Editor’s Note: “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction,” Ronald Reagan said in 1967. “It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people.” This month we launch a new column — Freedom Watch — in which prominent political figures comment on matters connected to this great Reaganite theme, which is being challenged in ways even Reagan may not have anticipated. It’s particularly important that the words with which Reagan completed his thought never have to be tested: “Those who have known freedom and then lost it, have never known it again.”
As strange as it sounds, one of the greatest threats to individual liberty in the United States is an obscure legislative tactic called “earmarking.” As you probably know, earmarks are provisions individual senators or representatives drop into congressional spending bills to fund specific projects, usually in their home state or district. Members of Congress insert these provisions to circumvent the usual process by which executive branch agencies decide how to spend the funds Congress gives them. Earmarks are the means by which low-priority projects are funded in favor of higher-priority projects: you could call it affirmative action for pork.
Earmarks are also the means by which Americans are conditioned to believe that the purpose of their congressman and senators is to get money for their districts and states. And with all good intentions, earmarks are the means by which our free market is being swallowed by an increasingly socialist state.
Take any bill in Congress that impinges on a sector of our economy or on individual liberty itself, and you will find it festooned with earmarks to assuage the concerns of congressmen and senators otherwise unwilling to accept the slow creep of collectivism.
If a proposed bill is 20 percent over budget and thus falls 10 votes shy of passage, congressional leaders are faced with a choice. On one hand, they can cut the bill’s spending by 20 percent. On the other hand, they can increase spending by another percentage point or two to specifically fund projects in the home districts of those 10 recalcitrant members. If they cut spending, the leaders would risk alienating members already comfortable with the size of the bill. If they increase spending with a few earmarks, the only people who will be upset are cranky skin-flints (like me) who were probably voting against the thing anyway.
Which tactic do you think Republican and Democrat leaders tend to employ? There is a reason bipartisan compromises never seem to shrink government. Advocates of earmarks say they represent a fraction of the cost of underlying bills. But like crack cocaine, earmarks create problems disproportionate to their size.
The great lie at the heart of earmarking is that the projects funded create jobs at all. Take the $1.8 million earmark just passed—as part of a $410 billion spending bill—that funds research into pig odor (no, seriously). Its author argues that the study will, in fact, create jobs for the researchers conducting the project. But the problem is that $1.8 million will have to be first taxed out of the economy before it is redirected to any pig farms.
That $1.8 million, if left in the hands of the businesses and families who earned it, could build new homes for several young families, create dozens of jobs for small businesses, or develop new products and services for innovative entrepreneurs to market. In Washington, politicians talk as if federal money is free—it just appears, like magic. But of course, federal spending must come from somewhere in the private sector. Every job the government “creates” is funded through the elimination of a job (or two) in the private sector.
Voters are never told about that part of the equation. Politicians want them to believe that government spending just creates economic growth and opportunity out of thin air.
That’s why the biggest threat to our economy is not corporate greed—which is restrained by both law enforcement and market competition—but political greed, which is encouraged and even rewarded by our political system. Thus Americans are told that the only thing that can save us is a $1 trillion government spending “stimulus” bill that the Congressional Budget Office reports will be a long-term detriment to our economy. Meanwhile, the policies hidden behind the price tag make us less free, less competitive, and more dependent on a federal bureaucracy only too eager to control more and more of the economy.
As long as representatives and senators see their roles as parochial—as if they swear oaths to fund local projects instead of to protect and defend the Constitution—Congress will continue to drive our nation down the road toward socialism. If we ever do arrive at that unwelcome destination, we will turn around and notice that the road was paved with earmarks.