published Monday, March 28th, 2011

The price of pork

The best reason to oppose pork-barrel projects that benefit a member of Congress’ home state or district is that such projects are often unconstitutional. And even pork that may be constitutional is often unwise or wasteful.

But when discussions of ending pork-barrel projects come up, someone always argues that compared with the entire federal budget, that spending is quite small.

They’re correct so far as they go: Misguided federal spending on strictly local things such as a city’s sidewalks or an entertainment venue clearly does not equal what our nation spends on back-breaking entitlements or on national defense.

But economist and syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell observes that the real price of pork can be much higher than just the cumulative cost of the projects in question.

Here is what he wrote recently: “An e-mail from a perceptive reader points out that, although congressional ‘earmarks’ represent a very small part of federal spending, they can be used as bribes to buy the votes of members of Congress on bills involving the spending of vastly larger sums of the taxpayers’ money.”

For instance, an unethical lawmaker may seek an earmark for a bit of spending to please a special interest, and in turn the special interest may “reward” the lawmaker with a campaign donation in expectation of a vote for some other legislation that is far more expensive — and not necessarily in the national interest.

So pork-barrel spending is wrong not only in principle but in practical economics.

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