Pork and the Public Interest

Communities sharing "languages of good and evil" are more likely to be bound together by a stronger glue than those based merely on shared self- interest.

--Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man

Pork barrel politics has acquired odd, new bedfellows. In a recent issue of the Public Interest, John W. Ellwood and Eric M. Patashnik extol--of all things--the congressional trough. Their gambit is to persuade the reader that individual members of Congress are hopelessly inclined to vote for narrow interests rather than a broader public interest. The benefits of the pork barrel are concentrated, they argue, while the benefits of fiscal prudence are diffuse. "The result has been the creation of a political climate in which elected officials believe that the only way they can bring the nation back to fiscal health is to injure their own electoral chances."

This being the case, they propose: let's be realistic. Why not let congressmen have modest slices of pork for their districts--contracts, grants, public works-- for which they can claim credit? In exchange for this maintenance dose of pork, perhaps Congress can be manipulated into pursuing a broader public interest once in a while.

The underlying premise of this cynical argument will be familiar to readers as a variant of public choice economics, a school of thought that explains political outcomes as nothing more than the products of countless actions by self-interested individuals and politicians as nothing but selfish "rent seekers." Ellwood and Patashnik take this concept to a new level of contempt for the possibility of public purpose.

Revealingly, their example of the sort of public-mindedness that Congress would not pursue, absent outright bribes, is deficit reduction. Yet, curiously enough, six months after their article, "In Praise of Pork," was published in the Winter 1993 Public Interest, Congress in the 1993 budget deal agreed to reduced the deficit by $496 billion over four years. As this article goes to press, Congress is reining in a number of cherished programs as part of the FY '95 budget process, and a sizable coalition is pressing President Clinton for even deeper cuts. Pork remains a temptation, but could it be that Congress, defying public choice theory, has actually been motivated by a larger purpose? Could it be that the Public Interest is reading its own cynicism into the political process?

Public choice theory offers a disheartening view of politics and public life. Of citizens, it asks nothing more than the aggressive assertion of one's own interests. Of public officials, it asks nothing more than calculating the net electoral benefits of a particular course of action. Its subtext is that the quest for public good is illusory and that the preferred course is to minimize a public realm that will only be corrupted by self-interests. In the academy, public choice has become the newest orthodoxy, leading its adherents to view politics as merely the pursuit of private advantage. And it has been all too influential in recent debates.

Schools and Markets

Relying heavily on this view of politics, a common theme of recent school reform proposals is that the private interests of teachers and educational bureaucrats drive the ways schools conduct their business and lead to dismal outcomes. Education is seen as a struggle among parents and their children concerned about their competitive advantage, teachers and administrators concerned about job security and resources, and businesses concerned about a pool of workers. The most prevalent diagnosis is that the teachers and administrators have captured the system, a victory made possible only because politics places authority in their hands. The response is a call to arms. The people must take charge by waging war against the entrenched interests that control their schools.

The most sophisticated theoretical argument in this vein has been John Chubb and Terry Moe's Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, in which they propose an educational system based on parental choice. They assert that the system must be redesigned so that each participant's self-interested choices (there can be no other kind) yield a collective outcome of high-quality education. The consumers of education will determine its shape in the same way that demands in the economic marketplace ultimately determine the kinds of products available.

Chubb and Moe base their analysis on a revealing premise. "Schools have no immutable or transcendent purpose. What they are supposed to be doing depends on who controls them and what those controllers want them to do." The political struggles to improve education are therefore simply battles between competing power seekers, and the outcome yields not a public interest but a capture of a public enterprise by a set of private interests. Their solution requires that we reject as unworkable or counterproductive the imposition of higher order values, because the system will only impose the values of those who control it. A corollary is that the role of government is minimal or nonexistent. The logic is relentless: if there is no public ("transcendent") purpose for education, then politics becomes an inefficient annoyance. In the Chubb and Moe plan, the role of public authority is to create a system without public authority.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

Pork Barrel Science

If Ellwood and Patashnik hope that a public interest can be achieved by sanctioning the unfettered pursuit of private interest, the case of "pork barrel science" might give them pause. It also shows how a system built solely on maximization of private interest is not an inevitable development.

Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, federal support for research grew rapidly and in ways that produced clear patterns. The outcome of a congressional fight early in the history of the National Science Foundation assured that the largesse would be distributed primarily on the basis of the quality of science. On the losing side was West Virginia Senator Harvey Kilgore, who proposed allocating research funds on the basis of geography, local economic considerations, and direct political control by Congress. Vannevar Bush, author of Science: The Endless Frontier, successfully countered with a plan to have panels of scientists review carefully prepared proposals from researchers in the field. A peer review process, not politicians, would award grants to those best able to perform the work.

Predictably, the institutions that found early success became better able to attract talent, thus securing an even more favorable position in future competitions. By 1989, 40 percent of the federal money was concentrated in 20 institutions, and 46 percent was concentrated in Massachusetts, Texas, Maryland, New York, and California. To the victors this was simply a case of quality and success being rewarded. To the losers it was the old-boy network ensuring that while the rich got richer, the poor got poorer and less able to compete.

By the mid-1980s, a backlash was developing. Rather than tackle the peer review process, which they believed was rigged against them, individual universities took their cases directly to their representatives in Congress. Pork barrel science_--the new game of universities lobbying for earmarked legislative disbursements--was becoming commonplace. In the same way that bridges, post offices, and water projects are awarded to congressional districts during the appropriations process, so would university research grants and facilities for research be awarded to colleges and universities. In the 1993 budget, $763 million was distributed through the pork barrel system to schools as renowned as Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon, as well as to lesser known colleges such as Dowling College ($4.5 million), St. Norbert College ($3.9 million), and Mount Aloysius College ($2 million).

Several years ago, before the emergence of pork barrel science, Joseph Ben-David, a noted sociologist of science, warned, "If science is perceived as partial to some social interests and scientists are seen in an invidious light, then people may start doubting the moral value of seeking scientific truth for its own sake and applying it for the purpose of changing the world. This may spell the end of scientific culture."

It does seem clear that the reasons for funding science are now more complex and that the scientific culture has met a political culture head-on. Support for research reveals a system of legislators acting in their self-interest, which is defined as the need to bestow private benefits on constituents who are acting just as much in their self-interest. "It's the classic American way," according to the president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. "That is why these guys and ladies are elected."

Peer review science now co-exists with pork barrel science. Much of the nation's research and development spending is still allocated on the basis of relatively objective review, and it remains to be seen which set of values will prevail.

Proposals such as Ellwood and Patashnik's legitimate the view that the search for a public interest is hopeless. They cause us to forget that at one time we had higher hopes for our political system, a loftier understanding of the duties of citizenship, and a belief that discovering a common interest was the purpose of politics.

Public choice theorists move too easily from explanations about what seems to motivate our elected and appointed officials to judgments about what should motivate them. If money for research is merely a pool of funds to be fought over, and if politicians, scientists, and universities act in their self-interest, is not the sole measure of a representative's success his or her ability to obtain those funds for constituents? Our standards for holding public officials accountable diminish what we mean by "public service."

This preoccupation with private interest has also impoverished our ability to explain and improve public policy. It discourages judgments about the goodness of public policy. If public education has no immutable or transcendent purpose, why worry whether policy is achieving any objective other than satisfying the greatest number of private interests?

Such thinking is the foundation for some of the most influential recent work in public policy. For example, Morris Fiorina and David Mayhew have each written about members of Congress, their constituents, and their relationships with the executive branch. Assume, says Mayhew, that congressmen are singleminded seekers of re-election. Their actions are based upon the desire to maintain their positions, so if we can determine what actions are likely to generate the most votes, we can explain and even predict congressional behavior. Likewise, self-interest can explain the behavior of voters and bureaucrats. The latter, for example, try to maximize their budgets, and since Congress controls appropriations, the bureaucrats will trade favors for budget growth.

As theory, these premises are appealing because of their simplicity and parsimony. They do not require us to pass judgment on our congressional representatives. Their success is measured by how well they gauge our self-interest and act as our brokers with the other groups and individuals promoting their self-interest. Neither are citizens judged good or bad: the system works if they act in their self-interest, the only way they know how to act.

Another example is the provocative work by Terry Moe on the economics of organizations. Drawing on the work of economists such as Ronald Coase and Armen Alchian, he attempts to explain why organizations exist and how they operate. Essentially he argues that hierarchies are preferred over voluntary exchanges because they are more efficient. At the same time, organizations are built upon contractual, "principal-agent" relationships that outline the authority relationships. If we understand the incentives individuals have in these principal-agent relationships, we can understand how organizations operate.

