Government failure

Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes: The Story of Government

Programs that don't work as intended ought to be cut.


If we judged everything by intentions rather than results, the world would be a strange place indeed. Steve never calls his mother on her birthday, but he always means to, so isn't he a wonderful son?

That goes for government as well: If we judged laws only according to what their sponsors intended, then every law and every program that has ever been enacted has been an unqualified success. After all, nobody intends for things to go wrong—right?

And yet things do go wrong. The news is full of examples.

Take civil asset forfeiture, one particularly dubious form of which Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reviving. The intention behind civil asset forfeiture—a practice in which the government seizes the property of suspected criminals—is brilliant: Confiscate the ill-gotten gains, auction them off, and then use the proceeds to finance investments in law enforcement. Using criminals' own resources against them: It's law enforcement jiu-jitsu!

It's also an unmitigated disaster. In practice, giving police officers a financial incentive to seize people's property without having to bring any criminal charges against them is a recipe for wanton abuse. Thousands of innocent Americans have been robbed at the hands of the very people who are supposed to be protecting them. The problem has grown beyond repeated congressional efforts to contain it. It has even grown so bad that two of the originators behind the idea have called for an end to forfeiture because "government self-interest corrupted a crime-fighting tool into an evil."

Not every case is quite so extreme. But many are still bad enough. Consider a Kentucky program aimed at reviving poor rural areas by retraining workers to become computer programmers. The effort to breathe new life into the coalfields was part of President Obama's TechHire Initiative, and was conducted in concert with the Appalachian Regional Commission.

According to a report from The Daily Signal, the job-training program was intended to turn out 200 skilled workers who could write code for smartphone apps and similar high-tech ventures. But the effort has fallen short: After $1.6 million, only 17 program participants have landed tech jobs. Some are quite happy with where they landed, but others who went through the program are not: "I am now in a job that has absolutely nothing to do with programming," says one.

A spokesman for the company contracted to provide the training says the company isn't to blame: There were "more challenges than expected when it came to personal development and growth," she said, citing a lack of "basic business environment skills" such as personal attire and communication.

But once you set aside the question of whether former coal miners clean up nicely, there's still the grim fact that a federal program to help communities partake in the 21st century economy could scare up fewer than 20 jobs. That's swell for the individuals, but it's not going to bring an entire geographic region back to life. Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam—who has his own plans for reviving rural Virginia with "new-collar" jobs—might want to take note.

The Trump administration, which has proposed shutting down the Appalachian Regional Commission, also recently announced that it would be cutting $100 million in grants for teen pregnancy prevention. This promptly led to an epidemic of pearl-clutching at media outlets that think the surest cure for any problem is a tractor-trailer full of somebody else's money.

But as The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway pointed out, the programs funded by the grants are remarkably ineffective. The Department of Health and Human Services' own analysis found that many of them either (a) did not reduce rates of teenage sexual activity, unprotected sex, sex without birth control, or pregnancy or (b) reduced the rates only for a short while. In one case, girls who went through the funded program actually "reported becoming pregnant at a higher rate" than girls in a different program.

If the programs are not doing what they are being funded to do, then why continue to fund them?

Granted: Some—maybe even many—government programs do exactly what they are supposed to, and they do it well. But that is far from universally true. Two years ago, for instance, the Department of Labor released an analysis of the Re-Integration of Ex-Offenders (RExO) program, which is supposed to help former prison inmates rejoin society. The analysis found "no effect" on recidivism, mental health, substance abuse, housing, or child support. And the effects on employment, "while statistically significant," were "quite small in practical terms."

So Washington canceled the program, right?

Of course not. It was renamed, and continues as the Reentry Employment Opportunity program. Because after all, it's full of good intentions.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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  1. That goes for government as well: If we judged laws only according to what their sponsors intended, then every law and every program that has ever been enacted has been an unqualified success.

    I would be happier if the birthday call scenario was more analogous here, that Congress intends to pass its stupid laws but never gets around to it.

    Sessions knows exactly what’s going on with asset forfeiture but doesn’t care. He knows full well the intention of everyone involved is to pad budgets at the expense of property rights and due process. He doesn’t care because this is an area where big government is a-okay.

