Spending Other People’s Money Usually Leads to Bad Results

A new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that 80 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way their government works and 31 percent are angry about it, an all-time high. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the central problem with government is simple: Government officials spend other people’s resources and not their own. If they were spending their own resources, they would do fewer stupid things, such as attacking, invading, occupying, or fighting long, hopeless wars simultaneously in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

On 9/11, a little fewer than 3,000 Americans died in the attacks. The government’s solution to this tragedy was not to determine what motivated the attackers to commit such a heinous act and analyze how to prevent or deter them from doing it again, but to flail wildly in the night, invading or attacking multiple countries, one of which had no connection to 9/11. According to a study by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies [.pdf], U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have cost almost $4 trillion and 225,000 lives and resulted in 7.8 million refugees. Of those almost quarter million lives lost, more than 6,000 were Americans, double the number killed on 9/11. So America lost many more people avenging the attack than were lost in the attack itself. And the U.S. onslaught isn’t yet over.

Despite all this overkill, al-Qaeda is still out there and has spread its influence to Somalia, Yemen, North Africa, and other lands. The U.S. has killed some of al-Qaeda’s leadership using tactics somewhat cheaper in money and lives, but these limited actions have been a sideshow to the only tangentially related martial extravaganza of invasion, occupation, and remodeling of nations.

And once the United States gets heavily involved in countries, it develops a huge stake in the outcome there. For example, the United States has a large troop presence in Europe 66 years after World War II ended and 22 years after the Cold War ended and in Japan and South Korea 58 years after the Korean War ended. In Afghanistan, the U.S. government has the worst of all worlds. It has announced to the Taliban adversary that the U.S. military will withdraw in 2014 — thus encouraging this local insurgency, which is fighting for control of its own country, to outwait the foreign occupier; but American withdrawal is unlikely to happen because the U.S. military will probably be unhappy with the progress of Afghan security forces and nervous that the Taliban will overrun the nation after the United States departs.

A similar situation exists after almost nine years of American occupation in Iraq. The foreign intruders are being shown to the door by Iraqi public opinion, but even though the last U.S. troop is supposed to leave by the end of this year, the Pentagon, fearful of what may happen after it departs and wanting to keep a toehold in Iraq, is desperately trying at the last minute to negotiate the retention of some American Special Forces to train and “assist” Iraqi security forces. Conveniently, U.S. and Iraqi officials informed The New York Times that al-Qaeda in Iraq, an insurgency that formed only after the United States invaded and enmeshed the country in a sectarian civil war, is poised for a comeback. Perhaps this is really true, but the U.S. government has cried wolf for so long, using the alleged al-Qaeda threat as an excuse to carry out unrelated mischief, that one could be rationally suspicious that this specter is just being used to frighten the Iraqi people into keeping some U.S. presence in Iraq. U.S. policymakers are always reluctant to give up their nebulous and costly “influence” in any country, no matter what threat to U.S. security remains there.

Thus, the cost effectiveness of the bipartisan U.S. strategy in the war on terror has been horrendous. Given the central problem with government mentioned earlier, all this should not be surprising. Yet it is to many Americans who took high school history or civics. From their book learning, many believe that even though government officials are not spending their own resources, they are working for a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” thus producing earnest conduct from politicians and bureaucrats.

Unfortunately, as disillusioning as it may be for the average citizen to learn, Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase in actuality is pure nonsense. In the real world, we have a “government of vested interests, by vested interests, and for vested interests,” which spends citizens’ tax money on, well, vested interests. Thus, such fiascoes — both at home and abroad — are likely to continue.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.