By Bryan Caplan
When I try to convince my ideological opponents that a government program is a waste of money, I often succeed. More than a few liberals have responded to my case against education by shrugging, “You’re totally right – what a waste of taxpayer money.”
In most cases, though, my sense of accomplishment is short-lived. Ideological differences re-surface as soon as I advance to what I believe the next logical step: Spending cuts. To me, the concession that “Subsidizing college is a waste of money” leads straight to “Let’s stop subsidizing college.” My liberal fellow travelers almost invariably demur: “No, let’s find a better way to spend the money.”
As a rule, I try to defuse ideological deadlocks with apolitical analogies. So consider this scenario:
I argue that your toenail fungus cream doesn’t work. I convince you. Which of the following reactions is more sensible: “I’m going to stop buying that stupid cream,” or “Let’s reallocate that money to a toenail fungus remedy that actually works”?
The former, of course. Why? Because refraining from spending money is easy – and finding effective toenail fungus remedies is hard. Once you realize you’re wasting your money, you can and should stop at once. In contrast, the mere fact that you want an effective toenail fungus remedy does not give you the knowledge find such a remedy. Maybe you should look for a good way to spend your money after you cease wasting it. But stubbornly wasting money because you have no good way to spend it is crazy.
Will this apolitical analogy really dissolve ideological deadlock? Probably not, but it should. Reaching a political consensus on “a better way to spend the money” takes years, decades, or eternity. Refusing to cut wasteful spending until we agree on the right way to reallocate is therefore a great way to keep wasting money for years, decades, or eternity. When you realize a war is doing more harm than good, you should make peace – not slowly look around for a good war to fight instead. When you realize a government program is doing more harm than good, you should pull the plug, not slowly look around for a good program to fund instead. No matter what your ideology.