    1. I would be happier if the birthday call scenario was more analogous here, that Congress intends to pass its stupid laws but never gets around to it.

      Well, they seem to be doing that with healthcare reform. Although it’s not for a lack of trying.

  2. “Programs that don’t work as intended ought to be cut”

    We already talked about government funded transgender surgery in the last article

    1. Heh. Indeed. ICWYDT

  3. good intentions =/= good thinking

    1. Typical Steve.

  4. “More challenges than expected when it came to personal development and growth.”

    What were they expecting, a room full of J.D. Vance clones?

  5. Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes[.]

    Social programs in a nutshell.

    1. The road to hell, they* say, is literally paved with them.

      *I believe it was Samuel Johnson

    2. As if libertarianism isn’t a social program.

      One that would be far more disruptive of the status quo than anything on the table from mainstream politics. One with all the good intentions in the world.

      1. Give us some examples, Tony, of what you mean.

        1. Eliminating most of the public sector seems pretty disruptive, don’t you think?

          1. How is that a social program?

            1. Indeed, it’s a lack of one

      2. You’re a fan of the status quo now?

        1. Not all of it. But nobody wants to change it to what you’re selling.

          1. “Nobody” is a straight up lie, but it’s true that most people would rather have strong authorities who will give them stuff while punishing their perceived enemies, paid for by kicking an increasingly rust-eaten can down an increasingly short road. The status quo is not sustainable and it’s going to break, one way or another.

            1. So you’re hoping for violent revolution. Sometimes it feels terribly constraining having to assume that my preferred policies must submit themselves to democracy.

              1. That’s yet another thing you’re wrong about, but thanks for thinking enough of me to invent some kind of insurrectionary desire.

                1. So you admit that there’s very little chance of your policy platform becoming reality in a world where people get to actually choose such things for themselves, but you hang on anyway? Admittedly some of my ideas are somewhat far-fetched for this country, but I do try to separate out what’s at least theoretically possible from what’s total fantasy, and reserve the latter for daydreaming.

                  1. Exactly. I try to separate out my mental masturbation times, from the times when I’m actually crafting our actual, future policies. Which is always!

                  2. How many people have died at the hands of people trying to enact your preferred policies?

                    That’s what you seem to be missing here. You’re trying to pretend your ideas and behavior aren’t monstrous.

                    1. If 51 people decide to beat the shit out of 49 others, Tony’s fine with it as long as he’s in the majority.

                    2. I hope they’re not. But then you’re equating being taxed with being sent to a gas chamber, aren’t you?

                    3. “But then you’re equating being taxed with being sent to a gas chamber, aren’t you?”

                      Do they not arrive and hold you at gunpoint, threatening violence and death if you don’t pay?

                      Why, yes they do.

                      So, was your point that you’re an idiot?

                    4. I believe my point was that you are, and thank you for confirming.

                  3. I take back the thanks. Stop making up things and then saying i believe in them.

                  4. So because 30% of the population believe the tripe you are selling and 25% believe the tripe I am selling I should just let you run rampant? I should give up speaking against intentions while practicing outcomes?

                    I like the tolerance you’re showing there.

            2. ” kicking an increasingly rust-eaten can down an increasingly short road”

              Now that’s a masturbation euphemism.

      3. So then are you implying that the “good intentions” of those (such as proponents of near-endless Government Almighty force and coercion) who advocate force and violence, are morally equivalent to those whose “good intentions” favor peace (minimal force and coercion) and individual freedom? Stalin’s mass-murderous USSR is morally equivalent to Canada today? Is anything anywhere then morally equivalent to everything everywhere?

        1. Nope, I’m saying that libertarians aren’t magical elves who get to exempt themselves from the realities of the world. Your whole program would be every bit as massive an undertaking as the stuff you mentioned, and probably less popular. But you do it because you think it’s best for people.

