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Where The Facts Matter

Will Wilkinson notes that all spending is not created equal:

I would argue that at least half of America's military spending provides no benefit whatsoever to Americans outside the military-industrial welfare racket. But the other half may be doing some pretty important work. Rather than arguing dogmatically for a higher or lower level of total spending, it would be nice if we could focus a little and argue for and against the value of different kinds of spending, and then to focus a little more on the value of different ways of spending within budget categories. Some government spending gives folks stuff they want. Some government spending is worse than stealing money, throwing it in a hole and burning it. This is obvious when you think about it for a second, but it sometimes seems that partisan political discourse is based on the refusal to think about it at all. Conservatives with a libertarian edge often proceed as if government spending as such is an evil to resist, except when they're defending a free-lunch tax cut (we'll have more money to wrongly spend!) or the ongoing development of experimental underwater battle helicopters. And liberals with a social-democratic streak often operate within a framework of crypto-Keynesian mysticism according to which handing a dollar to government is like handing a fish to Jesus Christ, the ultimate multiplier of free lunches. When debate takes place on these silly terms, it seems almost impossible to articulate a vision of lean and limited government with principled, rock-solid support for spending on social insurance, education, basic research, essential infrastructure, and necessary defence, despite the likelihood that something along these lines is what most Americans want.

His policy diagnosis is exactly right. I'd disagree with the political diagnosis. Yes, we need to judge spending programs on their own terms -- some programs being highly useful, others minimally so, and others counterproductive. But what is the barrier to this ideal? Obviously, practical politics plays a huge role, with interest group politics protecting wasteful programs, and (along with inertia) blocking useful programs.

But ideologically, it seems to me, the problem lies almost entirely on the right. The mainstream conservative view of defense spending, which has some dissent on the right, regards every dollar of the pentagon budget as utterly sacrosanct, and any proposal to cut a dangerous effort to weaken America, probably motivated by (depending on what year it is) McGovernism or Forgetting 9/11 or disbelief in American Exceptionalism. There's also reflexive opposition to military spending, but this is a fairly marginal view. The coalition of people who want to subject military spending to a rational cost-benefit test tilts heavily left.

On domestic spending, the ideological asymmetry is even more stark. Nearly all conservatives reflexively oppose domestic spending. (Try going to National Review or the Heritage Foundation with evidence about the efficacy of subsidized early childhood education and see how far you get.) Wilkinson suggests a parallel between reflexive conservative opposition to domestic spending and "crypto-Keynesian mysticism according to which handing a dollar to government is like handing a fish to Jesus Christ." But this isn't a general liberal disposition. It's a liberal belief that applies only to to extremely rare emergencies, of which one has occurred since the 1930s. Even as committed a social democrat as Robert Kuttner thinks it's worthwhile to eliminate wasteful spending during normal economic circumstances.

Certainly, liberals are going to disagree with Wilkinson about what sorts of programs are necessary and useful and what the evidence tells us. But if he's advocating an intellectual process of measuring every spending program on its particular merits rather than relying on a priori support of or opposition to "spending," then liberalism is where it's at.