$16 Muffins and the Case for Limited Government

By now, you’ve probably heard about the $16 muffins. In case you haven’t, the inspector general at the U.S. Department of Justice found that DOJ officials were paying more than $8 for cups of coffee, $32 per person for Cracker Jacks, and $16 for muffins.

So for most of last week the Washington press corps and blogosphere descended into one of its weekly brawls about the facts of the case. For our part, we’re inclined to agree with Matt Welch, who pointed out that waste like this is simply what government does – whether it’s an $800 billion “stimulus” that doesn’t stimulate, a $600 toilet seat, or a $16 muffin. That’s why we favor limited government: not because government is intrinsically bad, but because the bigger it gets, the more it wastes.

But it’s not as if government waste exists only inside the DC Beltway. It happens in our own back yard with depressing regularity.

So we thought we’d take a quick look at some reports published recently by the Legislative Audit Council, just to get our private-sector juices flowing. Here’s just a taste of what we found.

  • An audit of Clemson PSA (Public Service Activities) found that employees were paying for hotel stays at around $70 above the already generous recommended lodging rate.
  • The same audit discovered that Clemson PSA was duplicating programs already offered by the Forestry Commission and the Department of Agriculture. Essentially we have doubled government programs that probably shouldn’t be government programs at all.
  • At least one state worker at Clemson PSA – who, as an employee making more than $100,000, wasn’t authorized to receive bonuses – got a bonus of $1,200.
  • A separate audit found that, of the 10,000 credit cards issued by the state to public employees, only 4,400 had a “block” placed on them by the Comptroller General’s Office, preventing those cards from being used at, say, liquor stores and restaurants. What about the other 4,600? And why do we need 10,000 taxpayer-funded credit cards, anyway?

We mention these items, not because they’re particularly outrageous, but because they’re typical. We could add a hundred more points to the list.

The point we’re making, though, isn’t that state government should clean up its act – reform its procurement code, crack down on bonuses, streamline programs. All those things are worth doing, but our point is simply that government is always – always and everywhere – wasteful. If a private company were to mimic the typical behavior of a government agency, that company would cease to exist in a very short time.

So let’s criticize the $16 muffins, the $1,200 unauthorized bonuses, the pricey hotel rooms. And by all means let’s rail about state employees whose yearly expense reports are greater than other state employees’ entire salaries. But remember: What we need isn’t more inspectors general or tough audit reports, valuable as those are.

What we need is less government – in Washington and in Columbia.

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