Sorites and Spending

by Daniel Foster

There is a new editorial up on the homepage about Eric Cantor’s (outrageous! — or not) position that Hurricane Irene relief should be offset with cuts elsewhere. Here’s a bit of it:

Cantor’s position also helps bring attention what Veronique de Rugy calls “The Never-Ending Emergency.” Since 1980, “emergency” or “supplementary” appropriations over and above normal budgetary authority have nearly quadrupled, reaching a peak of $174 billion in 2009. To be sure, Republicans share the blame for this, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been largely funded through emergency appropriations. But President Obama and the Democratic Congress wasted no time filling out the trend line with massive levels of supplemental domestic spending, proving the exploitation of “emergencies” to be one of the most pernicious ways that Big Government frees itself of even the modest fetters imposed by pay-as-you-go rules.

This ballooning in so-called emergency appropriation is I think, just a special case of a broader trend in government spending. I’d put in terms of sorites paradox, also known as the paradox of the heap: Start with a heap of one million grains of sand and remove a single grain. Surely it remains a heap, no? In fact, surely any amount of sand that one agrees constitutes a heap will still be a heap after losing just a single grain, right? The problem with accepting this premise is in its iteration. If the loss of a single grain can never mean the difference between heap-hood and non-heap-hood, one will eventually be forced to conclude that three grains of sand are a heap. Or one grain of sand. Or none at all. 

Big Government works like the paradox of the heap in reverse. Surely a billion dollars of additional appropriations — less than .028 percent of current spending! — can’t constitute the difference between a government functioning within right and proper limits and one that has grown unsustainably large and indebted.  And yet, over the course of many such decisions, we have found ourselves in a heap of trouble.