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Getting Priorities Straight

Matt Craighead

While in Afghanistan the war on terrorism rages, a different war is well underway in Washington, D.C.: the budget war. The federal government will spend roughly $2 trillion dollars next year, and with “homeland security” being the latest buzzword in Washington, legislators have been trying to cram everything under the sun into the budget under those auspices. President Bush, meanwhile, has requested that Congress restrain its spending urges, calling for no more than $686 billion of discretionary spending (as opposed to spending required by other laws), representing a rather generous 7% spending increase over last year. Yet some have cried bloody murder at the President, saying that this leaves no room in the budget for pressing homeland security needs.

A fair amount of homeland security spending is justified. We are in a life-or-death situation; we should be happy to know that our government has smallpox vaccines on hand, or that our customs agencies have the staff they need, or that counterterrorism is getting the attention it needs. In addition, it would be inane to suggest that we should now skimp on pay for our soldiers or on the weapons they need to keep us safe.

But not all of the expenditures being considered fall into these categories. Perhaps the worst boondoggle proposed is the so-called “Farm Security Act,” which, of course, has nearly nothing at all to do with security. No, this bill would spend an unparalleled $170 billion over 10 years on agriculture subsidies, including subsidies for mohair, cotton, sugar, peanuts, rice, and tobacco. Some of the better-known recipients of farm subsidies include such cash-strapped individuals as Ted Turner and Scottie Pippen.

It is both amusing and discouraging, at a time when our nation’s budget threatens to retreat into deficit territory for several years to come, that our government is handing out money to tobacco producers -- at the same time that it sponsors anti-smoking programs.

Another of the worst budget train wrecks heading our way is Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-WV) demand for $15 billion in new “infrastructure” spending. For those who aren’t familiar with Byrd’s checkered history, you’ll be happy to learn that he is one of those members of Congress who truly inspires faith in our legislative process. An unreformed ex-KKK member who earlier this year got in trouble for using the word “nigger” on national television, Byrd is the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and has for some years been the Senate’s top pork-barreler; Citizens Against Government Waste calls him the “King of Pork.” If Byrd’s proposal is passed (which, fortunately, it seems as if it may not), I predict that a disproportionate amount of the money will somehow snake its way into West Virginia.

Even some of the items that do fall into the category of security may be excessive. Agencies will always overstate their budget “needs” -- they have no incentive to do otherwise. Scrutiny is necessary in order not to waste taxpayers’ money. For instance, some of the agencies requesting more money have existing appropriations that they have not spent. Some others that have requested money for new hires can’t fill all their existing positions. In no case should Congress simply rubber-stamp security spending -- it should carefully analyze the merits of each proposal.

In the meantime, if Washington wants to get our nation’s security beefed up without busting the budget, it need not look very far for items to cut. We could begin by cutting such essential government services as the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, or the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council Appraisal Subcommittee. How about redirecting the money that goes to the National Endowment for the Arts or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to FBI efforts to track down and prosecute members of terrorist groups? And, surely, our country could do without the National Center for Peanut Competitiveness.

Of course, it’s easy to laugh at silly government programs like these, but this tends to obscure a larger issue -- the role of government in general. Some in the media have argued that the lesson we ought to learn post-September 11 is that “Big Government” is back and is necessary. This is exactly the wrong lesson for us to learn. The real lesson is that we ought to demand that our government take on fewer activities, but pursue those it does take up with much greater vigor.

After all, as Thomas Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence, “to secure these rights [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In Jefferson’s view, not all problems fall into the domain of government -- only those relating to individual rights do. And, indeed, he is correct. Can we truly deny that the post-New Deal, post-Great Society view that government ought to solve social problems has taken away its focus from its most fundamental mission, namely, the protection of our basic rights? Should not our government be preparing for the possibility of war against other nations, rather than pursuing futile “wars” against drugs and poverty?

We would do well to learn from the wisdom of a little-known 19th century French economist and statesman named Frederic Bastiat, who argued in his 1850 pamphlet The Law that the purpose of the law, and of all government, is to protect the life, liberty, and property of each individual. To his socialist compatriots, he issued the following stern warning:

“But make the laws upon the principle of fraternity -- proclaim that all good, and all bad, stem from the law; that the law is responsible for all individual misfortunes and all social inequalities -- then the door is open to an endless succession of complaints, irritations, troubles, and revolutions.”

We, too, should recognize that it is not the place of government to cure all ills. To the extent that it attempts this, it will fail in everything that it does -- including protecting us from terrorism.