The Pork Ethic


The Culture of Spending, by James L. Payne, ICS Press, 225 pages, $24.95

Runaway public spending is the one fact that advocates of limited government can't wish away with rhetoric about turning tides of ideology or sea changes in cultural values. It is a bottom line staring them in the face, blood red.

Fiscal conservatives have a pretty standard explanation for why we always end up with growing spending, growing taxes, and a growing gap between the two, even though everyone hates deficit spending in principle. This explanation can be reduced to a couple of catchphrases: "concentrated benefits and diffuse costs" and "vote-maximizing congressmen." Both are offshoots of the public-choice school of economic thinking.

James L. Payne's The Culture of Spending attempts to modify the former explanation and debunk the latter. The shibboleths that Payne assaults have a certain tidiness and emotional appeal. They enable us to blame government's fiscal predicament on classic, evil motives that are readily grasped and personified: the greed and power lust of individual legislators. It's easy to see members of Congress as cinematic villains.

It's harder to see them as Payne portrays them: well-meaning, though slightly hapless, guys and gals just like us, who tend to believe what the evidence they see indicates. And, as Payne painstakingly shows us, the evidence congressmen see overwhelmingly tells them one thing: Government programs are good—all of them, pretty much all the time.

As an Appropriations Committee staffer tells Payne, the ratio of prospending to antispending testimony that the average congressman hears or sees in committee hearings, mail, and visits to his office is "several thousand to one." Payne escorts the reader through the intellectual odyssey of a congressman in his first chapter, letting even the most hard-nosed antispender see that, without the inoculation of a firm and fully considered antistate philosophy, the average congressman—honest, willing to learn, essentially of decent and humane character—will turn into a red ink machine.

Hour after hour, day after day, year after year, and eventually decade after decade, congressmen hear practically nothing but testimony on the necessity and efficacy of every government program there is. The evidence is compellingly presented, backed up by hard numbers and complicated cost-benefit analysis, and says one thing and one thing only, over and over again: Spend on this, spend on this, spend on this. Sure, everyone knows that "government spending is out of control"; but this specific program being voted on right now always has the weight of evidence in its favor. This inescapable aura of prospending persuasion is what Payne calls "the culture of spending," and a congressman is immersed in it from his first day in office to his last.

It matters not that the evidence presented is often trumped-up or that the analysis of program efficiency is always done by people with a vested interest in continuing the program. No independent force outside this culture (including the press) is trying to tell Congress any different. Adherents of the culture of spending always rule the day.

Payne garners data to prove his thesis that a) congressmen tend to spend more the longer they're in office, no matter what party they belong to; and b) this spending bias isn't ideological: Those who tend to spend on "wealth redistribution for the poor" also tend to spend on "middle class entitlements." A spender is a spender is a spender.

Payne does find one ideological fault line between liberal and conservative. He prefixes these terms with an N, for "new," because he thinks the categories aren't the same as the traditional American notion of liberals as supporters of the underprivileged and conservatives as supporters of big business.

He sums up the real difference this way: "N-liberals represent the type of legislator who is most affected by the immediate aspect of things, and disposed to support the manifest solutions to problems. The N-conservatives tend to discount the manifest, and are more inclined to emphasize the latent aspects of a policy question." (This distinction is also supposed to explain the "anomaly of defense spending," where big spenders elsewhere are suddenly frugal and vice versa. I suspect more traditional ideological concerns may be at work here.) In other words, conservatives tend to see the Hazlittian secondary and tertiary consequences of government actions, whereas liberals do not. Payne finds that, as might be expected, N-conservatives tend to congregate in the Republican Party.

Payne makes hash of the standard public-choice notion of vote-maximizing congressmen, which he calls the "economic voter theory." Payne argues, with support from political-science research, that bringing home the pork is no guarantee of successful re-election; that congressmen have no way of translating their spending decisions into votes received; and that voters tend to be rationally ignorant of how their congressman is spending anyway. Payne makes the case that "voting more in favor of spending has no positive effect on a congressman's electoral margin" and that "electorally secure congressmen are just as much in favor of spending as other congressmen."

Payne's thesis is not heartening, except perhaps to political-science grad students who might see in it an opportunity to do loads of number crunching in an attempt to verify or falsify his conclusions. (The information he draws on is not comprehensive.) Strategically, it leaves antispending advocates with no useful option (Payne argues cogently that legal spending limits will not be effective, as the fate of Gramm-Rudman testifies) except term limits (electorally difficult) or facing up to the real dilemma of concentrated benefits and diffused costs.

For the individual taxpayer, of course, it's costs that seem concentrated and benefits that seem diffused. Payne points out that this led Anthony Downs, whom he calls "a leading founder of the public-choice school," to conclude that governments would always end up underspending. But this applies only to the whole tax bill and the entire budget. Again, on every specific spending bill, it's those who have something to gain from Congress who can take the time to present their facts and their arguments for its necessity.

As a possible solution, Payne seriously advocates that ordinary citizens take the time to testify against spending bills. He did it in preparation for the book, and he seems to have had a good time. It was this experience, I would guess, that was really the key in crystallizing his thesis, more than the numbers he later found to back it up.

Payne seems to have been genuinely impressed with the humanity and just-folksness of those previously faceless pork demons in D.C. He felt that his testimony against agricultural research programs before the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee and its longtime chairman, Rep. Jamie Whitten (D–Miss.), really got through—if only for a moment—to the crusty old ag-warrior. Payne writes that Whitten became "apologetic and hesitant."

Of course, Whitten then was swept back into the cultural norms of Washington by the hundreds of prospending witnesses who followed and who continue to follow. The culture of spending is monolithic and in the end may prove even more difficult to surmount than a mere ideological predisposition. It is those premises we don't think about that truly rule us, congressman or citizen.

Brian Doherty is a contributing editor for Liberty.