All Government Policies Succeed in the Long Run

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A crazy claim you are probably thinking after reading my title. After all, “failed policies” are a staple of discussions and debates about government actions in the United States. Everybody, regardless of political preferences, has a list of what he regards as the most glaringly failed policies. This way of looking at the matter, however, is all wrong.

People label a policy as a failure because it does not bring about its declared objective. For example, drug policies do not reduce drug use; educational policies do not educate children better; national-security policies do not make Americans more secure; and so forth. The mistake is to take seriously the announced policy objectives, to forget that virtually everything the government does is a fraud. The best way to document the government’s nearly unblemished record of policy success is to follow the money. With very little trouble, you will be able to follow the trail to the individuals and groups who benefit from the policy. Occasionally the true beneficiaries do not benefit in the form of augmented income or wealth, but in other forms of reward, yet the principle remains the same.

When I first studied economics and began to practice as an economist, back in the sixties and seventies, I learned how markets and the market system as a whole operate. With this understanding in mind, I was able to identify a number of reasons why a particular policy might fail: it might be based on insufficient or incorrect information; it might give rise to unintended consequences; it might receive inadequate funding for its implementation; it might be based on unsound theory or mistaken interpretation of historical experience; and so forth.

Analysts who approach the question of failed policies along these avenues can rest assured that they will never lack for new studies to perform and new measures to propose to legislators, regulators, administrators, and judges. For example, if government fiscal or monetary policy fails to stabilize the economy’s growth because it derives from unsound macroeconomic theory, then the analyst attempts to identify the ways in which the received theory is unsound and to formulate a sounder theory, on the basis of which a more successful policy may be carried out. This sort of back and forth between theoretical tinkering and policy appraisal fills many pages in mainstream economics journals.

But it’s all a waste of time insofar as the attainment of the ostensible policy objectives is concerned, because these objectives are not the policy-makers’ real objectives, but only the public rationales they use to disguise their true objective, which invariably is to bring about the enrichment, aggrandizement, and other benefit of the politically potent individuals and interest groups that pack the decisive punch in the policy-making process—for example, those who can most effectively threaten legislators with affirmative punishments or the withdrawal of financial support for the legislators’ reelection if the string pullers’ interests are not served.

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