Ron Paul and Earmarks


A popular critique of Ron Paul is that he complains about government spending and earmarks, yet votes for such earmarked spending to benefit his Texas constituents. While some of that criticism comes from the left much of it comes from the right. Of course, the starboard side attacks have less to do with any purist intent and everything do with the Paul’s unenthusiastic response to the warfare state. Despite the apparent cynicism, Paul’s tactic is the correct (and ethical) one.

A problem with one congressman voting against earmarked spending is that it would be, in essence, unilateral disarmament. The spending would still go through, his constituents would still pay taxes to support it, but would receive no benefit. Voting for the earmarks, but against the bill, is the only way for each representative, if they desire lower spending, to avoid being the patsy. Every representative fights for his share, if enough vote against the final bill, we have success. If the bill passes, he has at least secured some benefit for his constituents. Such game-playing voting is probably the only way to reduce spending.

This is a form of the shared dinner check problem. Imagine a group of friends shares a weekly dinner. They always split the check evenly (with no regard to individual meal choices). In an effort to economize, one person suggests that everyone skip dessert. Another of the group points out the freeloader problem: one person could order the dessert and gain the benefit of the reduced bill. The final plan is that each guest specifies the dessert they would like, but just before the waiter leaves they all vote on whether to forgo the dessert this time. While this does mean that one person can “force” the others to indulge in a dessert the were prepared to forfeit, it also means that no person can free-ride and no person plays patsy. Absent the fear of being patsied, it is easier to vote “no” on desert.

Not a perfect analogy, and perhaps cruel to the waiter, I believe this a reasonable approximation of the Paul tactic.


I realize that earmarks are a tiny fraction of government spending (although they may be part of larger bills).

As I pointed out, calling Paul on his “hypocrisy” (at least from the right) is not about spending but about Paul’s positions on global war.

I believe that the Paul strategy of “let’s each fight for our slice of the pie, but then cancel the pizza order” is a good way to lower the risk for individual representatives of voting against spending. Instead of boasting about “bringing 500 million to aid shrimp farmers in our state” a representative can claim that he saved 500 million dollars that would have been wasted aiding shrimp farmers (or bridges to nowhere) in the other state.


2 Responses to “Ron Paul and Earmarks”

  1. maurice Says:

    I think it’s a little more pragmatic and cynical than that. Members of Congress have to bring home the bacon every two years, or they open themselves up to criticism of ineffectiveness (never mind principle) from their next challenger. So if Ron Paul (or any of them) wants to remain a U.S. Representative, as opposed to a random crank without that particular megaphone or levers of power (such as they are), he has to play the game. It’s more about keeping a seat than slicing and dicing nuances of principle- which most voters do not know or care about.

  2. Default User Says:

    Voters are in a similar position. They might see the need to cut expenses, but do not want to be the only fool that cuts. Voters tend to suffer from the “hands off my Medicare” syndrome. They want cuts for those other people over there but are wary about their own losses. It may be easier to convince voters to forgo desert if they can see we are all passing on the sweets trolley.
    [I certainly do not doubt cynicism and pragmatism on the part of representatives or voters]

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