The “cuts” in the recent budget deal have renewed mutterings of the “dangers” of decreasing government spending in a down economy. Somehow this “government spending as the path to prosperity” myth will just not die. The idea is that when government spends money it magically reaps greater economic benefits than when private parties spend money. Not only is this wrong, it is completely backwards! We’ve spent trillions in stimulus and it hasn’t “fixed” the down economy. No consideration is given as to why that might be, it is simply assumed that (a) we didn’t spend enough or that (b) it would have been worse absent stimulus. Argument A simply dumps us in an infinite loop from which there is no escape, akin to an old computer program like

10 RUN STIMULUS

20 IF STIMULUS FAILS, GOTO 10

Argument B is a sign of intellectual laziness as it relieves the arguer of a duty to supply any data to support their claim – just speculate on what might have been and call it a day.

Well, I’ll call that bluff. Using logic we can rationally discern a reasonable outcome of a lack of government spending.  Let’s address the “multiplier effect” part of this myth first. In short no such effect exists. This “effect” is simply the relabeling of a normal function in the economy and claiming it is an inherently unique attribute of government spending. It has a more common name – trade.  If I buy something then that enables the person I spent the money with to go buy something, and that person to do the same and so on. This happens everyday – if government rather than individuals spend the money it doesn’t magically transform the process into something else. When government stimulates by purchasing, the theoretically BEST possible outcome is no better than if the government did nothing.

All government spending by definition must come from the citizens. So in other words we are simply moving money from the left pocket to the right pocket of society. Citizen A had $1 and can spend it on X OR now government has taken the $1 of Citizen A and given it to Citizen B to spend it on Y. Citizen A does not have his $1 anymore so does nothing. Citizen B has the $1 and spends it. As Frédéric Bastiat explained, the “seen” benefit is what Citizen B bought; the “unseen” harm is what Citizen A did not buy. All we have done is shift the preference of goods that are being purchased in the economy. No net economic change has occurred.

But this assumes 100% efficient spending. Government has no inherent self-interest to efficiently spend money it distributes ($1000 hammer anyone?). Although the same AMOUNT of money is spent the goods and services received in return will always be fewer than had it been spent by someone with a vested interest in maximizing what they get for their money (i.e. the original owner). This net decrease in goods received per unit of “government” money spent lowers the overall standard of living and productivity of the economy over time.  This obfuscation of the citizenry by government “bread” (i.e. handing out things that appear to be beneficial and good to some) is a vain attempt to do “something”. Next week we’ll continue with the “Circus” part of the stimulus equation.