The Unintended Consequences Of Good Intentions
An old proverb says the road to hell is paved with good intentions. If that’s the case, there must be a six-lane expressway paved with good intensions leading from Capitol Hill straight to the land of perdition, because just about every time Congress tries to do something to improve the condition of humankind, we end up suffering the unintended consequences of their actions. As Ronald Reagan once quipped, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
Consider The War on Poverty Congress declared in 1964 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Initially, the plethora of anti-poverty programs appeared to be working. But within a few years, the long-term effects of these programs kicked in: the disincentive to work known as “the poverty trap”; the single mothers it fostered and the deterioration of the family; as well as rampant fraud and abuse of the programs.
In 1964, the poverty rate was 19 percent, with 25 million people living below the poverty line, and we were spending less than a $1,000 per person in poverty; today, 53 years later, the poverty rate is 12.7 percent, but there are 40 million people living below the poverty line, and we spend $17,000 per poor person. It appears the main beneficiaries of the war on poverty are the government employees who staff the 92 different anti-poverty programs Congress has created.
Another example of good intentions gone awry is federal aid to education. This was a huge issue in the 1960 presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, as Americans were shocked when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, beating the U.S. into space. Kennedy and the Democrats seized this opportunity to portray federal aid to local public schools as a defense initiative designed to bolster science and math education and win the Space Race.
But with education funds flowing from Washington, it didn’t take long for the National Education Association (NEA) to decide it was really a labor union, not a professional organization. By the mid-sixties, public school teachers across the nation were marching on picket lines demanding higher wages. By 1976, NEA members were the largest voting bloc at the Democrat convention. And when Jimmy Carter was elected president, he showed his appreciation for the support of the NEA by creating the U.S. Department of Education.
How has this worked out for science and math education in our schools? Well, we now spend more money per student than any other nation. But it seems our tax dollars don’t buy as much education after they travel to Washington, D.C., where they are wined and dined by special interests and returned to us with all sorts of conditions and mandates attached to them.
One of the biggest cross-national tests is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures reading ability, math and science literacy, and other key skills among 15-year-olds. The most recent PISA results placed the U.S. 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Meanwhile, our industries, universities and hospitals must search the globe to find qualified engineers, scientists, mathematicians and physicians, while many of our students enter the labor market with worthless degrees.
In the private sector, failure is rewarded with bankruptcy as investors stop pumping money into failing enterprises. But in the public sector, failure is often rewarded with more taxpayer dollars to fix the problem. Albert Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” But when it comes to government, the politicians don’t just keep doing the same thing; they actually do more of it. Apparently, the logic is if you put water in your gas tank and your car won’t run, the problem is you just didn’t put enough water in your gas tank.
If you think the law of unintended long-term consequences applies only to well-intentioned but fuzzy-headed liberal ideologues, consider the War on Drugs. I graduated from high school in 1964. There were nearly a thousand students in my graduating class, and I didn’t know of a single one who smoked pot. Smoking in the boys’ room was a common offense, but it was cigarettes, not pot, that was smoked. Marijuana was mainly popular among the hippie counter-culture because it was a cheap alternative to alcohol; it was a weed that could be grown anywhere — in a backyard garden or a flower pot in your apartment.
Then President Nixon declared his War on Drugs in 1969. The strategy was to suppress the growing of marijuana and drive its price up to the point that hippies — few of whom held regular jobs — could no longer afford it.
But things didn’t quite work out that way. In 1969, when marijuana cost $10 an ounce, only 4 percent of adults had smoked it. But today, marijuana costs around $350 an ounce and 55 percent of adults say they have smoked it. There are now more marijuana smokers than cigarette smokers. The War on Drugs did not solve the “problem” of pot-smoking hippies; instead, by turning a weed into a $350-an-ounce commodity, it created a hugely profitable illicit drug industry and a culture of drug use.
We now have a serious crisis on our hands with the misuse of and addiction to opioids, including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl. Every day, more than 115 Americans die from drug overdoses. And the economic cost is estimated to be over $80 billion a year from the cost of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment and criminal justice involvement. But if you think the solution to this crisis is more laws, stricter enforcement and harsher penalties, then there’s a special padded cell for you in Einstein’s insane asylum.
I could go on for days listing the well-intentioned government programs that have turned small problems into major crises. But the simple fact is that government cannot solve our personal problems for us. At some point, we have to take responsibility for our own lives as well as the lives of the children we bring into this world. When government gets involved, it tends to supplant the social institutions necessary for a free society based on individual responsibility. It was once the responsibility of the extended family to take care of the elderly; we now have nuclear families and the elderly are the responsibility of the state.
If we want to live in a free society, we must have strong social institutions to support personal responsibility.