Government Waste: From Broadband To Security

In theory I understand that there are certain needs a society has that cannot be provided by a free market. But what are those needs? And even if the government should provide them, is it automatically capable of doing so?

On the Left, we get claims that the government should be providing us universal broadband on the assumptions that (1) the government must provide “infrastructure,” and that (2) broadband internet access counts as “infrastructure.” Lately there is another argument: (3) we need to spend federal money as “stimulus” to get economic growth.

Of course, people assume, when they hear about “stimulus money,” that the government will do things that no one else would touch so we are all “better off” (as long as you don’t think about the new debt that supplied the “stimulus”). But no, it turns out that stimulus dollars are being used to build broadband networks where they already exist. So, thanks to the government, people without internet access remain without internet access, and other broadband businesses are suddenly facing subsidized competition.

But what about law enforcement? Surely the government can provide that!

The theory makes sense but I can’t help but notice that there are certain places where I’d better not walk at night or even during the day. In these places there is a well-known shortage of adequate law enforcement and protection. At the same time, there are other areas of law enforcement that are awash in money. But what kind of “service” do we get from these providers? Here is one example among many:

“Following a series of similar widely ridiculed so-called “sting” operations, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced last week that it had foiled yet another “terror plot” that, like virtually every supposed “terrorist” case in recent years, was created and managed from start to finish by the FBI itself. This time, the dupe was a 28-year-old California man, Matthew Aaron Llaneza, with a documented history of mental illness, who apparently believed his government handlers were helping him wage “jihad.” Critics, however, say the whole scheme smacks of entrapment and a waste of taxpayer money. Llaneza was arrested by federal agents on February 7 in Oakland after he supposedly tried to blow up a bogus bomb the FBI helped him create. According to authorities, the mentally ill San Jose suspect planned to detonate the fake explosives outside a Bank of America branch. The alleged plan, officials said, was to start a ‘civil war’ by making it appear as if the attack had been carried out by “anti-government militias,” sparking a crackdown by the government on right-of-center dissidents.”

The famed critic of the welfare state, Charles Murray, has claimed (and showed evidence) that you always get what you subsidize. If you make funds available for unwed mothers, for example, you will get more unwed mothers. So here we see a similar principle in national security and anti-terrorism: if you designate a pile of money for capturing terrorists then you will get an increase in captured “terrorists”—even if the FBI has to create them from scratch.

As we would expect in any other government-controlled industry, we tend to see shortages and misallocations in the security industry just like we would expect to see, and do see, in broadband or any other industry.

I’m not sure what to do about that. I’m not recommending we give up on secury, but just that we acknowledge the difficulty. The only time government-directed industry looks like it is working are in industries where taxpayers forget about the wasted money. An example here would be NASA and space exploration. Payloads could have been put in orbit for much less than the snazzy space shuttle. But the space shuttle looked cool so it was considered a success.

But government subsidized services do not often even seem to help the economy. They just waste money.