Wasting Time on Government Waste

March 11, 2011

A recent poll found that 60 percent of those surveyed believe that problems with the federal budget can be solved by simply eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse. In fact, 40 percent strongly agreed with this erroneous position.

One reason for this mistaken belief is that the average American’s daily dose of news usually comes with fresh examples of the government blundering or being gamed. It’s not difficult for most folks to distinguish between right and wrong. Thus, in addition to being generally easy to digest, such stories are emotive.

Pinning the blame on rampant government waste is also a convenient scapegoat. Most Americans don’t have a clue as to what constitutes the federal government’s $3.8 trillion budget. And they’d rather not hear that the programs they benefit from are culprits. For example, the same poll found that 49 percent disagreed that Social Security and Medicare are a major source of problems for the federal budget.

Fixating on waste, fraud, and abuse is also a convenient scapegoat for politicians from both parties. Politicians who don’t tell their constituents that they’ll work to eliminate government waste are as common as the dodo. Previous House Speaker Nancy Pelosi instructed her committee chairs to uncover waste, fraud, and abuse as part of a fanciful effort to “ensure fiscal discipline for the long term.” The House Republicans’ “Pledge to America” included a vacuous promise to “root out government waste.”

Bloomberg’s Caroline Baum recently pointed out that for all the angst expressed by politicians over government waste, it sure isn’t going away:

Everyone who wants to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse in government, raise your hand.

Lots of hands. Good.

Next question: If everyone is in favor of streamlining the federal bureaucracy, why are we still creating committees and ordering up reports instead of talking about the problem in the past tense?

Here’s the quick answer: All those overlapping government programs have oversight committees looking after them and constituencies behind them; constituencies with money and votes.

What few on Capitol Hill want to acknowledge is that waste, fraud, and abuse comes with government the same way a Happy Meal comes with a toy and a drink. Wise liberals understand that repeated government failures can undermine popular support for government programs and interventions. Therefore, politicians who claim to want a smaller, less intrusive government should – at most – use the countless examples of waste, fraud, and abuse to build a case for eliminating programs and agencies.

Unfortunately, instead of capitalizing on these opportunities, alleged devotees of a more limited government often waste their time on quixotic moral crusades to “make government more efficient.” In doing so, they’re really just playing into the hands of those that want big government. They’re also helping lead citizens to believe that our budget problems can be solved with a little house cleaning.

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