Let’s stipulate that the impact of earmarks on the federal budget, and thus the viability of big-ticket entitlements, is trivial. Does it follow that Cantor’s just blowing smoke? Not at all, and the presumption that it does follow marks a blind spot in liberals' field of vision.“If we hope to preserve Social Security and Medicare for seniors, younger workers and our children, we must begin the conversation about common-sense ways to reform both programs.
“These are big things — but proposing cuts to these programs would be an electoral disaster. If Republicans proposed real federal spending reductions we'd get our hats handed to us in November. So we're not going to do it. We're just not. And we're not going to do anything serious about cutting spending after the election either. Instead we're going to distract the rubes with some chatter about a problem that even I admit is trifling. They'll eat it up. I might be pandering here, but that's sure better than the alternative."
Our political economy is built around two allocative mechanisms, the market and the political process. Ideally, each operates in its own proper domain to generate distributions of benefits and burdens that are both ethically unobjectionable and tolerably efficient. Absent force and fraud, markets are supposed to get us to an equilibrium as to which everyone is entitled to what they get. Absent corruption, a democratic political process is supposed to get us to a legitimate public decision generating an equilibrium that gives due weight to every voter’s interests and ideals. Most arguments between conservatives and liberals over domestic policy are about which real-world goods and bads should flow through which real-world allocative mechanism, and how much comparative weight the market and political elements should bear in the hybrid mechanisms we devise to produce and distribute goods like health care, clean air, etc.
That means that liberals, of all people, should care not only about that the political process really be legitimate and efficient, but that it be so visibly. The argument for liberalism depends on it.
Imagine you’re in the market for a new car. Would you buy one if, when you took the demonstration model out for a test drive, the turn-signal lever came off in your hand? Granted, taken by itself, that defect in workmanship doesn’t materially affect the value of the car. And you may like other features of the car enough to overlook that detail. But you’d be crazy not to weigh this example of poor workmanship as evidence that the car may not be as reliable as advertised. And, even if you still want the car, you probably shouldn’t be doing business with a dealer who isn’t visibly mortified about the turn-signal lever coming off in your hand.
When it comes to ideological salesmanship, earmarks are like that turn-signal lever. Cantor’s always talking about earmarks because he knows that they’re a killer advertisement for conservatism. Why should anyone entrust one's economic well-being to a public decision-making body filled with politicians who aren’t embarrassed about clandestinely shoveling public funds to their friends and political benefactors without the slightest pretense of putting scarce public resources where they’ll do the most public good? Isn’t that exactly the kind of body that would, say, try to protect the environment through (in Drum’s words) “land-use destroying, corn price increasing, environmentally idiotic ethanol. All taxpayer-subsidized, of course”?
I don’t doubt that corruption, stupidity and political opportunism are distributed equally among Democratic and Republican politicians. So for every shameless Democratic earmarker like the late Jack Murtha, you can find an equally shameless Republican earmarker like the late Ted Stevens. Murtha, however, did a lot more harm to liberalism than Stevens did to conservatism.