          1. I’m not an anarchist… SOME government is needed, yes.

            If we honestly line up the various world-wide governments, size of government (related to population size) v/s standard of living, North Korea and Cuba come off very poorly. Singapore and Canada and Hong Kong come off very well. USA comes off fairly good, but falling off (standard of living wise, of course) because of ever-growing Government Almighty. Scandanavian nations have actually recently backed off of too much Government Almighty, and their standards of living are going up.

            So yes, we think less government is better… Based on EVIDENCE in the real world! It takes humility to look at it honestly, and to realize that our “good intentions” usually (not always) do NOT justify force and threats of violence! Violence should be reserved for emergencies, not for… For example, me not liking your choices of charities, and so, using the IRS and the cops to make your charity choices for you. Which is what we have today, with various “income transfer” programs.

            1. Weird that we can agree that Canada and Scandanavia are nice places to live but you somehow conclude that small government is the reason.

              1. Put the Kim Il Dung regime or the Castro regime in power in Canada and Scandanavia, and they will NOT be nice places to live in, any more, yes, indeed!

                I have read the writings of Alexander Sohlsheneitzen (spelling?) and he was not a huge-huge fan of the Czars, but he clearly came down on the side of, life was MUCH better under the Czars, than it was under Stalin.

                1. Nuance and subtlety are not Tony’s forte.

                  It’s why he thinks he can get what he wants thought force instead of debate.

                  1. *through

              2. So why isn’t Venezuela a nice place to live?

                1. So why isn’t Antarctica? Pretty limited government there. Since we’re cherry picking.

                  Hellholes exist on earth. But every decent place has a modern government that takes up about a third of GDP give or take. You want to demonstrate that a much leaner government can make for a better society than Canada, all I need to see is a single shred of evidence.

                  1. “So why isn’t Antarctica”


                    The CLIMATE you fucking retard.

                    1. Actually, Antarctica mostly proves the Libertarian view… Just about everything human-made down there is government-owned or government-sponsored, with little if ANY “private enterprise” in the true sense… Because no one (besides governments) is allowed to own ANYTHING down there! And look at the productivity of Antarctica… Icebergs and penguin poop! When is the last time you bought anything “made in Antarctica”?

                  2. Tony sees that decent places to live often have big governments, and it never enters his small, angry mind to question which is the cause and which is the effect, or if said situation is sustainable over the long term.

                    1. US of A Government Almighty became one HELL of a lot less Almighty right immediately after WW II… Massive government spending collapsed almost overnight… All those regulatory agencies and price-fixing and rationing agencies just flat-out bit the dust, for the most part… And American society prospered and flourished! Despite the nay-sayers who wanted to continue Government meddling…
                      Similar economic recoveries (after scaling back government) have happened in post-WW-II Germany, and later Canada, Britain, Finland, Norway, New Zealand, Chile, and on and on… HONEST people who have researched this, know and acknowledge these things!

                  3. Tony; in point of fact there is a lot of gvernment per resident in Antarctica. It’s an international research something-or-other and I understand that getting permission to go there is a pain.

                    Propose to build a subdivision there and watch the ‘International Community’ collectively have a cow…

      4. If you think it is a social program, why haven’t you signed up rather than bemoaning its tenets?

  6. Speaking of Good Intentions…

    There are thousands of transgender troops serving in the military.

    They’re all part of the snipped team.

    “Don’t you mean the snipper tea… Ohhh, I see what you did there!”

      1. Well, when the military surgeon does the male-to-female change surgery, “snipper” is actually more correct!

        Stay away from me with those snippers, dammit!!!!

  7. Granted: Some?-maybe even many-?government programs do exactly what they are supposed to, and they do it well.

    We shouldn’t be funding them, either, unless required to do so by the Constitution.

    1. When I read that line, I thought “citation needed”

  8. Programs that don’t work as intended ought to be cut have their budgets increased because obviously the problems are worse than we thought.

    As we say in the carpentry business, “I’ve cut this board three times and it’s still not long enough.”

  9. But..but…we just need a bigger budget! More authority! Harsher punishments! A czar! And no more whiny talk about that damned Bill of Rights!

