Friday, December 05, 2003

Of Purses and Sows' Ears

Here’s an editorial about the massive pork content in the current appropriations bill. Pork projects account for almost $23 billion – appalling in the best of times, unconscionable given the projected budget deficit (in the hundreds of billions). However, when the author impugns the character of our elected leaders (“it's a reflection of the weak character of the individuals who occupy the country's highest offices”), I think he’s rather missing the point. I hate politicians as much as the next guy. But pork-barrel politics is a predictable and inevitable result of our democratic political system, and character has little to do with it. Even a politician with the best of intentions faces the inexorable logic of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. You either bow down to it, or you eventually lose office.

It’s true, I suppose, that impugning the character of the politicians who take part in the pork-barrel process is one way of drawing attention to the problem and, possibly, limiting it. But we shouldn’t be misled into thinking that special-interest legislation results from bad character. Politicians are just responding rationally to incentives, and those who don’t respond to the incentives don’t stay politicians for long. Call it a character issue if you like, but the fact is that our system systematically selects for this form of bad character.

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