|By Kiwiev via Wikimedia Commons|
Commentators have long derided political promises as bribing voters with heir own money, but the purposes of legitimate political debate include the best use of resources. The process gets corrupted when politicians promise someone else will pay. One example of this we all know: the slogan "make the rich pay", an aspiration often stated but seldom realized. Calls to tax the rich frequently give rise not to better services but rather to increasingly convoluted tax avoidance schemes. Governments have had much greater luck extracting money from people accused of crimes. Conservative governments in the eighties, motivated to reward their friends with deep tax cuts and to punish those they disdained, invented a series of creative and mischievous government financing tools, from the outright forfeiture of assets to fine surcharges.
Donald Trump's promise to force the Mexican government to pay for a massive public works project on the southern border of the US has a precedent: Ronald Reagan's government sent Oliver North on an unconstitutional fund-raising tour through the palaces of depots to obtain funding for the "contra" mercenary terrorists the US Congress had explicitly refused to support. Mr. Trump has extended this idea in two ways: proposing a major infrastructure program employing hundreds of thousands of Americans, and planning to take the money by some form of coercion rather than beg for it.
|By Alexander Buschorn via Wikimedia Commons|
Most of us understand watching "free" TV makes us not to customer but the product. Businesses identify the person or entity paying the bills as their customer. When the justice system raises most of its money from forfeitures, that makes the drug cartels the justice system's customer. Prosecutors and police officers have a stake in maintaining the drug war and its supply of forfeited money going. Perversely, that means they have a lot to lose if anyone solved the problem of addiction. If Mr. Trump succeeded in making the Mexican government put up the money for his signature initiative, that would make the Mexican government, rather than the American people, his customer.
Robert Sheckley, the science fiction writer, once had a character wryly observe that if someone advertises a thing as free, you definitely can't afford it. That may not hold for everything, but it does apply to government services.