Monday, 27 February 2017
September / October 2011
Starve the Beast?
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Excerpt from The Darwin Economy by Robert H. Frank, to be published by the Princeton University Press on September 21, 2011. © 2011. All rights reserved.

In this excerpt from his new book, The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, Cornell economist Robert Frank challenges the notion that cutting government spending is always a good thing

By Robert Frank

By means of three separate Congressional earmarks in 2005, a total of $320 million was proposed for the construction of a bridge linking the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, with its airport on Gravina Island. Dubbed "The Bridge to Nowhere," the project quickly became a celebrated symbol of waste in government.

This particular bridge was a terrible idea from the beginning. Ketchikan's population at the time was less than 9,000 and Gravina's was only fifty. Ferry service provided transportation between the town and the island at a fee of $6, at fifteen- to thirty-minute intervals, depending on the time of day. Having bridge access would have been more convenient, obviously, but nowhere enough so to justify the enormous cost of the project.

Yet if the bridge was such an obvious loser, why was it slated for construction in the first place? The answer to that question reads word-for-word from the dog-eared script of antigovernment crusaders. The politicians who proposed the project hoped to curry favor with the local voters who would directly benefit from it, while foisting the bill on millions of distant and unsuspecting taxpayers, who would never even notice, much less complain about, the eventual small increment in their tax bills. Legislators from other states supported the proposal in the rational expectation of receiving reciprocal support for their own pork projects when the time came.

The encouraging coda to this story is that a firestorm of unfavorable national publicity eventually forced the project's cancellation. In each congressional budget, however, a host of other proposals survive because they're too small to make it onto the public's radar screen.

Antigovernment crusaders are clearly onto something. There is waste in government. But the interesting question is what to do about it. Many libertarians believe that the best strategy is to "starve the beast." Or, as Grover Norquist, president of the anti-tax advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform, colorfully put it, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."