One of the fundamental questions that we must ask ourselves is, what is the purpose or function of government. As I have said on previous occasions, I believe the primary goal of any government is to defend the lives, liberty, and property of the citizens against any threat either foreign or domestic. To a lesser extent, a government must also serve to provide needed services that, for either security reasons or economic ones, cannot be handled by the private sector. Unfortunately, this viewpoint has gone into decline as more and more people view the government merely as a tool to achieve some tangible gain at the expense of the rest of the citizenry. This trend is not some sort of new phenomenon, but has existed since the dawn of politics. As Adam Smith writes in The Wealth of Nations, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment or diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”. 1 In this article, we will be discussing three of these widespread conspiracies.
The first of these conspiracies is subsidies and quotas. Rather than let the free market act unfettered, the government interferes in order to promote certain industries. Basic economics teaches that, under normal circumstances, if one area of industry experiences a glut of production, supply will rise as demand remains constant. Therefore the price will plummet. With diminishing revenue, less efficient suppliers of that product will stop producing and switch into a different market as to enjoy a better rate of return. Conversely, if demand increases or supply drops then prices will rise and, as a result, new suppliers will come into being and/or current suppliers will increase their outputs in order to take advantage. Although prices will fluctuate in the short run, over time assuming no intervening factors, they should remain relatively constant. Subsides and quotas destroy this natural process. They serve to keep prices artificially high or low and do not reward efficiency. For a real world example, let’s look at the topic of sugar subsidies. The reason sugar costs more than other sweeteners in this country is that the government subsidizes the industry. As most citizens do not buy large quantities of sugar at one time, they do not notice the increase, but it does create significant wealth for sugar growers. According to the Cato Institute, on March 12, 2010, sugar prices in the United States were 78% higher than elsewhere on the globe. 2 As the costs are so widespread among the millions of consumers, no one raises a fuss, while the benefits are concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of producers. Large-scale buyers, like Pepsi, are affected by the higher prices and must switch the sweeteners they use in order to cut costs thus causing the rise of products like high fructose corn syrup. Although we could import cheaper sugar from abroad to force prices back to the free market norm, the government sets strict quotas to limit these imports and thus keep this artificial price in place. Unfortunately, the sugar industry serves as one of many glaring examples of a sector that uses the federal government for their own monetary gains at the expense of the public.
The second is the relatively new phenomenon of hate crime legislation. These sorts of laws apply additional civil or criminal penalties for those who perform acts against people of other races, religions, or lifestyles. Although potentially noble in thought, in practice the whole idea becomes utterly absurd. Robbery is robbery, assault is assault, battery is battery, and murder is murder. One should suffer the same consequences regardless if one commits an offense against a Jewish person, a black person, a homosexual person, or someone who happens to be all three. It should make little difference legally if the perpetrator and victim happen to share a color or creed or end up being totally distinct. In an episode of South Park, the creators display the ridiculous nature of so called hate crimes when their judge, pronouncing sentence against one of the character, announces, “I am making an example of you to send a message out to people everywhere: that if you want to hurt another human being, you’d better make damn sure they’re the same color as you are.” 3 The great fear of hate crime legislation is the way it further divides society and sets up special privileges for members of certain groups. Should a criminal who harms me be treated any differently than a criminal who harms you in the same manner? Isn’t the goal equality for all under the law? Is justice blind, or does she favor certain classes? Does it matter when you are robbed whether the perpetrator simply wants your money or commits his or her act because of hatred? Couldn’t a special interest group promote hate crime laws merely to offer greater protection to individuals within their organization at the expense of everyone else? In order to keep each person equal under the law and the penalty for crimes consistent, we must do away with any and all hate crime laws.
The third conspiracy is pork barrel spending. Unfortunately this problem is extremely expensive and pervasive. The pork watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste defines pork as congressional spending that consists of one or more of the following: “requested by one chamber of Congress, not specifically authorized, not competitively awarded, not requested by the President, greatly exceeds the President’s budget request or the previous year’s funding, not the subject of congressional hearings, or serves only a local or special interest.” 4 The most infamous pork project was Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere” which would cost $398 million and link the town of Ketchikan to the island of Gravina, which contains an airport and the homes of roughly fifty people. Although such a plan would no doubt be helpful to the town of Ketchikan, shouldn’t the citizens of Ketchikan pay for it rather than have the burden be shouldered by every citizen of the United States? Unfortunately, too many members of Congress view U.S. tax dollars as a trophy to be carried home to their constituents. Regrettably, the problem is not limited to one party as both Republicans and Democrats covet pork. The worst among them have been former Senators Ted Stevens of Alaska and Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Fortunately both are out of office, but I’m sure a number of politicians aspire to step into their shoes. Although the state of West Virginia has benefited greatly from his largess, having named over thirty public works after Byrd including a statue of himself in Charleston, just imagine what else could have been done with that $1 billion, including returning it to the hardworking taxpayers. According to the 2010 Pig Book published by CAGW, recent pork includes: potato research, lobster research, brown tree snake removal, theater restoration, museum funding, and music education. Do these projects fall under the authority of Congress according to the Constitution or are they merely a conspiracy to funnel our money to special interests? From a politician’s point of view aren’t they mainly a tool for boosting support and improving their reelection chances?
Although there are many more conspiracies against the public, subsidies, hate crime legislation, and pork barrel spending are three of the more egregious violations. Given the general ignorance of the public and their willingness to blindly assume that their representatives are looking after their best interests, these schemes will continue. But there is some growing hope. With the rise of the tea party movement, more and more Americans are realizing that our government has been overrun by the whims of special interests. Special interests will never change, but that doesn’t mean that leaders must bow to them. Government is not and cannot be about exploiting one’s neighbors for selfish gains either monetarily or legally. Although Election Day has just passed, we must always remember to only vote for candidates and politicians who share these convictions both in word and in deed. Then, and only then, will we shake free of these conspiracies and restore government to its proper role.
1 Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations. Book I, Chapter X pg. 152. London: Methuen & Co, 1904. Print.
2 Ted Dehaven. “Sugar Subsidies Not So Sweet” The Cato Insitute. March 17, 2010. Web. October 13, 2010. <http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/sugar-subsidies-not-so-sweet>
3 “Cartman’s Silly Hate Crime 2000” South Park. By Trey Parker & Matt Stone. Comedy Central. April 12, 2000.
4 “What is Pork Barrel Spending?” Citizens Against Government Waste. Web October 13, 2010. <http://www.cagw.org/about-us/frequently-asked-questions.html#What_is_porkbarrel_spending>