Unintended consequences
By Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I read last Monday’s Guest Opinion by Greg Roth (“Council has introduced a culture of violence,” June 1) and the 150-plus accompanying online comments with interest.

Mr. Roth voices his concern that the Iowa City Council’s proposed police department budget cuts will endanger police officers at a time of rising violent crime.

But it was his attribution of that increased crime (and the endangering of our children, ruination of some schools and destruction of property values) to the Council’s promotion of housing assistance programs that predictably drew the many comments. The remarks ranged from accusations of racism to petitions to run for City Council himself.

Mr. Roth has conspicuously drawn attention to the Law of Unintended Consequences: Government programs always have side-effects, often worse than the original problems the programs were intended to fix.

The side-effects of government welfare programs include fostering long-term dependence, loss of self-direction and self-esteem, and robbing families and communities of opportunities for compassionate charity which breaks the bonds of those institutions, thereby resulting in community apathy, broken families, increased crime and perpetual poverty.

It shouldn’t surprise us that ignoring the immutable Law results in poor outcomes, when there are so many other examples to learn from:

  • Corporate subsidies such as the Iowa-popular ethanol subsidies, intended to help the environment, but that instead actually harm it, cost taxpayers billions, raise food prices and impoverish developing countries.
  • The War on Drugs, intended to make Americans safer by outlawing dangerous substances, but that instead has resulted in organized crime, a police state, loss of civil liberties, distrust of authorities, the imprisonment of millions of our poor and the destabilization of a number of developing countries.
  • Policing the world with our military, intended to make Americans safer and spread the message of democracy and freedom, but that has instead resulted in attacks on our own soil, the sacrifice of soldiers’ lives, the loss of our freedoms, burdening our children with massive debt and worldwide hatred of everything we stand for.

As Dr. Phil would say: “How’s that workin’ for ya’?”

It’s not. But that’s not really the point of these programs, once they start. The real goal is to increase program budgets to insure permanent employment for the bureaucrats and their minions.

Of course, many government employees idealistically want to help others, but their personal motivation is trumped by the hopeless design of the programs they administer.

Government planners simply cannot envision all of the side effects that their proposals will cause. People will do what they want to do, and setting up obstacles and changing incentives causes them to act in unforeseen ways.

That, together with the perverse incentives engendered by the power to control other people and their money, makes for programs as ineffective as Soviet economic planning was.

So is the alternative to simply ignore the needs of the disadvantaged? Absolutely not. This is the great misunderstanding by those who hope that government can solve all of our problems – that no other alternative works as well (?) as the government “solutions.”

But the better ways to help others are counterintuitive, not as easy to understand as throwing other people’s money at a problem and strong-arming people.

  • First, simply having a vastly smaller government that lets people keep the money they earn would result in a much larger, thriving economy with more jobs, which would directly benefit those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, who also pay thousands of dollars in taxes and fees and are first to be laid off when the economy languishes.
  • Second, letting people keep their money would mean a lot more donations to charities (the average family pays 40% of earnings in various taxes). Americans are the most generous people in the world, and would gladly help those in need if government didn’t try to monopolize this endeavor.

And private charities must compete for donations, forcing their programs to be effective, and eliminating those with bad side-effects.

The Law of Unintended Consequences dooms most government efforts to solve our problems. People feel good when government “does something,” but our feelings are not as important as the outcomes.

Will we ever learn this? I have hope, but it might be a while.