Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own. Those were the words of renowned economist Milton Friedman; a conservative thinker who understood the iniquitous behavior of politicians and the inherent odious nature of government. Despite his work still being read today and his lectures still being watched by millions worldwide thanks to YouTube, it is obvious that our public servants haven’t discovered this economist – or even basic finance.
Ex-HHS Head Abused Tax Dollars
The Health and Human Services (HHS) inspector general recently released a long-awaited report that found the government spent more than $1.2 million of your money on travel by former HHS Secretary Tom Price during his seven months in public office. According to the watchdog agency, the department spent $700,000 on military flights, $480,000 on private chartered aircraft, and $18,000 on a chartered flight to a White House event that was cancelled.
Price even had the temerity to bill taxpayers for lunch with his son on one of these flights.
Since being ousted from office in September 2017, Price has apologized for his actions and repaid as much as $60,000. However, the latest report recommended that authorities seek to recoup $341,000 in wasteful spending. The federal department agreed.
As the pundits blame President Donald Trump for the waste, and conservatives study the blatant disregard of the public purse — or try to somehow defend him — there is something underneath the surface that should be worth exploring, too: Price’s metamorphosis.
Tom Price: A Study in Politicians
During his early congressional career, Price was a fierce budget hawk. He supported steep spending cuts, sponsored balanced budget legislation, opposed green energy subsidies, and voted to end public funding of presidential election campaigns and party conventions. His record wasn’t perfect, but these are some serious fiscal conservative credentials.
Like the hive from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it appears the swamp got to him within only a few months. Did Price fall asleep, too?
There is something about government that changes the most diehard conservative. Before entering public office, conservatives and libertarians will speak at universities, write articles, and appear in the media lamenting on budget deficits, wasteful spending, and abuse of taxpayer dollars. Even when they get as far as the campaign trail, many of those on the right will slam the exorbitant outlays, hoping to gain the support from anti-government voters who want their tax dollars to be respected.
Unfortunately, once they achieve victory on Election Day, receive the keys to their office on Capitol Hill, and cast their first vote on an 823-page bill, an immense transformation occurs. Suddenly, the teachings of Thomas Sowell, Ludwig von Mises, and Walter Block fade to black, and they proceed to metastasize into a ghost of a total stranger. Year after year, they vote for more deficit-financed spending and they waste more of your money on expenses, ranging from the frivolous to the outlandish.
Government is a coquettish siren that promises you instant gratification without having to utilize your own wealth to obtain it. With millions of dollars sitting on your lap, you can use it to feast on an opulent lunch, enjoy a private chartered flight to another part of the country, or buy Jim Dean dugout seats at Fenway Park during a New York Yankees game for you and your colleagues, friends, and family.
It spirals out of control when you start spending tax dollars on other people, making you as loved as Santa Claus or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. With billions of dollars at your disposal, you can hand out grants to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working overseas, subsidies to businesses specializing in some cause du jour, or lucrative contracts to construction companies to build a bridge to nowhere. These spending decisions make everyone feel good inside.
These are all things you would not have done before. Why? Because it’s not your money.
It’s even worse if you are appointed to your position.
Unlike a sitting senator or representative, if you’re a secretary or administrator, you are not held accountable by anyone. Until you’re caught with your hands in the cookie jar, you have free range to spend, spend, spend the citizenry’s hard-earned money on yourself or anyone else.
Friedman pontificated on this development throughout his career:
“There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get. And that’s government. And that’s close to 40% of our national income.”
Can You Hold the State Accountable?
It is often said that you can hold the government responsible every election cycle. But is this really a viable option if every candidate — Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal — contracts the statist disease? Not really, unless the candidate in your area or your incumbent official is like former Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) who never voted for an unbalanced budget or to raise taxes.
Moreover, the taxpaying public shouldn’t need to use the tool of elections to make government culpable. Politicians are supposed to be accountable for how they spend our money throughout their tenure, whether it’s their first year in office or their last. This should be the first rule of governing: respect the taxpayer at all times.
Perhaps it’s the philosophy that really matters; either understanding what the role of government ought to be or looking at tax dollars as the people’s money, not the state’s.
But then how can politicians behave in such a respectful manner if the voters head to the polls every couple of years to get an elected official to steal their neighbor’s money?
Even if there is a fiscal conservative folk hero in our midst, maybe it’s too late. It’s straight out of the ending from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when Kevin McCarthy’s character warns the world: “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!” Whoever wins, your wallet gets abused by the swamp creatures.
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