I dislike Congressional earmarks, as I dislike all wasteful government spending. I've long viewed them as bribes that corrupt the political process, by inducing Congressmen to vote for legislation that they'd otherwise oppose.
I'm rethinking my opposition, after reading Tyler Cowen's essay at Bloomberg View.
In essence, earmarks give congressional leaders more control over individual members. Recalcitrant representatives can be swayed by the promise of a perk for their district. That eases gridlock and gives extreme members of Congress something to pursue other than just ideology.
But is more legislation always a good result? Advocates of smaller government should keep in mind that reforming spending and regulation requires some activism from Congress. Gridlock today is not the friend of fiscal responsibility, coherent policy, or a free, well-functioning capitalist economy.
Most of all, I think of earmarks as recognizing that compromise and messiness are bound to remain essential features of American government, and that, whether we like it or not, there is something inherently transactional about being governed. Earmarks are a risk insurance policy against extreme outcomes, and like many other insurance policies, in any given year they may appear a pointless waste of resources. Still, we should keep in mind they may be protecting us against the very worst outcomes.