11/23/2011

Focusing merely on the symptom as opposed to the underlying cause.

I tend to get sucked into debates on specific examples of government failure that have false assumptions about the larger issues at play. That’s a problem I need to work on. If the framework through which we are viewing an event is fundamentally misguided, it follows whatever we discover will necessarily be deficient. One example of this concept is when discussing any of the various manifestations of the government "keeping us safe". This could be the Drug War, War on Terror, TSA, DHS, FDA, and so forth. It is very easy to get drawn into a debate on the specifics of whatever anecdote that prompted the conversation to begin with, when the problem is of a much more broad and fundamental nature.

One of the really giant flaws of the government provision of safety, is that there is no ability to accurately measure tradeoffs, and thus make efficient or rational decisions. As I’ve tried to stress earlier, there is no such thing as being safe. There are obviously varying degrees of relative safety, but the ultimate goal of being perfectly safe is, by the very nature of human action, impossible to achieve. Allocating resources in an efficient matter may be one of the most critical elements necessary in order to achieve prosperity. However when you provide the government with a task that is literally impossible to achieve and thus will never be reached, the failure to allocate resources efficiently which is endemic to the nature of bureaucracy, is magnified exponentially.

Anyway, this example is about a 88 year old business man being shut down by the feds because he sells a product that can be used in the process of manufacturing an illegal drug. The rationale behind the Drug War is quite simple: Drugs are bad, let’s eliminate them and keep people safe. Well in addition to utterly failing at the goal of eliminating them, all the government provision of “safety” in this area does is make people less safe via criminalization, while also imposing enormous costs on society that are mostly unintended. There is no ability to calculate whether or not this trade off is worth it, as the government funds this (and all of its) operation through coercive means.

And that is of much greater significance than whatever most recent example of government failure it is we are discussing at the moment. There are those who believe these failures are an exception to the rule, and if the system could be tweaked a bit, different people voted in and so forth, these aberrations of an otherwise noble effort to rid the world of drugs would vanish and the system can finally get on working as intended. When in reality, the imposition of costs on innocents, the waste of resources, and the logically unavoidable failure to achieve the objective assigned to the bureaucracy are endemic features of a bureaucratic operation - not outliers.

The Drug War is perhaps the most effective example one can use to demonstrate these concepts. This is something where even when 75% of the population feels it is a failure, as does several top members of the FBI, DEA, and even former “Drug Czars”, still the nature of the bureaucratic agency is such that it only grows larger in conjunction with each successive degree of failure. Forced to face these realities while simultaneously trying to remain blind to the plight of millions of fellow citizens rotting in prisons for a victimless crime, the illusion of political representation or the idea that voting can in anyway effect, impede, or reform what perceive to be undesirable government agencies, is shattered with stunning clarity.

By no means is this limited to the Drug War. Virtually the identical analysis can be applied in all instances of government efforts to keep us safe. Here is an example of the FDA debating mandatory salt reductions in food, where the unintended negative costs extend beyond the obvious loss of property rights to the parties involved. The TSA, Department of Homeland Security, and War on Terror more broadly, is a textbook example of the failure for bureaucracies to conduct cost-benefit analysis and obviously the costs here are astronomical, both in the immediate sense and the long term.  The costs from circumventing the rule of law itself are incalculable, but further demonstrate the atrocity created when government is tasked with providing safety to its people. In fact, John Mueller, the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies and Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University just co-authored a book on this very topic titled, "Terror,Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs ofHomeland Security". Reason wrote up a brief blog post on this work titled, "Why We Should Fear Bathtubs More than Terrorists" that includes a must watch video-interview with the authors.




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