  10. Seems I have heard somewhere that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

    1. You know who else had good intentions?

      [backs away slowly]

      1. Toad the Wet Sprocket?

      2. FDR interning Japanese Americans?

    2. It’s a good thing libertarians hate roads

  11. “Take civil asset forfeiture,”, please.

    I’ll be here all week.

  12. In this case it’s clearly bad intentions, good outcomes for law enforcement budgets.

  13. If we judged everything by intentions rather than results, the world would be a strange place indeed.

    It IS a strange place because so many people do this. Proggies/lefties are particularly bad about this.

    The intention behind civil asset forfeiture?a practice in which the government seizes the property of suspected criminals?is brilliant unconstitutional.

    It’s also an unmitigated disaster. unconstitutional.

    giving police officers a financial incentive to seize people’s property without having to bring any criminal charges against them is a recipe for wanton abuse. unconstitutional.

    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury,…nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation. – U.S. Constitution

    It’s unconstitutional. To call it anything else is to concede legitimacy where none exists.

    1. YOU can call it “unconstitutional”, but until the Supreme Court says so, it will be considered consitutional and will continue.

    2. Apparently, shoving a gun in someones face and taking their stuff is due process if in a police uniform; grand theft if in civilian clothes. Yet somehow the distinction eludes me.

  14. Why is it so difficult for so many people to realize that government and government regulation is not the answer to all of life’s problems?

    1. Because Government Almighty can sanction (enable, “empower”) me taking your shit, and then feeling all self-righteous about it!

    2. There’s probably not a single person on the earth outside of North Korea who believes that.

      1. What is something you support that is completely outside of the framework of the state?

      2. Now you’re just intentionally being stupid.

  15. Liberals judge socialism by it’s intentions, capitalism by it’s results.

    1. My experience is that when “capitalists” (believers in economic freedom, inventors, business owners, etc.) do good things for society in general, liberals credit the Government Almighty… Obama-style, “you didn’t build that”. If I invent the anti-gravity pod tomorrow, Government Almighty will get the credit, because, after all, Government Almighty allowed me to LIVE!!!!

    2. I can judge both by that criteria and still come out as a libertarian

      Socialism doesn’t have good intentions, though many individual socialists might

  16. For as long as I can remember, or even research back to, conservative programs have been judged by both their results and by their efficiency in producing those results. And, throughout the same era, liberal left-wing programs have been judged by their PROMISES. And no matter how much a liberal program fails, fails, fails, to do what it was established to do, the leftists merely tell us that more time is needed, and we will just have to be patient.

    I think that this double-standard has gone on much too long already. I think that our country was a better place before the leftists began changing it. I think that we’ve been on the Path Paved With Good Intentions long enough to smell the sulfurous brimstone of the Hell that’s at the end of it, and if there’s still an exit left to take, we need to get off the liberal highway and back to something that, once upon a time, actually worked better. Even if some people didn’t think it was as fair as it should be.

    1. Amen Bro!

      Try this on for size for “…something that, once upon a time, actually worked better.”? “Freedom” = subset of “treating others the way we want to be treated”. I don’t want you to use threats of force and violence against me, all day, every day, telling me what to do and not to do, all while pretending to be all oh-so-morally-superior to me, so I shouldn’t do that to you, either! That is “freedom” as I see it…

    2. It’s a tiny bit more complicated. Conservative/Libertarian policies are judged on the results or the intentions that Liberals assert they had, and only on real world effects if somebody carries on about it. Similarly, Liberal/Progressive policies are,judged on the intentions or results Liberals assert they had, and making bad consequencesmstick to them is damned hard.

      This is breaking up as the Liberal media screws up.

  17. Even at the best case, what works today morphs into something irrelevant later because of bureaucratic creep. Of course most programs don’t work right out of the box, but I am just saying that when programs sort of appear to work out of the box, they eventually don’t – it’s my axiom.

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  19. Why not just add a sunset provision in every single law passed?

    1. I’ve thought about that as well, but if we’re gonna have laws predictability is pretty important.

  20. The three R’s – Rename, redecorate, reorganize. Seemed to be the main functions of departments these days. Mind-boggling – but it keeps Prison Industries humming along making new furniture.

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