Milking the Federal Cow

Journalists, academics, and cocktail-party pundits often refer to collective abstractions when chewing their cud in discussions of the myriad problems that afflict individuals. Society is a favorite source of problems. The government, which in a popular model serves as society's head, is a favorite source of solutions.

As even an insaniac such as Jeremy Bentham understood, there is, of course, no such thing as society or even society's interest. Even institutions that appear quite real, centralized, and amenable to rational control-the federal government, for instance-are in fact loosely connected institutions, each pursuing the disparate interests of those who influence it. Hence, the ability for rational planning is, well, limited.

Today, for example, we learn that the Internal Revenue Service is collecting less money from some taxpayers-and returning more of it to others-than expected, prompting concern that the budget deficit might exceed $100 billion this year.

Given this news, one might think the federal employees at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would be happy that it shelled out less money than expected to individuals affected by the 9/11 attacks. Yet at least one FEMA official frets that more nimble private charities beat them at the relief game.

Even as deficits balloon, members of Congress are busying themselves with using taxpayer money to provide relief for American farmers. Members of the House and Senate are agreeing to send $171 billion over the next five years to the tillers of American soil-jacking up commodity subsidies by 70 percent-and creating out of whole milk a new $1 billion dairy subsidy.

This is, alas, all too appropriate. The most truthful form the abstraction of the federal government takes is not the head rationally commanding the body, but of a giant cow ready to be milked.

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