Moe says the success of an organization depends on the efforts of all its members. Though some members may work harder than others, they all are generally paid equally. Therefore, the incentive for a worker to shirk his responsibilities is greater than the incentive to work harder. The way to deal with this problem is to have a "monitor" who will have some authority over the agents and some contractual arrangement with them.

Moe suggests that this "contractual paradigm" can help us understand public bureaucracies and indeed much of the political system. As he said in a 1984 article in the American Journal of Political Science, "The whole of politics is therefore structured by a chain of principal-agent relationships, from citizen to politician to bureaucratic superior to bureaucratic subordinate and on down the hierarchy of government to the lowest level of bureaucrats who actually deliver services directly to citizens." However, Moe's view depends on the assumption that public servants and citizens are not affected by values such as justice or equity or anything of a higher order than personal gain. It is rather cynical to explain the "whole of politics" as simply the accumulation of these principal-agent transactions and not concede that individuals are capable of more complicated judgments about the future of their communities and the missions of their organizations.

Consider also Brookings Institution economist Charles Schultze's classic, The Public Use of the Private Interest. Schultze is no stranger to nuance. He readily admits that some private actions have public consequences, and that "politics can be, in some part at least, a creative process, not simply a deterministic response to the myopic self-interest of majorities or special interest groups." Nevertheless, individuals do act in their self-interest, so Schultze suggests that to motivate them to act in publicly beneficial ways, it is necessary to manipulate their incentives--to use private interest to achieve public goals. This approach "reduces the need instill such values as compassion, patriotism, brotherly love, and cultural solidarity," values Schultze considers "emotional forces." His insight is this: if you want to change how people act, you need not change their values, only their calculation of what is in their self-interest. To reduce the consumption of gas, for example, you don't have to convert everyone into an environmentalist, you just have to raise the price of gas. Schultze's contribution, however, is not the means to discern the public interest but a way to achieve it once it is found.

The Ellwood-Patashnik article is consistent with what has become virtually the conventional thinking, even though its praise of pork barrel spending has the appearance of unconventionality. Their proposal depends entirely on understanding the private interests of voters and politicians and then finding the right institutional mechanism for turning private vices into an acceptable outcome.

Madisonian Mischief

The idea that self-interest can be used to the public good has a long and distinguished pedigree. But this perfectly useful insight has in recent years been distorted to reach extreme conclusions. It is Madisonian thinking run amok. James Madison wrote that factions ("a number of citizens . . . actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community") were the singular problem of government. But they were impossible to eliminate in a free society. Factions sought power, and the most effective way to check their avarice was to pit them against each other. Madison also believed that public officials were seekers of power; hence the creation of checks and balances to constrain their propensities. As in Adam Smith's market, where the self-interest of everyone would check the self-interest of any one individual, the Madisonian system of government would not eliminate the power lust of public officials and interest groups (it was, after all, their nature) but would instead check and balance the proclivities of others.

On the other hand, Madison complicated matters. Man certainly has reason; how else could he calculate his self-interest? Ordinarily, this rational ability was directed inward; "self-love" was Madison's term. But Madison's dour conception of human nature also had a benign component. In Federalist 55, he wrote, "As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence." Madison's insightful synthesis was to promote rule by the people but only in a republican system: a representative government, where public officials deliberate reasonably, discern the public will, and filter the passions, emotions, and self-love that in an absolute democracy could override reason. It was a subtle and elegant view of government and human nature.

As good a conservative as James Q. Wilson has written that we have lost sight of Madison's view of human complexity and focused only on self-interested motivation. We have neglected in recent years the vital proposition that government can do more than simply respond to the expressions of private interest: it can be a forum for the kind of democratic deliberation that can shape the public will. The self-interest paradigm is not wrong; it is incomplete.

In Major Barbara, a play by George Bernard Shaw, there is a revealing exchange. Undershaft, the apparently amoral seeker of wealth and power, is attempting to convince Cusins to take over his munitions operations. But Cusins, who wants to marry Major Barbara, Undershaft's estranged and morally upright daughter, is torn. Lady Britomart is the former wife of Undershaft.

UNDERSHAFT. Vote! Bah! When you vote, you only change the names of the cabinet. When you shoot, you pull down governments, inaugurate new epochs, abolish old orders and set up new. Is that historically true, Mr. Learned Man, or is it not?

CUSINS. It is historically true. I loathe having to admit it. I repudiate your sentiments. I abhor your nature. I defy you in every possible way. Still, it is true. But it ought not to be true.

