Pork, Pork, Pork

The Albuquerque Journal reported yesterday (subscription required) that some of the spending is coming our way.
Here is how I described the incentives of pork-barrel spending in the public choice class I taught earlier this summer (those familiar with public choice may recognize this as a modified version of “Tullock’s roads example”):
Imagine you and two friends are out to dinner at Sadies (a fantastic Albuquerque restaurant for you non-New Mexicans). After a delicious meal, the waiter asks if anyone would be interested in dessert. You look at the menu and think, “I like mousse. I might be willing to spend $5 on one. They cost $6, though, so I think I’ll pass.” Let us assume that your two companions think the same thing. No one orders mousse because no one feels that it is worth it.
But, now something happens to change the incentives. The waiter informs you that he is sorry, but he forgot to split the check and it is impossible for them to itemize the bill. Did I mention that your two friends happen to be from the Democracy for New Mexico group? Well they are. Being a “social progressive,” one of your friends suggests that you just split the tab into equal thirds—everyone paying the same amount, even if some eat more than others. And being enamored with democracy, the other suggests that you take another look at the dessert menu and take a vote on whether or not you will have any dessert. The decision to have dessert has just been collectivized.
One of your friends has enjoyed many margaritas and when he gets up to go to the bathroom, you and your other friend make a deal. You will form a coalition: each voting for mousse for the other guy. When you do this, there will be two mousses (misse?) ordered at a cost of $6 a piece. Total cost will be $12, split three ways. The two of you in the majority coalition will each pay $4 for mousse which you value at $5. Pretty good deal for the majority. The (minority) third dinner-companion will also pay $4, but he gets no mousse! Pretty bad deal for the minority.
But notice what happened. The table collectively ordered $12 worth of mousse which it valued at only $10! That is insane!
Now, imagine if you made all of your dining choices this way. We could imagine shifting coalitions among the three parties: a carne adovada coalition, a tamale coalition, a chile relleno coalition. When you add up all the costs, you can expect to lose in the long-run. The table will order way more food than it really wants.
Where you went wrong was in collectivizing the decision in the first place. By doing so, you were able to concentrate benefits on the few, but diffuse the costs over the many. You should have kept dessert a private, individual decision.
Hopefully by now you see the purpose of our little parable. Every time legislators get together to vote pork for their district they are doing the same thing as our dinner companions. They are concentrating benefits on their constituents and diffusing the costs over the rest of us. For a particular project, the constituents may be better off, but in the long-run, we all lose!
We don’t even have to assume greedy, avaricious or immoral legislators. Even good people trying to help out their constituents face an incentive to spend on pork. The problem is not with the people, but with the democratic system.
The founders, of course, knew this. Franklin argued that, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” Washington warned that “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force.” Armed with this knowledge, the founders did not create a democracy, but a constitutionally-limited republic. Under such a system, a Constitution limits government to only those powers which are specifically enumerated. In the words of Madison, “The powers delegated…to the Federal Government are few and defined.”
Unfortunately, too few people respect the Constitution these days and too many have fallen in love with unchecked democracy.