The Washington Post published remembrances from former pages. One outraged response was titled “Well worth the money.”
Well, it would be, wouldn’t it? For those who benefited from it, it is indeed well worth the money. But, as with all government programs, the beneficiaries weren’t paying for it. Did the program do the taxpayers much good? Yes, in the days when members of Congress needed a way to get documents to one another, the page program may well have been an efficient use of resources. But times change; technology has eliminated a lot of jobs in the private sector, and there’s no reason to think it shouldn’t have the same impact in the public sector. Cynics point out that pages were mostly the children of people with good political connections. And then they make better connections: The writer who thought the program was “well worth the money” now runs a company that boasts of having made more than 500 million political robocalls over the past 30 years. So we all owe something to the page program!
But this is just a tiny example of a much bigger problem: every government program is “well worth the money” to its beneficiaries. And the beneficiaries are typically the ones who lobby to create, expand, and protect it. When a program is threatened with cuts, newspapers go out and ask the people “who will be most affected” by the possible cut. They interview farmers about whether farm programs should be cut, library patrons about library cutbacks, train riders about rail subsidy cuts. And guess what: all the beneficiaries oppose cuts to the programs that benefit them. You could write those stories without going out in the August heat to do the actual interviews.
Economists call this the problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. The benefits of any government program — Medicare, teachers’ pensions, a new highway, a tariff — are concentrated on a relatively small number of people. But the costs are diffused over millions of consumers or taxpayers. So the beneficiaries, who stand to gain a great deal from a new program or lose a great deal from the elimination of a program, have a strong incentive to monitor the news, write their legislator, make political contributions, attend town halls, and otherwise work to protect the program. But each taxpayer, who pays little for each program, has much less incentive to get involved in the political process or even to vote.
And so we get bailouts for the Chrysler Corporation in 1979 and for Wall Street in 2008, a protective tariff for Harley‐Davidson in 1982, higher‐than‐necessary wages for public employees, sugar and ethanol subsidies that benefit Archer‐Daniels‐Midland, farm subsidies, and thousands more programs with beneficiaries who know exactly who they are. When the Pentagon decided to cancel a program to build new presidential helicopters — after the price ballooned from $6.8 billion to $13 billion — an 11‐year‐old girl in Owego, New York, where Lockheed Martin had planned to build the helicopters, wrote a letter to President Obama that became “a voice for her shaken community”: