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Government: The Looting Machine

Mises Daily: Friday, February 22, 2002 by

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Back in the mid-'80s, I had a very brief stint as a civilian employee with the federal government of the USA. It was actually my second gig with the government, my first having been four years of military service in the U.S. Air Force. Both experiences taught me about a good deal, including public finance.

Let's start with that Air Force experience, during which I worked in the Civil Engineering Squadron of Andrews Air Force Base (the base the president uses for takeoff and landing on Air Force One). A couple of things turned out to be lifelong civics object lessons for me.

To start with, each quarter during my couple of years with the civil engineers at Andrews was punctuated by a scramble to find some kind of project on which to spend the portion of the budget that we hadn't yet managed to use up.

Returning anything left over was regarded by all concerned as a mortal sin! No one in his right mind fails to spend every penny of a budget allocation. After all, that might give someone higher up the idea that we did not need all the money we had sworn earlier that we must have. So, we would come up with wild ideas, say, putting some kind of ornament by the front gate, creating a flower garden at the base commander's home, air-conditioning the latrines--you name it.

Our officers and civilian leaders would be ecstatic whenever someone came up with a cute notion for eating up the leftover funds, because then we could proceed with submitting a budget that cried for more money than before.

Then there were those strange overtime periods during the month of January, which kept all of us at the office after hours but with no clear idea about what we should be doing. I noticed that, during this time, all the civilian engineers and staff would spend their days reading The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and other papers, only to return after dinner to do some serious work.

What is going on? I once asked one of the G14s.  "Hello!" he said without hesitation. "How else will we pay for our Christmas shopping sprees?" Indeed, how!

Many moons later, I did that brief civilian stint, working at the Department of Education as a founding members of the Jacob Javits Graduate Fellowship Board. Then-Secretary of Education William Bennett assembled a group of mostly Reaganites for this project--which, incidentally had been passed by a Democratic Congress. (Just how I got on this board is a story in itself, but it is not the point here.)

A couple of years into this program, I noticed that fellow board members were getting edgy for more money. That wasn't our job, of course. It was up to Congress to increase the budget of this program and up to us to administer it. But, as with so many government projects, those who get to run them get wedded to their roles simply because, well, it is their baby.

So in the fall of 1986, several folks on the board proposed that we send a letter to Congress asking that our budget be increased. I was the only strong opponent of the idea, mainly on principle: It was wrong to sock it to the taxpayers even more than they already were forced to pay, I argued. Generally, however, I was dismissed as a bureaucratic Neanderthal. What else!

We were to vote after lunch on whether to send this letter to Congress. During the lunch break, I heard on the radio that James Buchanan had won the Nobel Prize in economic science for his partnership in forging the now-famous public choice theory of public affairs analysis.

That theory contended, among other things, that bureaucracies tend to perpetuate themselves, not out of bureaucrats' concern for the public interest or whatever, but simply because doing so makes their work seem more important and keeps them in office. Bureaucracies, like private firms, are profit-maximizing in their own fashion, except that they lack the more or less firm budgetary constraints that keep firms from going wild when it comes to spending money. This is because, well, bureaucracies can always extort the money from the citizenry, which is powerless when it comes to refusing to provide funds in any particular instance.

Well, when we reassembled our board meeting in the afternoon, I told the board that James Buchanan had been awarded the Nobel Prize and then laid out for fellow board members the story of public choice, with direct reference to what we were about to do--namely, hustle Congress for more money for our program. And just this once, a government board did not immediately propose to Congress that increasing its budget would be the angelic, wonderful thing to do. The proposed letter wasn't sent--not, at least, until after my reappointment a year later had been rejected.

If all this stuff can happen during peacetime, without any kind of supposed national emergency hanging over our heads and providing bureaucrats with leverage, just imagine what can happen after something like September 11, 2001!

Is it any wonder that under the leadership of a supposed conservative administration--the alleged nemesis of the tax-and-spend liberal democrats in government--we are now seeing increases in all varieties of bureaucratic budgets and the creation of new federal projects and even of federal agencies?

If you want to know why this is so, check out Jim Buchanan and Gordon Tullock's book, The Calculus of Consent, The Logical Foundation of Constitutional Democracy (1961). (And then, after that, look into Robert Higg's Crisis and Leviathan [1987], to get the dope on what such avaricious conduct by government does to a supposedly free country.)

Despite its somewhat technical prose, The Calculus of Consent spells out what is, in essence, a fairly commonsensical thesis: If there is money to be gotten for cheap, public officials will go for it, never mind their alleged commitment to public service or their oath of office or what have you!

Yes, there may be times when more money for government is justified, but in the main, watch your pockets, because it doesn't matter--the state will want and grab more of your money any time, peace or war, boom or bust, night or day.


Tibor Machan, adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University. You may send him MAIL or view his Mises.org Article Archive.