Just Say No ... to Government

May 19, 2002

by John K. Bates

A single sentence in last Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal summed up precisely what is wrong with the vast majority of government programs and indeed why most of them are wasteful and grossly inefficient. Referring to the ongoing federal ad campaign to discourage youth drug use, and the requests for continued funding of said campaign even though it admittedly has been a failure, the Journal states, “Changes planned by [new drug czar John P.] Walters include testing all commercials for effectiveness prior to airing them - a practice that is standard for corporate advertisers.” In other words, the hundreds of millions of dollars We The People have spent over the years on ads designed to stop kids from taking drugs have never, ever, gone through any sort of “quality assurance” program. They have been thrown out there, sight unseen, simply because the money exists to fund them.

Let us examine some of the many ways in which this is bad:

Government programs do not care about results. This is emphatically true when Mr. Walters, while admitting the failure of his anti-drug ad campaign, asks Congress for the exact same amount of money so that it may continue. Imagine a business manager asking a CEO for continued funding of a program that produces no benefits. Imagine that same CEO asking a board of directors for more pay despite a plummeting share price. Imagine even a child asking for continued allowance when he has refused to do a single chore required to earn what he has been paid. The real world in general dictates that pay comes from performance. It should be no different in government. But it is. By any measure imaginable, the anti-drug ad campaign is a dismal failure. It should be reduced or canceled, not continued at the same expensive levels.

Government programs do not care about quality. According to Fox News, which has also picked up the story, private studies now show that the anti-drug ad campaign actually causes some teens to want to try drugs, particularly marijuana. The fact that the government does not review the ads for quality or effectiveness should make this not a surprise. Again, think of industry. Most every product brought to market goes through some sort of testing and study to ensure, among other things, that people wish to purchase it. Ditto for corporate advertising campaigns. But government, which answers not to market forces and barely even to taxpayers, needs not focus on quality or effectiveness or any other standard of performance. Because, at the end of the day…

The money will always be there. This is the real scandal of Mr. Walters’ application for continued funding of the anti-drug campaign. Despite the fact that it has produced 212 failed commercials and soaked up a whopping $929,000,000 in taxpayer dollars thus far, there have been no tangible benefits. Despite federal meddling in the marketplace, with Congress mandating media make available “equal time” for drug ads so that they would be assured of getting air time, there is still no measurable curbing of drug use. Despite the fact that drug campaigns have marginally worked in the past (“Just Say No” did actually work, even if people made fun of it at the time), thus producing somewhat of a working model of success, this particular program has failed.

But it matters not one bit. The politicians and bureaucrats who create and run these programs know that there is so much money every year ($2,100,000,000,000 in 2002 and growing) that there will always be a pile of money for them. There is no market, nor any brutal market forces, to drive the government out of business. Hence, there is no incentive to innovate. There is no incentive to track results or control quality. And there is no incentive to ever improve. The drug campaign will get its money - from us - and the campaign will continue, flaws and all, regardless of the results. That is the fallacy of every government program.

Of course, there are many other examples. From Amtrak to the recently re-canonized farm subsidies to the Postal Service to NASA, government is fraught with programs that year after year and decade after decade fail to deliver even the most rudimentary (by private sector standards) levels of service. And while perhaps some of these programs can only be done by the government (who else is going to offer anti-drug ads?), the prevailing attitude in government says that because no one else will produce such ads, they can produce them any way they want, good or bad, without fear or negative consequence. There is simply no competition, and so there is no incentive. And since taxpayers are forced to pay into a huge pool of money, there is no shortage of funding. And since this pool never gets smaller, the programs never get cut.

This is the mindset in America 70 years after FDR first promised that the government would take care of every little ache and pain of life, while business and the marketplace is too risky to be trusted. This was the theme of the 2000 election (Bush praised government while Gore ranted against every “risky scheme” he could think of) and it has accelerated tremendously since September 11. Since only the government can protect us, this thinking goes, it must follow that only the government can provide for us. Despite all the inefficiency, the bungling, and indeed the programs that do not help but actually hurt the causes they are trying to aid, people will let these programs continue and grow because they have been convinced that they have no alternative.

Do they? Is there any remedy for continued expansion in government? Probably not, at least in an era where even staunch conservatives such as George F. Will admit that “small government conservatism” is dead. But two initiatives would greatly help if they ever were to become law. The first is term limits, the much-maligned-by-the-elite hot issue of a few years ago that was (correctly) struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional at the state level. Clearly there is demand for this sensible idea, but just as clearly it will require a constitutional amendment at the federal level. If such an amendment is ever to be enacted, however, it needs to provide that no one may serve more than one term at any federal level. This will eliminate the career porkmeisters who are consistently responsible for such atrocities as the farm bill. And while “experts” would wail and gnash their teeth over the loss of “seasoned political experts” running things in DC, We The People would probably notice that many of our new politicians actually do what they promised. In any event, it is clearly worth a shot.

The other thing that would slow government - and which this space had advocated for a long time - would be to end the evil practice of the withholding of income taxes. It is not taxes themselves that are bad necessarily. It is the fact that they are collected before the money is ever seen. Most Americans have no clue how much they pay in taxes; most hence have no idea what government costs them. If Joe Sixpack had to write a check to the Feds, and to the state, and to FICA, and to Medicare, he might begin to see the enormity of what he pays. And they maybe - just maybe - he would look at the inefficiencies of Mr. Walters’ department, and the $180,000,000 of our money he wants to continue to spend for programs that he admits do not work and do not follow accepted business guidelines, and say “no more.” Or he would at least say to Mr. Walters, “do with less,” or “find a better way.”

But until the American people understand that they actually pay for government, and grasp what it is they pay, they will continue to let drug ads, trains, the Post Office, and outrageous farm handouts to thrive and prosper. The government will roll merrily along, immune to even the most fundamental of market forces. The drug ads are not the only example, but they are a good one. Government simply does not work, and we should Just Say No to more of it.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on CheyenneNetwork.com.

Send the author an E mail at Bates@ConservativeTruth.org.

For more of John's articles, visit his archives.

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