Spending It Like They Stole It
When does government have the right to spend taxpayer money? Or perhaps, more pressingly, when should the government be forbidden from spending taxpayer money?
1889 Institute has previously written on the issue – developing five questions that should be asked before any government entity spends a single dime. These questions are:
1. Is a program or agency consistent with the mission of Oklahoma’s state government? This purpose was spelled out in our state constitution: “Invoking the guidance of Almighty God, in order to secure and perpetuate the blessing of liberty; to secure just and rightful government; to promote our mutual welfare and happiness, we, the people of the State of Oklahoma, do ordain and establish this Constitution.” Secure and perpetuate liberty (notice this is the first order of business). Secure just and rightful government (not any government, not the domino of the majority over the minority – just and rightful). Promote (not provide, ordain or establish) mutual welfare and happiness.
2. Is the program or agency fulfilling a need only government can effectively fill? Since government is funded through threat of force (if you continually refuse to pay your taxes, eventually men with guns will come to lock you away), it must be careful not to step in where it is not needed. Lawmakers should carefully consider whether the use of force to accomplish a given end is morally justified before committing taxpayer money to any expenditure.
3. Are the benefits from a program or agency unambiguous, obvious, and universal? Ideally, the benefits from government programs would also be measurable. When this is infeasible, they should be large and obvious. The benefits of courts, police and fire departments, and sewer systems, are obvious, though virtually impossible to measure. These benefits accrue to everyone.
4. Do the benefits of a program or agency indisputably outweigh the costs? This is fairly obvious, but we must remember to factor in the total cost of the program, not only that portion which is financed at a given level of government. For instance, while the state of Oklahoma would only be on the hook for 10% of Medicaid expansion (as of now), the benefits to the state should be proven to a near certainty to outweigh the cost of both state and federal investment before Medicaid is expanded. Financial costs of an economic development program can be far outweighed by the negative impacts on businesses that do not enjoy the largesse of government, although those costs are not easily identified and quantified.
5. Does the existing program or agency show evidence of past success? 1889 has written previously about how to measure success. Job one is to make sure you’re measuring effects, not effort. Effects are the tangible results of a program, such as student performance on a national standards test that measures what they know. Effort is the input into the program, such as how many 4 year olds are enrolled in pre-k or how much money the state spends on each public school student. Effort may influence effects, if it is well directed. Yet, for all the spending on pre-k programming in Oklahoma, there has been no evidence of a positive impact. If the intention behind the program, and the measure of success is academic performance, the evidence is that the program has failed. It should therefore be cancelled.
Keep in mind, these principles to all levels of government and all forms of spending. There is no such thing as government spending that does not come directly out of the pockets of taxpayers. Federal money spent by the states? Do you pay federal taxes? I know I do. Money from corporate taxes? Do you buy things from corporations? I know I do.
If Oklahomans are worried about how to get our fair share of federal money (a legitimate concern) perhaps we should hold our members of congress accountable to keep federal spending as low as possible, and to apply these same principles to federal spending. That way we won’t have to scramble to ensure we get our due. Government actors at all levels of government need to remember that it is taxpayer money they spend. They have a responsibility to spend it like they earned it, not like they stole it.
By Mike R. Davis, 1889 Institute Research Fellow