Archive for March 17th, 2009

Editorial: Christopher Berger

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

From Christopher D. Berger of

Why Government Doesn’t Know Best

While I don’t embrace the theory of evolution, I do find that it provides a wonderful predictor of human behavior: that is, if one alters a given environment in certain ways, creatures within that environment are likely to adapt to it in the way which ultimately is to their highest benefit, or if they cannot adapt, perish.  Creatures will tend to strive for their own survival and security above all else, even to the detriment of others, and humans are no different.  We will tend to do what we can to ensure our own security and comfort, even while telling ourselves that we’re doing it for the greater good.

This principle forms the foundation of why more government is a bad idea, and why government can never offer true competition to the public sector in terms of money spent vs. results.  The ideal circumstances for anyone operating any sort of productive organization, be it in the public or private sector, is to have the resources one wants to accomplish the job one has.  In other words, we would all find a situation where the budget was more or less irrelevant preferable to those in which budgetary restrictions were a concern.  We will all strive to achieve such financial security, but few if any of us will ever achieve it.

In the real world, the private sector, budgets are limited.  By and large, one is doing what one is doing for the purpose of making money, to achieve that financial security.  But achieving that security requires budgetary discipline in the first place, and its continuance through growth of revenues.  In the real world, expenses must be tailored to a reasonable expectation of revenue streams if long term survival is one’s goal.  Therefore, while the primary goal of a business may be to maintain its market share and survive at a profit, even thrive, its secondary goal must be to restrict expenses as far as possible in an effort to maximize sales by offering one’s product at the lowest price possible.  The prime directive of business (staying in business) hinges on this secondary one.

Government, by contrast, is able to create a paradoxical alternative to this: in the public sector, revenue streams are tailored to expectations of expenses with little or no regard to efficiency or waste.  If one overruns one’s budget, oh well, let’s just go get more money.  When one runs up against the limits of one’s budget, rather than attempting to reduce expenditures by cutting out waste and streamlining operations, one goes to the taxpayer and threatens to cut essential services, the things government exists to provide in the first place, unless we the people are willing to cough up more cash, as is happening in California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, and a number of other states throughout the nation.

Case in point: education.  The constant refrain from government (not to mention the teachers’ unions) is that we aren’t pumping enough money into education, resulting in lower test scores and a lower quality of education.  We have a nationalized education system in this country which is currently the single biggest item in most if not all state budgets.  We also have in this country a much smaller selection of private schools and academies which compete with each other (and to an extent the public schools as well) for pupils and dollars.  The average private school spends between one half and one third of what the average public school does, in some cases less than that, yet their pupils are, on average, better educated than their peers in the public schools.  Whatever the reason for the disparity, if the solution is increased funding for public schools, that’s what we’ve been doing for the past fifty years, and it hasn’t worked yet.

Because they by the nature of their funding preclude private alternatives for so many children, public schools have much less practical motivation to improve the quality of their product or lower their costs than do private schools, and the idealism of a few teachers and administrators will only go so far in the face of a mountainous bureaucracy and the stolid and stultifying indifference of the teachers’ unions, which are invariably more concerned with their members’ pay (and thus union dues) than their members’ job performance.  So we are presented every few years with fresh wailing from the bureaucrats and unions that we’re not spending enough on education, that we need to raise taxes “for the children”.  And because of that emotional tug, more often than not, they get their way.  They don’t adjust their expenditures to extant revenue streams, they adjust their revenue streams to the money they want to spend, and that’s not the way the real world works.  It’s paradoxical, unnatural, and ultimately unsustainable past a certain point of expenditure, as many states are now finding out to their intense discomfort.

The private schools, by contrast, offer parents the alternative of voting with their feet: if the parents aren’t satisfied with the education their children, they can take their children (and their tuition dollars) elsewhere.  The real killer with public schools is that one continues paying for them whether or not one’s children actually attend them, making many parents who want to abandon the local public schools unable to do so financially.  One can remove one’s children, but not one’s tax dollars.  Private education is a substantial expense, costing as much as $7,000 per anum or more, depending on where one sends one’s children.  (In contrast, public schools have been known to spend in excess of $14,000 per pupil in some parts of the country).  Therefore, private schools have been forced to improve the quality of their product to the point that people who have the money and inclination will actually send their children.

That’s just one instance of a government program which spends drastically more money for a lower result than a comparable private industry.  By this point in our history, the list is practically endless.  What we need to take away from all this is that government works only when it gets out of the way.  Other times, it’s just an unnecessary drain on our resources.