Monday, February 6, 2017

In Defense of Waste, Fraud, and Abuse

Back during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump was fond of suggesting that cuts in “waste, fraud, and abuse” in the federal government would be sufficient to balance the budget.
This never made too much sense–because the federal deficit is far larger than most estimates of potential savings. Yet it remains a common political talking point because it upsets no one. It’s one of the few things that all sides can agree on–cutting waste, fraud, and abuse is a good idea.
That said, I would like to take the opportunity to clear the good name of government waste, fraud, and abuse. If we treat these as just some of the many possible “uses” of government tax dollars, we quickly see that waste, fraud, and abuse are among the least objectionable activities of the US government.
Bad Alternatives
This claim sounds absurd on its face. But let’s consider some of the things the federal government does currently.
  • Implement Donald Trump’s immigration ban against seven Muslim-majority countries. (As of this writing, the law is temporarily halted pending a court’s review.)
  • Fund the Drug Enforcement Agency to prevent people from consuming marijuana (and other drugs deemed illegal)–thereby creating many “criminals” who have not actually harmed anyone and ensuring violent gangs monopolize control of the industry.
  • Attempt to build a wall on the US-Mexico border.
  • Continue to carry out drone strikes in several countries, many of which are against unknown individuals deemed to be behaving like a terrorist. In the process, many civilians are killed, creating resentment against the US.
  • Support Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war in Yemen, which has left millions of people in desperation
  • Increase and enforce sanctions against Iran, increasing the risk for another war in the process.
  • Dramatically restrict competition in the pharmaceutical industry via the Food and Drug Administration, driving massive increases in drug prices and preventing poorer individuals from accessing life-saving medications.
That list could go on, but you probably get the idea. The defining feature of each situation is that if the US government employees involved just stopped working and went home, the underlying problem would noticeably improve. We would literally be better off if all the money dedicated to the tasks above was wasted or stolen instead of being used for its present purpose.
Of course, you might quibble with my inclusion of one or more of the policies above, depending on your views. But there’s little doubt that we can all think of numerous policies of the federal government where waste and embezzlement would be vastly preferable to actual implementation.
In one regard, this is a distressing outcome. It feels strange to prefer outright theft and fraud to some other alternative. It also makes one wonder how such obviously flawed policies could have come into being in the first place.
But seen in another light, it is encouraging. If the underlying problem is being actively caused by a government policy, the solution is straightforward. We needn’t come up with a new policy that may or may not work in the real world. We just need to stop the current harm from continuing. That ought to be much easier.
So the next time you hear Trump or someone else complain about waste, fraud, and abuse, just remember, the alternative could be much worse.

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