UNDERSHAFT. Ought! ought! ought! ought! ought! Are you going to spend your life saying ought, like the rest of our moralists? Turn your oughts into shalls, man. Come and make explosives with me. Whatever can blow men up can blow society up. The history of the world is the history of those who had courage enough to embrace this truth. Have you the courage to embrace it, Barbara?

LADY BRITOMART. Barbara, I positively forbid you to listen to your father's abominable wickedness. And you, Adolphus, ought to know better than to go about saying that wrong things are true. What does it matter whether they are true if they are wrong?

UNDERSHAFT. What does it matter whether they are wrong if they are true?

As the play draws to its climax, it becomes apparent that Shaw favors neither position, instead suggesting a synthesis of the two: not only an admission that we cannot ignore reality but also a recognition that we need not accept reality as good merely because it exists. It matters whether things are true; it matters just as much whether they are wrong.

As Shaw suggests that neither character has the better position, so do I suggest that the study of public policy ought to be a synthesis, not a separation, between the discovery of what is and inquiry into what ought to be. Scholars ought to acknowledge that any conceptual framework, including one that seeks to convert the self-interest of individuals into the collective outcome, has normative implications.

For public officials, policy analysts, and public administrators, the implications are even more significant. Rather than simply discovering the particular interests of individuals and groups, they should, in the words of Robert Reich, "offer alternative ways of understanding public problems and possible solutions, and thus expose underlying norms to critical examination." It is an expanded and much more difficult role because it requires potentially controversial debates about principles and values and about our obligations and responsibilities as well as preferences. The civil rights movement, for example, can hardly be explained as a collective outcome of self-interested actions. It was instead a fundamental change in attitudes.

But more immediate and less dramatic issues can also be open to a discussion of public purpose (as opposed to merely reconciling competing private purposes). The approach to developing a proposal for health care reform necessarily entails an attempt to reach a shared understanding of the problem. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's hopeful search for a resolution of the conflict between loggers and environmentalists is perhaps another example. No one pretends that all private interests can possibly be satisfied, and the questions have been repeatedly asked in terms of a public interest and the broader long-term benefit of the country. In a political environment where difficult choices must be made, where we have for too long satisfied the particular demands of groups without consideration of the country's future needs, it would seem that only a massive amount of courage and political sacrifice could enable a public official to act in favor of the common good. But it may be that the solution depends less on extraordinary courage and more on reviving the idea that leaders have a responsibility to explain their actions to their constituents and to help them understand that there is a common good.

Amy Gutmann's advice on education policy applies to virtually all other policies of any consequence. She writes in Democratic Education:

All significant policy prescriptions presuppose a theory, a political theory of the proper role of government in education. . . . We do not collectively know good educational policy when we see it; we cannot make good educational policy by avoiding political controversy; nor can we make principled educational policy without exposing our principles and investigating their implications.

The issues facing the country, including the deficit, education reform, and support for science, require more than engineering a policy that seeks only to satisfy the most people at the least cost. We need to restore the Madisonian hope that deliberation can produce a shared understanding of public purpose. We need to regain the ability to determine what is good policy. That will likely require public officials to confront the reality that sometimes the collective good cannot be congruent with their immediate self-interests or those of their constituents.

And there are some encouraging signs. Voters do seem leery of school choice for a variety of reasons, including the civic sense that education has important public purposes which ought not to be jeopardized. Earmarks for research and development have declined by 50 percent this fiscal year, due in good part to Congressman George Brown's patient, frequent, and often angry pleas to his colleagues about the slippery slope they had been descending. Most significant is the real progress made on the deficit. Public choice theorists will have to twist their premises to unrecognizable forms to explain votes that appear to generate few electoral credits.

In the end, the Ellwood-Patashnik proposal is ideological mischief. It hinges on the premise that the answers to the deficit problem are yet additional appeals to self-interest, a curious and ironic suggestion to be found in a journal whose title at least suggests that there is another way. For no matter how ingeniously the incentives are structured for self-interested politicians, deficit reduction would appear to be impossible without a consensus that it is unjust to finance a current standard of living at the expense of future generations. And that consensus seems possible only if public officials convince a skeptical and unaware citizenry that we have responsibilities and obligations to others and that therefore more than our private interest is at stake. Using self-interest to address a collective problem diminishes rather than elevates the search for a "public interest."

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

, after login or registration your account will be connected.