Thoughts on economics and liberty

Boondoggles (government failure)

This term, "boondoggle", used for white elephants mostly in the government sector has come back in vogue recently. It doesn't refer to day-to-day failure in policy design in government but is an evocative term used for large mega-failures. 

The term originated in 1935 but has been popularised by Peter Costello, a former Treasurer of Australia,  in his article yesterday (NBN: the national boondoggle network).

Other examples below:

This term doesn't apply only to government failure:

I'm sure people can add to this list of boondoggles. There's never any shortage of them.

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3 thoughts on “Boondoggles (government failure)
  1. Surya

    The word has a nice sound to it – conveys what it means through the sound itself. Here are a few more Boondoggles
    Al Jazeera reports of a city China built in the middle of nowhere and not surprisingly it is empty
    Amazingly an example of Japanese spending excesses reported in the staunchly Keynesian Newyork Times – The author ofcourse tries to present all  sides of the argument, and at places repeats the same old Keynesian excuse that no stimulus is big enough. And he also assumes that the same government that builds bridges to nowhere, will somehow spend wisely if it had spent on social infrastructure. He also fails to note the way stimulus packages completely distort price signals and discourage private investors.
    And how the Soviet government shrunk the once mighty Aral sea to 10% of it's size This is not just a boondoggle. It is much worse. Not just money was wasted. But existing natural resources were squandered.
    And ofcourse the Global Warming movement is today the biggest squanderer of resources. A list of carbon boondoggles –  And India is in the list too.
    This post of yours has given me a great idea. It will do much good to collect all government failures. Economists have directed so much venom at free trade by talking about market failures. It is time they looked at the mirror. These boondoggles happen starting from the lowest level. I knew of a professor who loved Robotics. However that's not a field that education departments find "socially beneficial". So he never gets funding. To get funds he has to submit "eco-friendly" papers, throw in a few terms like Solar panels, sustainable consumption etc and bingo he gets a jack-pot. He can then use some of the funds for robotics too if he can somehow convince his bosses about eco-friendly robots. This squandering of wealth by green research is happening in all universities today. Universities are sanctioned crores to build solar panels, wind turbines etc. They have been researching for 20 years.  You would know how accountable our universities are for these funds. And it is funny to watch our professors complain about the greed of business-men.


  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Excellent stuff, Surya. I truly look forward to your collection of boondoggles. Sadly, mainstream economists have OVER-HYPED market failure. As George Stigler showed (and his lesson has surely been forgotten quickly) most regulation is CAPTURED by the relevant industry. Similarly, most government investment is CAPTURED by lobbies. Economists have a short memory. They forget Adam Smith very quickly. It will be good to have your collection. I’d be very pleased to publish it on this blog.



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