There’s a little bickering going on among the associate bloggers at Outside the Beltway on the subject of earmarks, the appropriations that used to be referred to as “pork-barrel legislation”. First, Doug Mataconis scoffed that cutting earmarks was mere symbolism:
I’d call the earmark debate entirely symbolic, and quite possibly a diversion from forcing politicians to think about real spending cuts. According to one statistic, earmarks account for about an infinitesimally small part of the actual federal spending.
noting that Congressional pay is a microscopic proportion of the total budget. Then Dodd Harris retorted that cutting earmarks was more than mere symbolism:
We wouldn’t — and shouldn’t — wave off a few hundred million in spending for an unconstitutional program that harmed free speech as unimportant merely because it didn’t cost much in the grand scheme of things. The same logic applies to earmarking.
This morning James Joyner put in his oar:
…unless eliminating earmarks coincides with a radical reconception of how our government operates, it may be a step in the wrong direction. The feds spend billions on highways, airports, and other infrastructure projects. Without earmarks, we’d basically have federal bureaucrats deciding how to spend that money. That may in fact be less wasteful and more efficient. But I don’t see how this doesn’t constitute a major redistribution of discretionary power away from Congress — who’s supposed to decide how Federal funds are allocated — to unelected people not mentioned in the Constitution.
Rather than address the meat of this argument in this post I want to address a minor squabble that’s occuring in the comments to James’s post on the role and value of bureaucracy.
Resources are not infinite but scarce. There are any number of strategies that in theory result in an optimal allocation of resources including autocracy, representative government, techocracy, and markets. And I agree: benign all-knowing philospher-kings, humble, eager representatives of the people without ambitions or foibles of their own, brilliant polymath selfless techocrats, and perfectly efficient free markets would all be nifty. Unfortunately, none of them exist in life. Comparing our current Congress with an ideal bureaucracy isn’t just comparing apples and oranges. It’s comparing the bruised, worm-eaten apple on the shelf to a perfectly Photoshopped picture of an orange.
In practice there are any number of reasons to believe that representative government has advantages over autocracy or technocracy. It has been known for well over a half century that for many real world problems there is no one right way. Believing that there is one right way is merely an artifact of limited knowledge: it ignores competing information and unpredictable, capricious, and idiosyncratic personal utility curves.
Representative government, in theory at least, has the ability incorporate more information and to arrive at agreements that take these maddening variances into account. Markets, again in theory at least, have the ability to incorporate even more information and, hypothetically, arrive at an optimal allocation of resources.
However, we live, work, and function in the real world and in that world there are some activities in which bureaucracies are the only practical way of addressing them, some activities in which representative government should be preferred, and yet others in which markets should reign supreme.
The original form of our government in which the federal government was limited to its enumerated powers has, sadly but probably inevitably and permanently, been abandoned. In looking back at it we should recognize that the original form, particularly when incorporated with a commitment to the principle of subsidiarity, had much to recommend it.
To use the bridge-building metaphor, in that old, obsolete original form when Springfield (to pull a city name out of a hat) wanted to build a bridge the city fathers didn’t appeal to state or federal representatives or file a request with the state or federal Departments of Transport, they raised the money and built it. If they didn’t want the bridge enough to finance or build it, the bridge didn’t get built.
In these more enlightened times elected representatives appropriate money to build bridges for Springfield and, if the decisions were relegated totally to the federal Department of Transportation, the experts would decide whether Springfield should have a bridge, the desires, knowledge, and will of the people of Springfield be damned.