Libertarians often despair about the power of government to provide concentrated benefits to politically well connected interest groups while diffusing the costs across society at large. The former are heavily motivated to lobby for gain while those asked to pay are not so easily mobilized. Against that dynamic, how can supporters of limited government hope to prevail?

While libertarians’ fears are well grounded, they may be overwrought. A recent study by Prof. James Gimpel, Francis Lee (both of the University of Maryland), and Rebecca Thorpe (University of Washington) examined the geographic distribution of federal stimulus money in 2009. “Contrary to the expressed intent of the legislation,” they say, “additional funds were not directed to areas where the recession’s downturn was most severe. Therefore, the investigation seeks a broader theory to account for patterns in spending.”

They tested two theories – the theory that pork barrel politics dictated the distribution of money and the theory that policy entrepreneurs took advantage of a window of opportunity to enact long-standing policy agendas.

If conventional pork barrel politics exists at all, we’d certainly see evidence of it in one of the largest concentrated expenditures of federal money – $787 billion – in modern political history. And we do. But just not as much of it as we might expect:

Our findings reveal that both factors played a role, but that policy window effects were more important than conventional “pork barrel politics” in explaining the distribution of funds. The result most consistent with the pork barrel thesis is that counties that supported Obama in the 2008 election consistently received a boost in ARRA funds. Generally speaking, however, the pork barrel variables offered little traction in understanding how funds were distributed. The policy windows account fared better. Counties that emerged with more ARRA funds were not those that suffered more from the recession, but were instead locations in which funds could advance other prominent policy goals that were important to members of Congress and the administration at the time. The areas that received greater federal support better advanced policy goals in promoting clean energy, fostering medical and scientific research, repairing existing infrastructure, and subsidizing state and local government.

In short, politicians took Rahm Emmanuel’s admonition to heart – “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” They rummaged through what political scientists often refer to as policy “trash cans” and found previously discarded proposals that could be recycled to meet the political needs of the moment.

This is nothing new. Politicians have dug through policy trash cans long before Rahm Emmanuel endorsed the practice. The arresting finding here, however, is that policy entrepreneurship proved more powerful than old fashioned pork barreling when it came time to divvy up the money.

Libertarians – take heart. The fear that politicos care for nothing save for the distribution of funds for electoral gain is incorrect. They care about ideas and care about advancing favored policy aims. There is room for policy advocates to make a difference.