gave birth to the 2001-2002 federal budget. Therefore, it was pork barrel time, with taxpayers made unwilling Santas for politicians' favored constituents. But the billions of dollars devoted to the several thousand earmarked projects that could not survive the regular budget process also highlight an important underlying question about pork barrel spending: is it an essential lubricant necessary to achieve passage of well-understood, -designed and -implemented policies that are truly justified as advancing Americans' general welfare, or is it in fact the essential ingredient in legislation, despite doing little or nothing to advance the public good?

It is all but impossible to find any earmarks among the thousands included that solve either a serious failure of the market or a pressing need.  This is especially so, given that if the needs were so pressing to the local beneficiaries, they should have been willing to fund them through the local government or affected private interests.  The $2 million (and $1.5 million last year) included to renovate a monument to Vulcan, the Roman god of metalwork, for Birmingham, Alabama--a project rationalized because the statue is an important symbol of the city's steel-making heritage--is a prime example.

The fact that those with the most power over spending get the most pork and by far the greatest contributions from those whose self-interest would be advanced by such pork is also inconsistent with the essential lubricant view. After all, that view would imply that committee chairs and influential members are, in fact, the chief extortionists standing in the way of beneficial legislation, rather than public servants leading the efforts to craft such legislation. The $300 million given to sheep and goat ranchers, resurrecting a program that was established to guarantee an adequate supply of wool and mohair for military uniforms--even though the military stopped using wool uniforms half a century ago--is simply one of the most preposterous among many examples.

To justify the pork as it was being divided up in the budget process, politicians endlessly recycled the claim that it was important for constituents to "get something back" for the taxes they send to Washington. But this argument implies that everything the federal government actually does to advance the welfare of Americans is not worth what it costs taxpayers. Otherwise, constituents would already see they were getting more than their money's worth.  This argument also implies that the federal government is failing at its most central tasks, which is inconsistent with the "pork-is-necessary-to-accomplish-a-greater-public-good" excuse used for the essential lubricant argument.

Our representatives also defended earmarks as necessary because, as Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) put it, "there is a value in letting the elected representatives have a direct say in funding their communities."  But this is really an argument that the federal government should not be involved at all; a view enshrined in the Constitutional principle of federalism.

Locals should both decide and fund such projects, if they know better. And if those directly affected are unwilling to pay out of their own pockets, then the money would be better left in their pockets, without an expensive detour inside the beltway.  All that expensive trip creates is the fiction that when a fraction of locals' tax money comes back in the form of projects they wouldn't be willing to pay for, they somehow reap a benefit as a result.

After their labors, politicians returned home for the holidays, where they spent much of their time emphasizing their role in bringing home the bacon to those local interests who benefit.  But as Congress returns to "the work of the people" in a midterm election year, it is worth remembering that the pork brought home had to be extorted from others by those politicians as the price of their assent (usually with a laughable rationale) in exchange for others' reciprocal extortion of their constituents, that those earmarks were unable to even meet the lard-filled standards of the regular budget process, and that not one cent of the funding came from anyone except taxpayers. It seems to be an awful lot of lubricant for very little real work.


Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. Send him MAIL, and see his Mises.org Articles Archive.