Whenever society encounters a problem–poverty, terrorism, natural disasters, financial crises, etc–people reflexively assert that government ought to “do something.” Or as George W. Bush put it, “When someone is hurting, government has got to move.” And so the response to the problem is to pass new laws, create new regulations, and put more taxpayer money in the hands of a government bureau in charge of treating the problem.
But in reality, government does not solve social problems. After all, why should they? The reward structure of government gives them little incentive to do so. In fact, perversely, they often have an incentive to perpetuate a problem, or even to exacerbate it. As long as the problem persists, the public will want the government to address it, and so the politicians and bureaucrats can continue to justify the power they wield and the money they spend. But if instead the problem were solved, the politicians and bureaucrats would need to find a new mission, or have their budgets slashed. The last thing the political class in America wants is for all the problems to be solved. Because if that happens, who needs them?
This fundamental problem of incentives, inherent to the workings of government, rarely gets any attention from commentators. John Hayward, however, in a recent essay, touches on some of the relevant points.
[G]overnment programs grow through failure. The importance of this process to the psychology of Big Government cannot be underestimated. An efficient program that delivers solid results under budget is going to find its budget cut. An agency that “solves” whatever problem it was formed to address will find itself stripped down or eliminated. The canny bureaucrat therefore presents his department as perpetually under-funded, while trying to grapple with ever more formidable challenges. Every agency is a plucky underdog doing a fantastic job on a shoestring budget against insurmountable odds… and there is always so much more work to be done.
The bureaucratic behavior described by Hayward is supported by abundant examples. For instance, social workers have no incentive to help poor people to move ahead by getting off welfare and into jobs. That’s because the welfare recipients are the social workers’ clients, and without clients, what would they do?
The union representing California’s prison guards spent a million dollars in 2008 to defeat a ballot initiative that would have put non-violent drug offenders in treatment rather than prison. After all, if people were no longer to go to prison for drugs, we wouldn’t need as many prison guards.
Back in 2002, the TV news magazine 60 Minutes reported on a particularly outrageous example of a bureau perpetuating a problem by sabotaging its own product–and then firing the whistle blower. (Accompanying video here.)
This is the story of hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign language documents that the FBI neglected to translate before and after the Sept. 11 attacks — documents that detailed what the FBI heard on wiretaps and learned during interrogations of suspected terrorists.
Sibel Edmonds, a translator who worked at the FBI’s language division, says the documents weren’t translated because the division was riddled with incompetence and corruption.
Edmonds was fired after reporting her concerns to FBI officials…
Because she is fluent in Turkish and other Middle Eastern languages, Edmonds, a Turkish-American, was hired by the FBI soon after Sept. 11 and given top-secret security clearance to translate some of the reams of documents seized by FBI agents who have been rounding up suspected terrorists across the United States and abroad.
Edmonds says that to her amazement, from the day she started the job, she was told repeatedly by one of her supervisors that there was no urgency,- that she should take longer to translate documents so that the department would appear overworked and understaffed. That way, it would receive a larger budget for the next year.
“We were told by our supervisors that this was the great opportunity for asking for increased budget and asking for more translators,” says Edmonds. “And in order to do that, don’t do the work and let the documents pile up so we can show it and say that we need more translators and expand the department.”
Edmonds says that the supervisor, in an effort to slow her down, went so far as to erase completed translations from her FBI computer after she’d left work for the day.
“The next day, I would come to work, turn on my computer, and the work would be gone. The translation would be gone,” she says. “Then I had to start all over again and retranslate the same document. And I went to my supervisor and he said, ‘Consider it a lesson and don’t talk about it to anybody else and don’t mention it.’
“The lesson was don’t work, and don’t do the translations. …Don’t do the work because — and this is our chance to increase the number of people here in this department.”
So there you have it; bureaucrats are not about to let something as trivial as terrorism and national security get in the way of the primary goal, which is increasing their budget. And where else but government can people be rewarded for producing less, indeed, rewarded for failure? When the CIA fails to prevent the attacks of 9/11, fails to connect the dots, they see their budget increase. The FBI supervisor who fired Sibel Edmonds was soon promoted. The private sector of the economy is no Nirvana, but if you don’t produce, you don’t get paid. If a private firm does not succeed, the managers get replaced, or the firm gets restructured or liquidated in bankruptcy. They don’t just get to ask for a bigger budget.
Government–the sector of the economy that, compared to the private sector, is less competent, less accountable, and which is incentivized to fail. Nonetheless, people still get foolishly conned into agreeing to take more resources and power and responsibilities away from the private sector, meaning the people, and to hand them over to the government, meaning the political class. And so, some 30 years after creating the federal Department of Education, and spending hundreds of billions of dollars, education in America has not improved. The Head Start program, after nearly 50 years and more than a hundred billion dollars, has achieved literally zero improvement in outcomes for underprivileged children. The city of San Francisco keeps spending more and more on homelessness, but the ranks of the homeless continue to swell bigger and bigger. As Ronald Reagan said, “Government doesn’t solve problems–it subsidizes them.”
And finally, consider Obamacare. As that monstronsity is implemented over the next few years, it will cause more and more problems. Some people will lose their health coverage, others will see their premiums rise. Some people will be forced to purchase insurance that they don’t want and don’t need. The implementation will cause chaos in the insurance markets. The government’s already parlous fiscal condition will grow still worse.
The law will create problems, not solve them. But for the political class, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. If people lose their coverage, or can no longer afford it, they’ll need help. And for that help, many will look to the political class. Voters will tell pollsters that they want to see “bipartisanship” in Washington, so that Democrats and Republicans can “work together” to “solve problems.”
As Mr. T used to say, “I pity the fools.”