Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Congressional Earmarks: A Tragedy of the Commons?

Cartoon source: Property Task Force

John McCain has tried to make a campaign issue of Congressional Earmarks, and Barack Obama has responded that they represent an inefficiency of the legislative process, but are small potatoes relative to the size of our current economic problems. Both Obama and Sarah Palin have been described as seeking earmarks for their constituents in the past.

It seems obvious that if the rules permit earmarks, a legislator should seek to get earmarks passed that benefit his constituents; if he/she does not, all the earmarks will go to the districts of other legislators and his constituents will lose out. It also seems obvious that if the rules permit earmarks to be passed without scrutiny by the legislative body as a whole, a legislator should seek to take advantage of those rules for the benefit of his/her constituency.

The problem is that if all the legislators follow this process, a lot of money will be misallocated to low priority projects, and the country as a whole will lose. Thus if every legislator does that which benefits his constituency under the current rules, then the average constituent will lose. This seems to be typical of a "tragedy of the commons."

We know that the way to avoid such a tragedy is to have institutions that keep people from over-exploiting a resource. Those rules can be formal or informal. The Congress could develop a culture in which legislators thought first of the good of the country and only second of the demands of their constituents, but I don't see that happening, and I am not sure that the cure would not be worse than the disease. Formal rules seem more likely and practical. I like the proposal by Senator Obama to create an open database of proposed earmarks, searchable by the public and the bureaucracy, identifying the sponsoring legislators, and up for a long time before action is taken on the legislation in the Congress.

The problem does not affect only our legislators, and we have all sorts of people and interest groups seeking their own advantage rather than the public good. I am old enough to remember World War II when the crisis brought most people to consider the public interest first or at least with higher priority than we do now, and when "profiteering" was a damning epithet. Perhaps in the current situation, with two wars and the economy in the pits, we could see a little more of that willingness to put first the public interest.

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