Recently, Defense Secretary James Mattis was in the news for complaining about the Pentagon’s offhand spending habits.
While this may sound somewhat contradictory thanks to Mattis’ earlier claims indicating he would, indeed, love if defense had access to even more taxpayer money, his complaint brought light to yet another issue we often see happening with government.
According to a recent Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report, the agency spent $28 million on camouflage uniforms for Afghan soldiers that, unfortunately, do not work well with Afghanistan’s terrain. This means that, the $28 million that was used to purchase forest-patterned uniforms should have never been spent this way.
The decision to purchase these uniforms was made after a former Afghan defense minister saw the model online and “liked” them. However, only two percent of the country’s terrain is woodland.
And who picked up the bill? The U.S. taxpayer.
In his response to the Department after this discovery was made, Mattis criticized officials who allowed this “cavalier” expenditure to take place, adding that this decision wasted taxpayer dollars “in an ineffective and wasteful manner.”
Claiming that this careless spending is an indicator of an “attitude that can affect any of us at the Pentagon or across the Department of Defense,” Mattis rightly pointed out that this makes the department lose focus on what matters.
But what Mattis may have missed is that government waste exists and is part of how government operates. It’s a feature, not a bug.
The Defense Department isn’t more or less likely to be wasteful than the Education Department or the Health and Human Services department. What makes any — and all — government agencies prone to waste is the very fact that these organizations aren’t worried about how they spend this money.
When you spend other people’s money, you’re more likely to abuse it. After all, only you know how better spend your own money.
But that’s not all.
Agencies often make huge mistakes when judging policies or particular approaches simply because they do not have the knowledge necessary to know what will work. Real-world consequences are often ignored because bureaucrats and officials make all the decisions, often basing their assessment on faulty or incomplete information.
Because knowledge is dispersed and difficult to access, governments are naturally incapable of acting with all variables in mind. As a result, they cannot ensure that the service in question will meet the demand.
Whether it’s Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, government officials have repeatedly claimed to have the answer, leading the country into military campaigns that not only backfired but that will also cost several generations of Americans.
While Mattis is right to be worried, it would serve him and others in similar positions to remember that there’s little one can do to put an end to waste within the government that doesn’t involve stripping government from free, easy, and endless sources of revenue.