Government Waste: Fighting Bad Programs with Easy Math

The common crux of the libertarian/anarcho-capitalist argument is the defunding of social programs. Counter to our platform, many scientists, educators, and social workers argue that while many government programs are wasteful and harmful, the programs that they support offer an irreplaceable benefit to humanity. These are genuine and charismatic public figures that I love and respect like Michio Kaku, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye. Let’s look at two common arguments.

Argument 1: An Educated Populace is a Great Boon for Society.
Most everyone can read. Because of this, we can have a thriving transportation sector warning drivers of upcoming landmarks or oncoming road hazards. So the argument makes sense (at least superficially). That premise is used to justify a behemoth of an education system to accommodate even the very poorest among us. I do not need to be convinced of the importance of a good education. I’ve learned that no matter what dire circumstances I find myself in, I will always have my brain  which always gives me a fighting chance against adversity. So education appears to be a great public safety net.

Argument 2: Some Goods and Services Benefit Society as a Whole
This is sometimes known as “Tragedy of the Commons.” Some goods provide a universal benefit and financial responsibility cannot be tied to only a few people. This is used as a justification for forceably collecting taxes to provide these things to the public. Common cited examples include environmental protection, medicine, and transportation. Personally I could cite NASA’s scientific research and its role in inspiring me to gaze upon the Universe and contemplate my place in it.

The Flustered, Knee-Jerk Libertarian Response:
All too often I see people shout out “private sector” and run through a tree of logic that, while sound, convinces no one of the practicality of privatizing any program. After that usually comes the laundry list of dysfunctional government programs that causes even some libertarians to glaze over in a TLDR (too long didn’t read) fashion. Even worse, it often evokes ad hominems like “rich,” “privileged,” or even “blue hair.” We need to remember that not everything government touches turns to ash, only an overwhelming majority of it. It’s critical to properly convey this fact as government’s successes tend to be short-lived while its failures seem to last forever. Speaking of failure, let’s talk about war for a second.

The Department of Defense’s annual budget is a whopping $700 billion. Meanwhile, the Voyager program cost us a mere $865 million to get the two most advanced space probes ever developed into space and all the way to Neptune. On the way, we gained priceless knowledge about our stellar neighborhood. The problem with comparing these two numbers directly is that they’re really big and the human brain is not well equipped to handle numbers that large. There is, however, a nifty little shortcut to help out with the math.

Order of Magnitude Estimates:
One order of magnitude is just one decimal place. For example, a dime is one order of magnitude greater than a penny. A dollar is one order of magnitude larger than a dime or two orders of magnitude greater than a penny. Let’s take a more visual/practical example. The average height of an adult is between 5 and 6 feet. We don’t need to be very precise because the numbers we’re dealing with are so far apart we really only need to know the number of digits. One order of magnitude greater than human height would be about the height of a highway overpass (usually 14 to 16 feet). From here, the numbers start growing quickly. One more order of magnitude brings us to the height of a sequoia (286 feet). Another step up would bring us to a difference of three orders of magnitude and would be something around the height of the Empire State Building (1250 feet).

Taking a look back at DoD versus Voyager our numbers are a whopping three orders of magnitude apart but we aren’t done yet! Our $865 million Voyager budget paid for the probes and their one-way ticket from Earth to Neptune. Voyagers 1 and 2 were launched in 1979 and did not arrive at Neptune until 1989 so the actual annual budget is about one tenth that figure or, you guessed it, one order of magnitude less. This means that the DoD budget is actually a whopping four orders of magnitude higher, not three. If the height of an adult is Voyagers’ annual budget then the DoD’s budget would be the height of Mount Everest! Next time you run into some well-intentioned government apologist just remember: when any government gets a bunch of money it’ll all be blown on war.

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Photograph: “Sunny Everest” by Anju SherpaOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Daniel Peffers is an anarcho-capitalist from Indianapolis, Indiana. Daniel Graduated from Brownsburg High School in 2004 and is a veteran of the United States Army. Formally a neoconservative Republican, Daniel first heard the rhetoric of the Liberty Movement from 2008 Libertarian Party Presidential Candidate Bob Barr. Since then, Daniel has served as President of Purdue Young Americans for Liberty and has worked closely with the Leadership Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Daniel can be reached at