Should Libertarians be Concerned About “Small” Abuses by the Government?

In my most recent post, I listed the names of the top 5 “porkers” in the House and the Senate according to CAGW’s 2008 edition of the Pig Book. I also listed the amount of pork the three leading candidates for president supported and named the ten members of the House which supported no pork at all. In all, the amount of pork barrel projects for fiscal 2008 totals $17.2 billion.

Though this figure seems to represent a very large amount of wasted taxpayer money, Jeff Molby (a reader of The Liberty Papers), pointed out that this figure represents a very small portion of the federal budget:

I was wondering when someone would post this. However, I was hoping you’d mention that the entire “pork list” accounts for only 0.6% of federal spending.

Every organization in the world wastes at least 0.6%, so this list is a distraction from the true problem.


Tell me, Stephen, if you were held captive, would you fight with your captor over the number of crumbs in each meal or would you instead focus on the bigger picture?

Yes, $17 billion is a ton of money. Now let’s assume we can wave a magic wand and make that waste disappear. Would that make any difference in our lives as libertarians? Would we not still live in a country with a $3 trillion federal budget? Would we not still live in country where a large majority of the people believe government should be interfering in all facets of our lives?

Yes, all problems must be attacked incrementally, but we need to focus on the right increments. If we’re to be successful in the long run, we need to teach people why government intervention, in and of itself, is bad. The “Pig Book” does not come close to addressing that.

Jeff is by no means the only one who believes that focusing on government waste as CAGW does is a “distraction from the true problem.” Libertarian presidential hopeful Bob Barr (who I am strongly considering supporting this election) has this statement about spending on his website:

Government spending at all levels is out of control. Most Americans understand the problem of “earmarks,” commonly used by pork-minded congressmen to buy votes. But while earmarks are an outrageous abuse of the taxpayer’s money, they account for a very small percentage of federal spending […]


The federal government must take the lead in making significant cuts in spending. Focusing on earmarks risks distracting attention from the broader problem of a government wildly wasting the money of hard-working Americans. Tens of billions of dollars in corporate welfare — essentially aid to dependent corporations — should be eliminated. Largesse for middle- and upper-income Americans, particularly so-called “entitlement” programs, must be cut. Billions in so-called defense spending, which protects America’s populous, prosperous allies rather than Americans, must be eliminated.

Jeff and Congressman Barr do have valid points here that we should not lose sight of the larger problems each have mentioned. My only disagreement is that I believe we can reduce or eliminate earmarks as part of pursuing these very lofty goals. If the problem of earmarks is understood by most Americans as Barr suggests, then why shouldn’t libertarians of all stripes contact their representatives and Senators, admonish them to sign the earmark reform pledge, and encourage their friends to do the same? If most Americans dislike this abuse of their tax dollars (however small), shouldn’t the issue of pork barrel spending be settled relatively quickly if those who are up for re-election feel the heat? Would it not be better to settle this issue while it’s relatively small so we can focus on the larger challenges to liberty?

Let’s face it; libertarians have not been especially successful in recent years in taking on the larger challenges to liberty. Rather than staying in our comfortable ideological corner debating amongst ourselves the finer points of libertarianism (or whatever other term one would like to use), we should seek out whatever small victories we can achieve. Big government did not happen overnight, nor will any progress toward smaller government.

We should not neglect the “small” abuses of government power anymore than we should the “large” abuses of government power. Suppose libertarians applied this “0.6% reasoning” to other issues which are important to most libertarians. If 0.6% of executions resulted in executing an innocent person, should libertarians turn a blind eye? If the chance of an innocent individual having his or her privacy invaded by the PATRIOT Act was only 0.6%, should libertarians stop being concerned about the potential threats to liberty by the PATRIOT Act? If the chances of a local city council taking someone’s home away using a perverse legal interpretation of the takings’ clause as in the Kelo vs. New London case were 0.6%, should we stop being bothered by the Kelo ruling?

Beyond the hypothetical 0.6% margin of government abuses, there are other real world examples which fall well below even this threshold. Many readers of The Liberty Papers are probably aware of the Cory Maye and Kathryn Johnson cases; both were innocent victims of police drug raids. What are the odds of anyone reading this post being an innocent victim of a police drug raid? In Radley Balko’s research paper Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, he found that as many as 40,000 such raids occur each year. Blako studied police raids going back 25 years and found 315 “isolated incidents” of botched raids of innocent individuals or non-violent offenders. Based on Balko’s findings and if my math is correct*, the chances of an American being a victim of a botched police raid is roughly 300:1 million or 0.0003%.

Does this mean that Balko is not seeing the bigger issue concerning the war on (some) drugs by focusing on one small aspect of the problem which effects maybe 0.0003% of the population? Why doesn’t he focus on the fact that 53.5% of the prison population (to which Pew found 1 in 100 Americans behind bars in 2008) is there because of drug related offenses?

Whether we are talking about government waste or civil liberties violations, we should not ignore the excesses by the government (local, state, or federal) no matter how large or small. It’s not whether abuses by government are large or small but a matter of principle.

*Okay, so I’m not a math wiz by any stretch, but to keep the math simple, round 315 down to 300 and then divide 300 into 300,000,000 to get 1,000,000. If my math is wrong, feel free to let me know and I’ll make the correction…after all, I did go to government schools : )

  • Justin Bowen

    Other movements would do well to read this entry.

  • KipEsquire

    I do think that in budgetary matters, relativity is relevant (i.e., pork is puny compared to defense, interest-on-debt and entitlement spending).

    Beyond that, what libertarians are combatting is a mindset. And in that sense, “size matters not.”

  • Jeff Molby

    I didn’t mean to imply that a battle should be avoided specifically because it was small. As I alluded to with this statement,

    Yes, all problems must be attacked incrementally, but we need to focus on the right increments. If we’re to be successful in the long run, we need to teach people why government intervention, in and of itself, is bad.

    there are small battles that need to be fought.

    How do I tell the difference? I’ve been trying to put my finger on that for awhile and I still don’t quite have it, so bear with me while I ramble a bit. Hopefully someone can summarize it succinctly for me.

    It comes down to the difference between a systemic abuses and human error/vice. Unless you’re some flavor of an anarchist, you’ll have to admit that there will always be some sort of government structure. You’ll have to further admit that the government(s) will have to be staffed with humans, a significant number of whom will inevitably be immoral and/or incompetent.

    Thus, even the most ideal libertarian universe will have waste and abuses. We must always work to limit them, but we have to recognize that that is a separate battle. Even if you magically eliminated the portion of waste and abuse that comes from individual humans, you will still have rampant waste and abuse that comes from a system based on a flawed ideology.

    That’s why I focus on the waste and abuses that stem from ideology. I accumulate small and large abuses (many of which I learn about here) and use them to create a narrative that will educate my mainstream peers about why our ideology is better than the status quo.

    There cannot be any meaningful gains until they begin to accept our ideology and focusing on waste that stems from basic human nature does not help to accomplish that.

  • WRR

    For the record, Barr is a conservative who supports the war on drugs. He has only moved slightly on the issue medicinal marijuana not on legalizing drugs. He is also a social conservative on abortion, gay rights, and prayer in state schools. Barr is NO libertarian and if the LP goes for Barr then I am forever finished with the party. It will have become one of the forces rotting libertarianism from within.

  • TAO

    “Big government did not happen overnight, nor will any progress toward smaller government.”

    This is precisely what a whole lot of Ron Paul supporters still don’t seem to realize, and hence, the lack of appeal.

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