As Congress prepares to try to cut spending, I am reminded of
an evening last fall at the St. Louis Repertory Theater, our local
company. Before the curtain rose, the company's director appeared
and encouraged us to vote against a ballot proposition to limit
state taxes. He feared it would lead to reduced funding for the
I turned to the woman sitting next to me and asked her if she
felt guilty knowing that her ticket was subsidized by some farmer
in the "boot-heel" of Missouri. No, she answered, he's probably
getting something, too. She seemed to be implying that somehow,
it all evened out.
I left her alone, but I wanted to say, no it doesn't even out.
If it "evened out" for everybody, then government spending would
really be depressing: all that money shuffled around, all those
people working at the IRS, all those marginal tax rates discouraging
work effort just to get everybody to get the same deal.
Here in St. Louis we recently completed Metrolink, a light rail
system. It cost $380 million to build. We locals contributed zero
out of pocket. It was paid for by the rest of the country. Shouldn't
we feel guilty making people in Kentucky, Mississippi and Maine
pay for our trips to the hockey arena downtown? No, say the beneficiaries.
After all, we paid for BART in San Francisco and MARTA in Atlanta
and all the other extraordinarily expensive, underutilized public
transportation systems whose benefits fall far short of their
costs. It's only fair we get our turn at the trough.
This destructive justification reminds me of a very strange
When you eat there, you usually spend about $6you have
a sandwich, some fries and a drink. Of course you'd also enjoy
dessert and a second drink, but that costs an additional $4. The
extra food isn't worth $4 to you, so you stick with the $6 meal.
Sometimes, you go to the same restaurant with three friends.
The four of you are in the habit of splitting the check evenly.
You realize after a while that the $4 drink and dessert will end
up costing you only $1, because the total tab is split four ways.
Should you order the drink and dessert? If you're a nice person,
you might want to spare your friends from having to subsidize
your extravagance. Then it dawns on you that they may be ordering
extras financed out of your pocket. But they're your friends.
They wouldn't do that to you and you wouldn't do that to them.
And if anyone tries it among the group, social pressure will keep
things under control.
But now suppose the tab is split not at each table but across
the 100 diners that evening across all the tables. Now adding
the $4 drink and dessert costs only 4¢. Splurging is easy to justify
now. In fact you won't just add a drink and dessert; you'll upgrade
to the steak and add a bottle of wine. Suppose you and everyone
else each orders $40 worth of food. The tab for the entire restaurant
will be $4000. Divided by the 100 diners, your bill comes to $40.
Here is the irony. Like my neighbor at the theater, you'll get
your "fair share." The stranger at the restaurant a few tables
over pays for your meal, but you also help subsidize his. It all
But this outcome is a disaster. When you dine alone, you spend
$6. The extra $34 of steak and other treats are not worth it.
But in competition with the others, you've chosen a meal far out
of your price range whose enjoyment falls far short of its cost.
Self-restraint goes unrewarded. If you go back to ordering your
$6 meal in hopes of saving money, your tab will be close to $40
anyway unless the other 99 diners cut back also. The good citizen
feels like a chump.
And so we read of the freshman Congressman who comes to Congress
eager to cut pork out of the budget but in trouble back home because
local projects will also come under the knife. Instead of being
proud to lead the way, he is forced to fight for those projects
to make sure his district gets its "fair share."
Matters get much worse when there are gluttons and drunkards
at the restaurant mixing with dieters and teetotalers. The average
tab might be $40, but some are eating $80 worth of food while
others are stuck with a salad and an iced tea.
Those with modest appetites would like to flee the smorgasbord,
but suppose it's the only restaurant in town and you are forced
to eat there every night. Resentment and anger come naturally.
And being the only restaurant in town, you can imagine the quality
of the service.
Such a restaurant can be a happy place if the light eaters enjoy
watching the gluttony of those who eat and drink with gusto. Many
government programs generate a comparable wide range of support.
But many do not. How many Americans other than farmers benefit
from the farm subsidy programs? How many Americans other than
train riders derive benefit from the Amtrak subsidy?
People who are overeating at the expense of others should be
ashamed. That shame will return when others are forced to cut
back too. This requires deep cuts and an end to the government
smorgasbord where the few benefit at the expense of the many.