Saturday, February 29, 2020

1889 column: Spending it like they stole it

Spending It Like They Stole It

By Mike Davis

When does government have the right to spend taxpayer money? When should the government be forbidden from spending taxpayer money? 1889 Institute has developed five questions that should be asked before any government entity spends a single dime. These questions are:
  1. Is a program consistent with the mission of Oklahoma’s government? This purpose was spelled out in our state constitution: “Invoking the guidance of Almighty God, in order to secure and perpetuate the blessing of liberty; to secure just and rightful government; to promote our mutual welfare and happiness, we, the people of the State of Oklahoma, do ordain and establish this Constitution.” Secure and perpetuate liberty (notice this comes first). Secure just and rightful government. Promote (not provide or establish) mutual welfare and happiness. 
  2. Is the program or agency fulfilling a need only government can effectively fill? Government is funded through threat of force. If you refuse to pay taxes, eventually men with guns will come for you. Therefore, government must not to step in where it is not needed. Lawmakers should carefully consider whether the use of force to accomplish a given end is morally justified before committing taxpayer money.
  3. Are the benefits from a program or agency unambiguous, obvious, and universal? Ideally, the benefits from government programs would also be measurable. When this is infeasible, they should be large and obvious. The benefits of courts, police, fire departments, and sewer systems are obvious, though impossible to measure. These benefits accrue to everyone. 
  4. Do the benefits of a program indisputably outweigh the costs? Remember to factor in the total cost of the program, not only the state’s contribution. For example, Oklahoma would only be on the hook for 10% of Medicaid expansion, but if the benefits cannot be shown to outweigh the cost of both state and federal investments, then Medicaid should not be expanded.
  5. Does the existing program show evidence of past success? Success means measuring effects, not effort. Look at tangible results of a program, such as student performance on a national standards tests. Effort is the input into the program, like how many 4 year olds are enrolled in pre-k. For all our spending on pre-k, there is no evidence of a positive impact. It should therefore be cancelled or restructured.
These principles apply to all levels of government and all forms of spending. There is no such thing as non-taxpayer-funded government spending. Federal money spent by states? Do you pay federal taxes? Money from corporate taxes? Do you buy things from corporations?

Government actors spend taxpayer money. They have a responsibility to spend it like they earned it, not like they stole it.

Mike Davis is a Research Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at 


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