Principle No. 3: Just because a problem exists doesn't mean government should try to solve it.
“Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we should soon [be in] want [for] bread.”
- Thomas Jefferson, 1821
"...a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the United States...would be also a power to do whatever evil they please."
- Thomas Jefferson, 1791
After Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, families, churches, private businesses, and nonprofit organizations from across the country and around the world immediately provided true compassion to the devastated communities on the Gulf Coast. These vital components of civil society worked tirelessly to minister not only to the physical needs of the people in these devastated communities but also to their unique emotional and spiritual needs, in a way that an impersonal, one-size-fits-all government could not.
There is no question that government has a legitimate role to play in addressing some problems. There are some things only government can do. For example, when the lives or property of citizens are in danger, or when individual rights are violated, government has the right and obligation to address the situation through a well-ordered legal system that treats all citizens with equal justice under the law. Reasonable steps toward public order (stop signs and traffic signals, for example) are appropriate, as are other functions, especially at the local level where the people have a more direct voice in governing. But the more it takes on, the less it is able to focus on its most important tasks. Even when there is a legitimate role for government, there is often a way to fulfill that role through contracts with private companies who compete with each other to offer the best service and value to the taxpayers.
Frequently when government is called upon to solve a problem, there is another entity that could address the problem more appropriately and effectively. “We need to do something!” Perhaps. But “we” doesn’t necessarily mean “the government.” Government programs crowd out innovative non-governmental solutions from the public imagination because people think, “it’s the government’s job,” or, “the government is taking care of that; I don’t have to.” Now, not only does the government voluntarily step up to try to solve all problems, the people expect and demand it, leaving the recipients under served and the potential givers unfulfilled.
In 1887, President Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill that would have provided financial aid to Texas farmers struggling through a drought, saying, “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution; and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering, . . . The friendliness and charity of our fellow countrymen can always be relied on to relieve their fellow citizens in misfortune.” Following that statement, people of all ages from every state sent their pennies, dimes, and quarters to Texas, providing ten times the amount that would have been provided in the bill he vetoed. Perhaps the greatest disservice of the welfare state is that it discourages the individual generosity seen in those days, or in the days after Hurricane Katrina—generosity that touches the heart as well as the pocketbook.
Our culture is moving rapidly toward the belief that the only source of help and hope in times of trouble is the government. Ryan Messmore, of the Heritage Foundation, contends that we are not asking the right question. He says, “Rather than asking who should take responsibility for an issue (whether family, neighborhood, government, religious congregation, etc.), the public debate too often blithely assumes that the answer is government and instead focuses on how it should address the problem.”
But government is not our savior.
The late Joe Overton put it this way: “When governing institutions establish programs that attempt to improve upon private intermediary institutions [churches, families, communities], three damaging things occur. First, there is a prevailing sense that the problem is being solved by government. Second, resources are taken from private individuals and organizations through taxes, which reduce their ability to provide assistance independent of the government. And third, government programs often generate numerous rules and regulations that prevent or hinder private organizations from dealing effectively with the problem.”
Sometimes, it is better for the government to do absolutely nothing. When government tries to solve problems, when the demand to "do something!" prevails, the "law of unintended consequences" becomes an unwritten amendment to every piece of legislation or bureaucratic plan. The result is often a permanent solution to a temporary problem, perhaps helping a little, but simultaneously creating new problems that will have to be dealt with by creating another new program or adding more regulations. (For more on this, see principle #4.)
Private solutions, whether provided by for-profit or non-profit organizations, are more effective for a number of reasons. They can be implemented with lightening speed (within days of the hurricane, Southern Baptist relief teams were serving a half-million meals per day to victims and relief workers—at no cost to the recipients or the government), they are more likely to address the problem at its source, and they stay in place until the goal is accomplished. By the time the government gets around to doing something, it is massive, it misses the point, it discourages private innovation and initiative, and it stays past whatever usefulness it may have served. As Ronald Reagan said, “The closest thing to eternal life we’ll see on this earth is a government program.”
Johnny Ervin, who volunteered hundreds of hours coordinating relief efforts on the Gulf Coast through a Gulfport church, said, “When government is involved in solving a problem, it must use bureaucratic methods to deliver the solutions in order to meet all the demands that are placed on government functions. This always results in longer waiting times, more forms and red tape, less satisfied participants, and greater costs than other solutions provided by non-profits and free enterprise. Another way to say it is this: Government solutions to any problem should only be considered as a last resort, because by their nature they will always be the most bureaucratic, confusing, and expensive.”
One way to determine whether the government should perform a certain function is to apply the “yellow pages test.” If a product or service can be found in the yellow pages of a phone book, the government doesn’t need to hire employees and compete with private business.
When there is a legitimate role for the government, there are often ways to fulfill that role without adding to the bureaucracy. Actually, there are ways to avoid adding to the bureaucracy even for programs the government has chosen to create that are not legitimate functions.
One way to do this is to provide money but allow the beneficiaries of the money to make their own choices as to how it should be spent to meet their needs. The food stamp program is an example of this, where government provides the money but doesn’t build grocery stores and doesn’t hire butchers or check-out clerks. The food stamp recipients choose their own grocery stores and, with some limitations, which foods to buy. In a few areas in the country, this is done in education, where money is provided by the government but parents are allowed to choose the schools that best meet their children’s needs.
Another way to accomplish the goal of a government program without increasing the bureaucracy is to contract with private companies who can compete to provide the products or services. This can be done with more services than you might think. Two cities that were recently incorporated in Georgia chose to contract for all their facilities and all their services except police and fire protection. The city government simply sets the standards for the services and monitors the contractors’ compliance with those standards.
In those cities, there is very little bureaucracy and very few city employees. This allows the city to easily modernize or adjust to changing needs, because it can choose not to renew a contract for a service that’s no longer needed, or the city can easily make adjustments next time the contract is up for bid. In contrast, programs run by government employees rarely get terminated, no matter how outdated the methods they use or the services they provide. The contractors not only face competition from other companies who would like to provide the services, but they also face significant financial penalties if they don’t meet the standards during the contract period.
Just because a problem exists doesn’t mean government should try to solve it. When government does try to solve it, the solution should allow, with appropriate limitations, individual choices for recipients and competition among providers. Recognizing this principle - and applying it properly - will lead officials to govern with humility and restraint.
Choose Your Chapter
Do you support these principles?