Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Seat at the Table

The most appalling thing about the capital city of any government is the number of groups that feel morally entitled to more of someone else's money. Every year, these groups line up to beg and whine before the legislature. When that doesn't work, they make threats.

If the spectacle didn't involve real money, it might make good theater -- of the absurd. Wikipedia says that kind of theater is defined by "broad comedy, often similar to Vaudeville, mixed with horrific or tragic images; characters caught in hopeless situations forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions; dialogue full of clichés, wordplay, and nonsense; plots that are cyclical or absurdly expansive."

That is a pretty good description of a legislative hearing. Nothing can drive a rational human being to existential despair and suicide faster than listening to a few days of testimony and Q&A before a sub-committee. No one in their right mind goes there voluntarily. Anyone who shows up every day is suspect.

The problem is we just don't have enough money to give all those groups all the money they want. Even if we took ALL the money from the people who have it, and gave it ALL to those people who want it, we'd still come up short. We just can't eat the rich. There aren't enough of them. Or there are too many people who want a seat at the all-you-can-eat bar-b-que. Either way, the only way to handle too many claims and not enough money is to develop a set of priorities.

The worst way to do this would be to divide up the money equally and give everyone the same amount, regardless of merit. Even a sub-committee wouldn't do that. Not usually. Well, maybe sometimes. But it is still a bad idea.

A better idea is to ask the question, "Where can we get the biggest bang for the buck?" Of course, every group shouts back "Right here!" Want to improve the condition of the poor, the balance of trade, stop global warming, end racism, promote dental hygiene, fight terrorism, and end obesity? Amazing! Everyone who wants your money can tie what they do to what you want. Now that is creative capitalism (Bill Gates take note)!

That is why I tend to be skeptical about any group that insists its project is the most important one on the agenda. Even when that group is the modern equivalent of Egyptian priests asking the Pharaoh for enough money to ensure the flooding of the Nile: a bunch of scientists.

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