Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"I'm here to help."

This is the second of a series of three posts on the Health Of The Republic. The first post is a review of Stephen Holbrook's book on the Founders' view of the Second Amendment. The third post is about what motivates the government to act this way, and what to do about it .

Pretty much everyone recognizes this as part of what Ronald Reagan described as the most terrifying nine words in the English language:
I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.
In a sense, this is unfair - there are a lot of solid folks working for the government, doing solid work. They do want to help. I know; I used to be one of those folks.

Quite frankly, I think that I did help, back at Three Letter Intelligence Agency, during the Cold War. And while I didn't carry a rifle, SIGINT and ELINT are important. So is COMSEC. It takes a lot of people, who don't get recognized, or thanked, but without whom we never would have come out of that strange, twilight conflict right side up.

There's no doubt that most of what gets proposed - we're talking government now - actually has tangible benefit to society. Sure there's the overhead of earmarks and the rest of the graft, but the output is usually something that's worthwhile. For a while, I used to think that this was the actual problem - that this was why government was always pushed to expand.

I think that the problem is more subtle. Cost-Benefit Analysis is a well understood discipline in engineering. It's hard to get right, which is why so many businesses go out of business. It's doubly hard in the public sector. The costs are almost never estimated correctly: Exhibit A is Massachusetts' new "Universal" health care that doesn't remotely cover everyone, but which is so mind-numbingly expensive that the only thing "universal" is its unpopularity.

Benefits are always oversold, too, so the entire analysis needs to be taken with a healthy additional discount for elected official's posturing. For a while, I used to think that this was the problem. While it's closer, that's not exactly it, either.

Like the Founding Fathers, we can't see where things will lead. Economists have know about the Tragedy of the Commons for centuries, that common resources will be overused to the point of destruction. Each small additional use gives a tangible use, now. Any negative effect is hard to predict - how bad, when, or who will be hurt.

The Cost-Benefit analysis falls apart, and so we get completely unexpected, and completely horrible results. This is the problem with creeping government.

Gordon Clark revolutionized surfing in the 1960s, with a new type of surfboard that was fiberglass (for strength) built around a foam core (for buoyancy). Think Beach Boys (or The Challengers, if you want something less squeeky-clean). In a lot of ways, if you think "1960s California", you think of the surf scene.

Gordon Clark is out of business now. It's not that he made bad business decisions; Orange County, the State of California, and the Environmental Protection Agency put him out of business:

To sum this up no one in the United States or for that matter the rest of the world uses equipment and a process like mine. It is very unique and there was nothing on earth ever built this way before.

This is just an extension of the methods everyone used when the first foam boards were built. I continued merrily along assuming this was the way things worked. No one copied much of my process or equipment and it was very successful. I used no outside engineering firms or other experts for the majority of Clark Foam.

The Federal Environmental Protection Agency used lawyers to prepare their citation. They used the word “standards” a lot. I finally realized with shock that the EPA has determined that my equipment does not meet acceptable or accepted “standards”.

All gone now, because of environmental and work place regulations. Was each regulation inspired by the desire to make things better? Sure. Nobody thought in 1975 that we'd end up here. Each individual regulation was a small nibble on the Common Pasture, the Town Green of a vibrant society. Now it's brown and barren.

Didn't see that coming.

I've linked several times before to an old post by Megan McArdle that illustrates this. It's well worth your time, but the pertinent part is that the institution of marriage turned out to be much more fragile than anyone imagined:

Public housing [in the 1950s] was, in short, a place full of functioning families.

Now, in the late fifties, a debate began over whether to extend benefits to the unmarried. It was unfair to stigmatise unwed mothers. Why shouldn't they be able to avail themselves of the benefits available to other citizens? The brutal societal prejudice against illegitimacy was old fashioned, bigoted, irrational.

But if you give unmarried mothers money, said the critics, you will get more unmarried mothers.

Ridiculous, said the proponents of the change. Being an unmarried mother is a brutal, thankless task. What kind of idiot would have a baby out of wedlock just because the state was willing to give her paltry welfare benefits?

People do all sorts of idiotic things, said the critics. If you pay for something, you usually get more of it.

C'mon said the activists. That's just silly. I just can't imagine anyone deciding to get pregnant out of wedlock simply because there are welfare benefits available.

Oooops.

Like the southern Californian surfing scene, it took a long time for the common pasture that was marriage's place in society to be trampled bare, and it was all done with absolutely the best intentions.

Didn't see that coming, either.

It's important to reiterate: with the exception of the expected level of graft by elected officials (smaller) and inefficiency of the bureaucracy (larger), these are good people who want to do good things. They want to leave society a better place.

They also don't know as much as they think that they do. They will look at you blankly if you ask them what the unanticipated consequences of their proposal is:
So if you were actually able to ban all legal guns, how would that reduce crime?

[Lots of over-estimated benefits and under-estimated costs redacted]

OK, what will this do to the rate of women killed by abusive boyfriends or ex-husbands, who can't get a gun to defend themselves. What does your study predict for numbers?

[Blank stare]
Dead homeowners are part of the over grazed Common Pasture of society. Women and kids, too. So are higher levels of gun violence.

