Cutting the Price of Pork

Government has never been economically neutral. The faces of those in power — and of those whom they favor — change over the years, but the rules of the game remain fixed: Tax, legislate, regulate, and spend; spend, regulate, legislate, and elect. Outsiders clamor to get inside, promising that they will change the rules, but if they stay inside for very long they, too, become players in the game called “pork.”

(Pork, for recent returnees from Paraguay, is the annual ritual of sending money to every congressional district in order to pass appropriations bills. This guarantees jobs for the otherwise unemployable and higher taxes for the hard-working.)

Why should we fear and loathe pork when the politically “sophisticated” label it a societal health food? One James Q. Wilson (a professor of management and public policy at UCLA), for instance, writing last summer in the Wall Street Journal (of all places) avers that

Pork is the price a society pays to ensure that each representative of [its many different interests] will have a place at the table.

Professor Wilson’s authority for this irrelevancy is the ghost of James Madison (of all people), who (with Wilson as ventriloquist) says

the Constitution provides that “the private interest of every individual, may be a sentinel over the public rights.” To achieve this it assigned “opposite and rival interests” to each branch of government so that power is given to “so many separate descriptions, as will render unjust combinations of a majority of the whole, very improbable.”

By Orwellian logic most perverse Professor Wilson thus twists Madison’s checks and balances — intended to thwart tyranny by the majority — into a justification for tyranny by collaborative minority interests. Pork, that is.

The superior wisdom of this latter-day Candide confirms our view that the cure for pork is not to be found inside the Beltway. Rather, the very existence of the federal government ensures that pork will always be with us. If you think that the next crop of outsiders will make a difference, you might as well order your Lamborghini Diablo just because you’ve entered the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.

Where does hope lie for those who wish to shelter their earnings from the pork-loving denizens of Washington? (DISCLAIMER: What follows is descriptive, not prescriptive.)

Hope for the hard-working lies in the infamous BLACK MARKET, that is, in voluntary transactions between consenting adults which escape the maws of taxation, legislation, and regulation. Black markets have a bad name, of course, but their main problem is that they’re thought to be BAD. (Horrors, there are people out there exchanging things of value to make themselves better off! In the upside-down world of Twentieth Century politics and economics, that’s BAD.)

A black market is really bad to a politician or bureaucrat who’d like to tax or regulate its transactions, or to a latter-day Carrie Nation who finds its stock-in-trade immoral. That’s precisely the beauty of a black market: it escapes the dead hand of government and the strictures of moral dictatorship. Black is beautiful!

Can large segments of the economy go underground and flourish? Of course they can. In spite of sometimes earnest efforts contrariwise, booze flowed freely during Prohibition and drugs have been more or less blatantly inhaled, ingested, and injected for decades. (Aside: It isn’t the black market that makes drugs BAD, it’s the BAD-ness of drugs that has driven them into the black market.)

Less epic examples abound: handypersons and house-cleaners working for cash, barter among small businesses that somehow doesn’t get reported as income, gambling in its many forms, and on into the night. It will only get easier as we advance into the age of cyberspace.

In other words, even if you don’t like their stocks-in-trade, you have to admit that black markets get the job done in spite of the law — and better than the law would allow. Sure the T-men, G-men, revenuers, and the rest of those white-shirt guys occasionally pick off a black-marketeer. But like the highway patrol occasionally picking off someone who goes 80 in a 65-m.p.h. zone, it’s a relatively rare event, and it doesn’t stop the majority of drivers from going 74.

They can’t throw everyone in jail, can they?