The Conservative Case for Waste

In predicting that Republicans won’t support the president’s proposals for making colleges more accountable for the public subsidies they receive, Slate‘s Matt Yglesias touches on an important broader point:

[T]he Obama administration’s efforts to make poorly performing for-profit colleges ineligible for subsidized federal student loans. Owners of for-profit colleges (including Slate’s parent company) generally argued that this kind of top-down regulation was going to be innovation-stifling, option-restricting, competition-reducing, and overall bad. Republicans overwhelmingly agreed with this line. Their view is that if subsidizing student loans is wasteful, the way to address that is to reduce subsidies for student loans. Republicans favor rules to restrict eligibility for public money in cases (like drug testing for SNAP benefits) when the restriction can be structured in a way that reduces aggregate spending. But a rule that tries to ensure that a fixed pool of money should be spent wisely rather than foolishly doesn’t appeal to the right.

[Conservatives] would genuinely prefer to see tax dollars wasted than well spent. The big problem with Social Security, from a conservative viewpoint, is that a program of simple cash transfers is so clearly free of waste that it’s very politically challenging to cut it. The way federal higher education subsidies are currently structured allows conservatives to advance the (empirically false but not totally insane) argument that these subsidies are useless and only fuel tuition hikes. If policymakers were to succeed in reforming higher education finance so as to make it unambiguously beneficial, then the case for spending more money on subsidies would be extremely compelling and the public sector would grow.

This insight is the key to the otherwise curious phenomenon that waste and corruption tend to thrive in Republican administrations. If you don’t care about the mission of public agencies, and fear efficiency might increase funding demands while making government more popular, then why bother with good management? It’s not smart politically to admit that, however, any more than it’s smart politically to openly advocate abolition of big swatches of the public sector. So the high conservative tolerance for–and in some cases preference for–wasteful government often goes unrecognized.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.