Who gets hurt? This question needs to be asked any time someone proposes one tiny, incremental, almost unnoticeable further harvest of the Common Weal. Nobody is not an acceptable answer - someone always gets hurt, intentionally or not. Maybe this cost is outweighed by the benefits, maybe it isn't. But it's never zero.

Personally, I'm not willing to believe that someone who hasn't thought through potentially catastrophic consequences is either nicer or smarter than I am.

UPDATE 14 January 2009 07:45: Welcome folks visiting via Lissa. Thanks for the link, Lissa. Feel free to take a look around.

UPDATE 14 January 2009 09:29: Holy cow, it's a Tamalanche! Thanks, Tam. Feel free to look around. If you're interested in this post, you might also want to look at this one. And then buy the book. And if you're using the Safari browser, you'll want to read this (really).

UPDATE 14 January 2009 09:51: Billy Ockham (great blog name!) linked. Thanks!

UPDATE 14 January 2009 11:00: SnarkyBytes linked. Thanks!

UPDATE 14 January 2009 11:35: Outrageous Malfunction linked. Thanks!

UPDATE 17 January 2009 18:41: Billy Ockham has a follow-up about the Dickensian workhouses that is worth your time.

14 comments:

Brigid said...

So very well said.

Ted said...

Thanks, Brigid.

I kind of feel like I;m channeling my inner Steven den Beste, only wordier and not as smart ... :-/

Jay G said...

Dude. Tamalanche. SRSLY.

the pistolero said...

Well, I do like den Beste, but this was nothing to be ashamed of at all. Very, very well said. And it would seem that cost-benefit analysis isn't a well-understood or -appreciated discipline anywhere outside of engineering. I think most politicians and public officials consider it their equivalent of kryptonite, to be honest.

Ken said...

Very well done. Henry Hazlitt (and Bastiat, or somebody, before him) would illustrate the point in terms of "that which is not seen." The same principle that makes the broken window fallacy a fallacy underlies Ted's point.

Ted said...

JayG, my hit counter's done been busted.

Pistolero, thanks, and I agree about the kryptonite.

Ken, I hadn't thought about that, but you're absolutely right.

DirtCrashr said...

A very real and serious social problem is that the good and high-minded people who are busy promoting the impending tragedy, beyond all reason and calculation, desperately need to feel Good and Valuable - and their personal "contribution" does that - and that is what drives them regardless of the outcome.
Their profoundly egotistical inner need to fulfill a "worthwhile" or "purpose-driven" life and rise to the highest level of their "Human Potential" steamrolls all logical calculus, and they go forth and do their damnedest. Their inner, personal "consequentiality" are ultimately more important - it is self-Hero worship to a great degree.

Phelps said...

I will happily defend Reagan's statement. When government "helps" an individual (as opposed to true common goods issues) they can, at best, help a little bit. Rarely. Most likely, they are going to hurt the situation. A little.

There's a not unsubstantial chance that they will make things much, much worse, and no chance that they will make things much, much better.

That's a gamble that no sane person would take.

Charles Pergiel said...

The link attached to the phrase "much more fragile" (http://www.janegalt.net/blog/archives/005244.html) is broken.

Just thought you might want to know.

Ted said...

Charles, that's strange. The link seems to work fine for me (in both Firefox and Chrome), as does your link in the comment.

Anonymous said...

"Well intentioned" you say of many bureaucrats. I have to ask how well intentioned a person is who ignores the founding principles of this country (or never bothers to study them) and denies the limits set forth in the constitution.

I would think that good intentions would be evidenced by careful, thoughtful study of these things, testing proposals and assertions against our founding documents and principles. Merely feeling justified, or finding rationalizations, is not in and of itself a "good intention".
-- Lyle

Gator said...

I don't think the politicians much care about the cost-benefit analysis. Their only job is to keep their job, and they don't care how much it costs me.

TOTWTYTR said...

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I've used the unmarried mother example you cite several times in the past. When you reward a behavior, good or bad, you give people an incentive to engage in it.

It always starts with the best of intentions, but the least of reasoning. The reasoning in superficial at best, and is always based on faulty assumptions.

With gun control, the faulty assumption is that the same people who are inclined to rob and murder their fellow citizens will be deterred from using the most efficient tool to do that with by passing a law that says they can't own guns. As if.

The law abiding will be faced with two prospects. First, they can comply and turn in their guns. Second, they can break the law and carry a gun for defense. If they are caught, then of course this is proof that there is an epidemic of people carrying illegally. Which ignores the fact that it is impossible to carry legally no matter your reason or level of responsibility. All those arrest of formerly law abiding citizens sure look good for the crime stats.

Remember, it's only help... if it does.

Anonymous said...

My Father spent most of his adult life working for the Federal Government trying to be a positive force. Most people that go into government go in with the idea of making things better. After beating their heads against the bureaucratic wall long enough, they become part of the 80% (you know the old 80/20 rule...) He never did and remained part of the 20% that cared, which is why he took early retirement when the opportunity presented itself. He said... "You know the good thing about beating your head against a wall? It feels so good when you stop!".

That said, I'd like to add one thing, the only way to do a Cost/Benefit Analysis is if those doing it know both the cost and the benefit. Rarely, oh so rarely, is that the case ...

Stoney