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12.8.04

Paying Your Critics

Max Borders points out that the federal government gives grants to environmental groups, which use that money to attack the administration. Looking at his source, it seems I'm among the guilty parties -- my paycheck comes out of a grant from the EPA, and that money allows me to have internet access in order to maintain this blog, in which I post unfavorable things about the administration. I fail to see why the fact that these groups' message is anti-administration is of particular concern (though to be fair I think Borders opposes any government funding of any politically active group, regardless of the content of its message). I would be concerned if their message was pro-administration, as that could be evidence that they had been coopted. Borders describes the situation as a "vicious, vicious circle," but there seems to be a side missing -- taxpayers give money to the government, which gives it to environmental groups, which make anti-administration statements. Except insofar as anti-administration rhetoric of any sort makes higher taxes somewhat more likely, I don't see the last step reinforcing the first as a vicious cycle.

I can't vouch for all of the funding that Borders refers to (either their justifiability or the extent to which they're really cases of the administration funding its detractors). But I think there are cases in which the government ought to provide money to outside groups specifically in order to help them criticize it. The Technical Assistance Grant program for Superfund sites is a case in point. The idea is that the government can't be trusted to do the right thing. However, given the imbalance in resources and expertise between the EPA and people affected by its actions, the public can become dependent on the government for information. This imabalance creates distrust, as it would be quite easy for the EPA to abuse its position. TAGs give community groups a no-strings-attached source of money with which to improve their position (e.g. by hiring a technical consultant to do parallel studies). To be an effective watchdog, the TAG-funded group must remain critical of the EPA's actions, always looking for the downside and making that known to the rest of the public. Insofar as this process works, it keeps the EPA honest, and when the EPA is known to be honest, the goal of improving the community's wellbeing can be better met.

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