Pork and Broken Windows

Apropos of the effort by N.Z. Bear, Instapundit and many others to have bloggers identify pork legislation in their congressional districts, and then to lobby their congresscritters to give the pork up to help fund hurricane relief, the people at Samizdata are debating what exactly is defined as pork, especially in light of the new NASA program to return to the moon.

In the comments, one person asked whether the focus on pork was worth it, given that it takes attention away from inefficient spending in the "legitimate" government programs that ends up wasting far more money than pork ever can. He cites the rampant mismanagement of our health-care programs as an example, which wastes tens of billions of dollars annually.

Commenter Julian Morrison responds:
Is non-pork waste worse? I'm not so sure. Monetarily, yes. But I propose by analogy to the theory of "broken windows policing", that pork is worse because it's openly corrupt. Therefore, it erodes the moral base of the other sorts of government spending and as a result, makes it infinitely harder to argue a case against other spending.

To put that another way: money spent dependent on a moral and reasoned case, can be stopped by proving the countercase. But when the public is habituated to seeing money spent "just because" and to feed vested interests, no countercase finds traction.
It seems to me, as I read about the kinds of pork programs that are slipped in by congressmen, that most have very little practical value. Bridges to nowhere, John P. Senator Memorial Nature Trails—some of them cannot even be said to advance the interests of particular factions or wealthy donors. (Not many, true.) Rather, I suspect that for many congressman, pork projects are simply a status symbol. First, you get to plaster your name over a permanent feature of the landscape; Robert Byrd is notorious for this, as the West Virginia road system has his name on signs practically everwhere you look.

Second (and this is just my speculation), it is a status symbol among other congressman because it demonstrates your power to interfere with the budgeting process, and divert Federal money to purposeless programs of your devising. Essentially, pork would be the elected official's version of conspicuous consumption, with legislators competing to waste the most money just to show that they can.

Overly cynical? Possibly. But it remains true that pork is seemingly wasteful by design, and disrespectful to the fiduciary duty of our congressmen to the electorate. We have enough problems with cash flow that we don't need to invent more of them.

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