We are not as divided as we think

When it comes to government spending, there’s got to be a better way

The person who advocates a smaller role for government is sometimes met with accusations of bad faith. “You don’t care about people in need,” or “You want to give more to the rich and leave the most vulnerable without food and housing.”

A potential conversation about the appropriate role of government devolves into a debate over motives.

But the reality is that most Americans are not as far apart on issues of government spending as they think. They just believe misleading claims made by some politicians and retransmitted by media platforms.

The problem isn’t that mean, uncaring citizens don’t want to help our elderly, disabled, or those who temporarily fall on hard times.

The problem is that our government spends our hard-earned taxpayer dollars on wasteful and poorly managed programs, which breeds a lack of trust — yet another problem.

If people sat down to hash out their differences and not just score debate points, they would see that they agree on more than they realize.

Advocates of smaller government want less waste. They see the wasteful spending and wonder just how bad it must be behind the curtain.

From the peek we just got, the details are ugly. I'm referring to the recent Michigan Supreme Court ruling against the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

The MEDC, a state agency, took taxpayer dollars and then gave billions in corporate welfare to General Motors, which has had a net income of over $59.7 billion since 2014. While the MEDC acted in the name of 'we the people,' it also signed a secrecy agreement with all concerned.

We would not be able to know how much GM was getting from taxpayers. The Legislature not only helped the deal along, it passed into law a $5,000 fine for anyone who divulged the classified amount. That’s a thick, opaque curtain and a disgrace to a representative form of government.

Imagine if government agencies were required to report every single expense, down to the eraser. Imagine if government agencies were required to only spend 20% on administrative overhead and to spend the rest on the people they serve. Would most people agree that this is a good thing? I believe so. Not only would this save taxpayer dollars, it would mean that money would be spent more efficiently on those in need.

Consider a bill that then-Rep. Jack Hoogendyk introduced in 2007. It would have required the Michigan Department of Education to ensure 65% of every dollar given to public schools went directly to the classroom.

The bill never even made it out of committee. How many people would support the idea of ensuring administrative overhead is capped at 35%, with most of the money going directly toward educating students?

Think of what the state did for green energy companies. It gave them hundreds of millions in tax incentives and subsidies, with few strings attached. The companies often promised a certain number of jobs and a financial boost for the local economy. Most failed. How many citizens would agree that these green energy companies should have never received the money without an agreement that they pay it back if they didn’t produce in a certain timeframe?

How many people agree that letting the MEDC fork over $28.6 million in tax credits and direct subsidies to Wonder Struck Studios were a good idea? Better than helping kids in foster care, or closing the financial gap that keeps some kids who need to find adoptive parents find a forever family?

Michigan raided its pension system, which was already underfunded by tens of billions, to give Michigan Motion Pictures $18 million to make movies in the state. The company folded on its payments, and the pension system took a hit, further straining the finances of everyone else. Do you think that most people at our hypothetical table would agree this is a misuse of taxpayer dollars?

The city of Ann Arbor paid $850,000 for a piece of art, even as difficult finances caused it to lay off firefighters. Would anyone disagree that using the $850,000 for additional firefighters' salaries and benefits would have been a less wasteful use of taxpayer dollars?

How about the city of Detroit, which until recently had a horseshoer on its payroll, though it owns no horses? Can we all agree this is absurd? Is it controversial to say that the roughly $57,000 paid in salary and benefits for this position could have gone toward programs for the disabled or elderly? How much food would that have bought for city shelters?

Most small government advocates come to their views through their growing distrust of how the government spends taxpayer dollars, and not because they don’t care about people. If the government were a lean, mean, efficient machine that truly served the people and their best interests, the apparent divide between the big and small government groups would be much smaller.

The people who are truly in need would be better served for it.

Jamie A. Hope is assistant managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. Email her at

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.