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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Counting the Money Anyway

They are shocked, shocked to find waste and inefficiency in the government.

The Census Bureau wasted millions of dollars in preparation for its 2010 population count, including thousands of temporary employees who picked up $300 checks without performing work and others who overbilled for travel costs.

Federal investigators caution the excessive charges could multiply once the $15 billion headcount begins in earnest next month unless the agency imposes tighter spending controls, according to excerpts of a forthcoming audit obtained by The Associated Press.

On a positive note, investigators backed the Census Bureau's decision to spend $133 million on its advertising campaign, saying it was appropriate to boost public awareness. The spending included a $2.5 million Super Bowl spot that some Republicans had criticized as wasteful.

Waste? As I've been saying for years there is no waste in government. None at all. I mean that sincerely. Waste is time and resources spent on something which fails to achieve its objective. The complaining about government waste is born of a misconception, the strange notion that governments seek to provide for the public good. It is impossible to define the public good with any more precision than love, happiness or the perfect sunset. There is no one Canadian public good, there are thirty-three million individual goods in Canada. This is one of the reasons that classical liberals advocate minimal government. 

Placing aside the hazy nonsense about public good, the actions of governments are driven by a mixture or necessity and belief. The necessity of staying in power, and the beliefs - if any - of those who wield that power. Spending money for little, or no, work seems like a waste. But that lucky recipient of largesse is far more likely to vote for the politician handing out the goodies next election time. It's not waste, it's just a difference of priorities. A desire for power is not always the driver of political action. Old Publius is realistic, not cynical. Politicians are people too. Just like you and me. Except with access to other people's money. They have ideals. They have visions. Just like you and me. But they only have to convince just enough people to elect them, to get everyone else to pay for those visions. One of those once again fashionable visions is Keynesianism. The master, sadly, has returned. Among his pearls of wisdom:

If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with bank-notes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal-mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is.

Now I think that's a waste. But for many politicians and commentators, including it seems the Prime Minister of Canada, the above makes perfect sense. Even the current government would not be so brazen as to try burying bank-note filled bottles in coal mines. Such waste is so obvious that even members of the NDP could grasp it as such. Instead the same principle is applied to public works, social programs and administrative bodies. That building roads to nowhere has the same effect as burying bottles, which was Keynes' point above, but people see roads as being useful. Much of the welfare state expends vast resources to little practical benefit. Private charities could do much of the work more cheaply and fairly. Volunteers replacing unionized social workers. People turning to family and neighbours, before the general public. That web of voluntary arrangements that, once, did much to simply and cheaply help the helpless, while keeping parasitism to a minimum. But spending billions on social services makes a large number of voters feel good, and keeps certain dependent classes loyal to the parties of big government. It is waste only in the objective sense. In political terms, there is no waste in government. Every dollar spent helps achieve a purpose, either power or the politicians' personal idealism. The form of the state follows the functions desired by the statists. 

Posted by Richard Anderson on February 23, 2010 | Permalink

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