Saturday, November 8, 2014

Good Intentions, Bad Results

Decisions about spending reveal actual priorities, whatever the alleged priorities may be. A man might talk about how much he values healthy food, but if the records show that he spends much of his money on donuts and bologna, his true preference has been shown.

The same is true of government spending. Political leaders may express deep concern for the poor, but if they allocate millions and billions of dollars in programs which actually make the condition of the economic underclasses worse, the true priorities of these bureaucrats make themselves manifest.

Programs which harm low-income citizens do so even if they are presented as strategies to help the poor.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the United States has experienced a series of actions which were labeled with ambitious phrases like “War on Poverty” and “Great Society.” In reality, these programs not only failed to help the poor, but they measurably made the lot of the lower class worse.

The “food stamp” program has worsened the nutrition of both the urban and the rural poor, and created “food deserts” in major cities. Social Security and Medicare have worsened the economic status of elderly citizens, reduced their independence, and brought them under more government control.

The “war on drugs” has increased illegal drug smuggling, domestic production, sales, and consumption. The federal government’s attempts to raise the quality of education have merely worsened the standards of the nation’s schools.

Many people with sincerely good intentions worked to promote and enforce these programs. But sincerity, intentions, and compassion are not the same as observable and measurable results.

A program may have the best of intentions, but why continue to fund it if it produces the very opposite of its stated goals? Although people of genuine goodwill may have instituted the program, legions of cynical bureaucrats will receive comfortable paychecks from it. They have an interest in keeping such programs in place, even when the programs fail to help the intended beneficiaries - even when the programs harm the intended beneficiaries.

Thus it is that the machinations of bureaucrats keep funding flowing to institutionalized failure. Scholar William Voegeli writes:

America’s welfare state has been growing steadily for almost a century, and is now much bigger than it was at the start of the New Deal in 1932, or at the beginning of the Great Society in 1964. In 2013 the federal government spent $2.279 trillion — $7,200 per American, two-thirds of all federal outlays, and 14 percent of the Gross Domestic Product — on the five big program areas that make up our welfare state: 1. Social Security; 2. All other income support programs, such as disability insurance or unemployment compensation; 3. Medicare; 4. All other health programs, such as Medicaid; and 5. All programs for education, job training, and social services.

The clear trend in government is to fund those programs which both fail to help their intended recipients and which harm their intended recipients. The government has funded almost exclusively those anti-poverty programs which in fact increase poverty.

The other side of the coin is that programs which help citizens are prone to funding cuts. Given that the unambiguous purpose of a government is to protect the lives, freedoms, and properties of its citizens, it is at least counterintuitive that defense spending in the United States has been repeatedly cut. In the mid-1950s, defense spending was 15% of GDP. Since then, it has been chopped to 9.5% at the height of the Vietnam War, to 6.2% during the so-called “Reagan Buildup,” to less than 4% during the “war on terror.”

One need only to pose the rhetorical question whether the lives, freedoms, and property are more or less secure as a result.

A similar decline in security for the ordinary citizen has resulted from cuts to funding direct police presence. While total police funding has in some cases actually increased, posting of armed police to patrols in urban or suburban neighborhoods has in many cases decreased.

While it is true that violent crime, by some measures, has decreased in the last decade or two, it has increased in the last fifty years or so.

There is a sort of emotional satisfaction that a truly compassionate person feels when directing funding to a social program. But that satisfaction is an illusion if that program, despite its facade, fails to help people.

There is an unfortunate interplay between sincerely compassionate people and insincere bureaucrats. Good intentions can be exploited by public-sector careerists. People of genuine goodwill are exploited by governments.

A promising alternative is offered by private-sector charities. Meaningful and measurable help is offered by organizations like Ypsilanti’s Hope Clinic, which does not squander donated funds on overhead.

Rural and urban residents of all races and religions can receive significant and observable benefits from private sector charities which efficiently use the funds voluntarily donated by citizens.