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COLUMN

Against Special Interests

Justin Wong

When someone mentions “special interests,” we often think of corporate lobbyists trying to win government money and special favors in exchange for political support of elected officials. We picture myriad “gimme” groups who want government to give them taxpayer money to satisfy their own desires -- whether it is Vidalia onion research in north Georgia or potato storage in Wisconsin. Generally, we call this “pork barrel spending” -- taxpayer funds given to supporters of politicians in their home districts. (You can find many examples at Citizens Against Government Waste, http://www.cagw.org.)

Sure, everyone is against government waste. However, everyone wants to make exceptions for their own pet issues. We criticize others but never criticize ourselves. “Yeah, government spending sucks, but we really need the money for this program or that cause. If we spend only on this or that, we can still save the rest.”

But who gets to decide what’s important and what’s not? One group becomes jealous of another for receiving special government treatment. In the end, to support one cause, politicians must satisfy a number of groups in order to get anything done. This dynamic is how $3 billion in drought relief ended up in the latest Homeland Security appropriations bill (S. 2537). The two senators from Montana pointed to $10 billion in hurricane relief and argued that all natural disasters deserve equal treatment. In other words, if Florida gets money, we want it, too. Well, this “me-too-ism” has resulted in the prolific use of government as an instrument of plunder. No single politician can get his or her pet project funded unless everyone else’s pet projects get funded too.

I’ve mentioned spending projects here and there that, while expensive, affect only small numbers of people. It’s easy to say that because they benefit only very few people, we should cut those programs. But what about larger government programs, like welfare or prescription drug coverage for the elderly? Even though these programs benefit large sectors of the American population, they actually do represent special interests; large groups of voters elect politicians who return the favor by allocating to them government-funded spoils. If it acts like a special interest, smells like a special interest, and looks like a special interest, well, by golly, it’s a special interest.

Why do you think you’ve heard many promises from both political parties of what they will do if you vote for them? “Our plan will bring you X amount of health care, or Y number of jobs to your state.” That these politicians received votes instead of campaign contributions doesn’t make the theft of money from some taxpayers in order to fund certain specific interests any less wrong. Government derives its power from those governed. Thus, government authority should merely be a collection of powers entrusted to it by the people such that the government cannot have powers that individuals do not have. If an individual has no power to steal, neither can the government.

But wait; are there not some problems in the world that can be solved only by coercively confiscating wealth from one group to give to another? Letting these problems fester would be a greater sin than stealing, right? Quite the contrary. The ends do not justify the means. Might makes not right. The power to steal does not emerge spontaneously from the government’s sheer size. Some would argue that government can avoid wasteful spending by funding common needs. The problem with this argument is that it presupposes the power to define what those needs are, and to compel people to follow those needs in place of and to the detriment of their own aspirations, their own happiness. If you say that what is good is whatever achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people, you still have to define what “good” is. It’s almost infinitely regressive. No one has the power to prioritize for another individual what is “good” for him or not. So, for example, even if you think health care is one of those “needs” that everyone has, you cannot conclude that every single individual places on it the same value that you put on it. Some people would rather spend more money on food or education than on health care. If you take money from such a person to give him an amount of health care he does not want or need, you hurt his ability to pursue what really makes him happy -- food and education. Only the individual knows what is good for him or not. Shouldn’t he be able to make those choices himself by keeping his own wealth?

If we want to reduce government spending, we cannot make exceptions. Once we concede even once that one particular end justifies the means, we open the floodgates; any ends will justify any means. We must have the integrity to deny ourselves what we would deny to others we can’t make exceptions for our own pet programs, no matter how important we think they are. If individuals cannot steal from others or force them to spend money on unwanted things, neither can the government. But that’s what the government does when it taxes you and spends your money.

Many people do not realize that canceling spending and returning the money to the people are moral issues. Those who want to cancel government entitlement programs are not materialistic money grubbers. To the contrary, those who advocate taxing and spending for the general welfare are the ones who have a materialistic view of man. They believe that whatever it takes to feed, to clothe, to medicate (and to win votes from) the people is justified, even if it requires stealing.

However, there are principles that transcend our material needs. The greatness of man, and the source of his prosperity, is a fundamental respect for the fruit of another man’s productive success. Man’s possessions are just as much a part of man as man himself, for it is by his own labor that he feeds himself, a concept reflected in great and timeless principle, “Thou shalt not steal.” To live life while violating the principle that makes life possible is a contradiction. Man cannot live long as a vampire, sucking the lifeblood of one man to fuel the robbery of yet more victims. When we betray our humanity in order to sustain life, we achieve neither.

Justin Wong is a member of the class of 2007.