(FEE) Everybody celebrates the holiday season in their own way. Each year, Senator Rand Paul invokes the spirit of the fictional grievance-airing holiday “Festivus” from Seinfeld to release an annual taxpayer waste report—and boy, is this one a doozy.
The libertarian-leaning Kentucky lawmaker’s report for 2020 finds an astounding $54.7 billion wasted by the federal government this year. (That’s not even an exhaustive figure for the federal government, nor does it account for the vast levels of waste by state and local governments.)
To put the nearly $55 billion wasted in context, Paul’s office explains that this is equivalent to wasting the taxes of more than 5.4 million Americans. It’s enough money to build a two-lane road that wraps around the entire Earth—18 times over. It’s enough money to buy every American a 40-inch flat-screen TV.
Paul’s report cites far too many examples to list in one article, but even a cursory glance at some of its most prominent revelations will leave any honest taxpayer infuriated.
According to the senator’s report, the National Institutes of Health spent millions studying if people will eat bugs and millions more trying to invent a “smart toilet.” The federal agency also spent millions trying to reduce hookah smoking rates among Eastern Mediterranean youth and $31.5 million to fund an allegedly faked study linking e-cigarettes to heart attacks.
Yet perhaps the most bizarre examples of how politicians spend our taxpayer money come from how the government uses it overseas.
We spent $8.6 billion on anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan, the report finds. Hundreds of thousands went to art classes for Kenyans, Afghan and Pakistani book clubs, and funding for Sri Lankan think tanks. In a truly baffling example, tens of millions were spent to combat truancy… in the Philippines.
Oh, and of course, we spent taxpayer money to put lizards on treadmills and study the results.
The military wasted lots of taxpayer money too, Paul’s report reveals.
It allegedly lost $715 million worth of equipment that was intended for Syrians to use to fight ISIS. Meanwhile, $174 million went to lost drones in Afghanistan, and we spent $3.1 million on a police complex that now sits unused.
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So what can be done to stop all this waste? It would simply require voters to hold Congress’s feet to the fire and force them to actually hold agencies accountable for how taxpayer money is spent.
“Congress has every tool it needs to fight and end government waste,” Paul said. “It’s just a matter of finding the willpower to use them.”
Unfortunately, fiscally responsible politicians like Paul are the exception, not the rule. As Nobel-prize-winning economist Milton Friedman famously explained, government spending is inherently prone to waste. Why?
You can spend your money on yourself, in which case you’ll be quite judicious with it. You can also spend your money on someone else, or someone else’s money on yourself. In either case you’ll still have a strong incentive to spend the money responsibly.
Yet Friedman identified a fourth scenario.
“If I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get,” the economist wrote. “And that’s government.”
So, there’s only one way to truly limit government waste of taxpayer dollars. We have to limit the scope of government itself.