Several people have tagged me and Losing Ground since Nicholas Kristoff’s column on Friday about the ways that social programs can backfire. It was a praiseworthy column—all of us on both sides of the political spectrum should be as ready as Kristoff to acknowledge problems with our beliefs. But it also offers an opportunity to recall the three laws of social programs in Losing Ground, because the backfires are not idiosyncratic. They occur everywhere and always for inherent reasons.
1. The Law of Imperfect Selection. Any objective rule that defines eligibility for a social transfer program will irrationally exclude some persons.
This law accounts for the reason that programs like Food Stamps and the Supplemental Security Income program constantly expand. Whenever the people who administer the programs run into a case of a genuinely needy person who has been excluded under a current rule, they tend to redefine the rule or otherwise alter the program’s administration to be more inclusive, which in turn brings more people who don’t need the social transfer under its umbrella.
2. The Law of Unintended Rewards. Any social transfer increases the net value of being in the condition that prompted the transfer.
Kristoff referenced the increased net value of being illiterate because of the “intellectual disability” payment of $698 per month that leads parents to withdraw their children from literacy classes. But the same thing is true of every payment of any kind that requires people to demonstrate that they have a problem before they qualify for the payment. It is not a defect in program design. It is inescapable whenever you give rewards for having a problem.
3. The Law of Net Harm. The less likely it is that the unwanted behavior will change voluntarily, the more likely it is that a program to induce change will cause net harm.
This is not as obvious as the first two laws, but just as inexorable. My favorite chapter of Losing Ground is a thought experiment about a government program that uses financial rewards to reduce smoking. If the rewards are small, nothing will change. If they are large enough to induce a significant number of people to quit smoking, the program will inevitably lead to more people who take up smoking in the first place and the net number of inveterate smokers.
Fewer and fewer people are old enough to remember, but once upon a time almost all children were born to married couples and almost all young men were physically able to work and knew how to show up on time and work hard. Then, in the mid-1960s, before globalization, before manufacturing jobs disappeared, while working-class wages were still going up, we decided that compassion should be bureaucratized. The three laws of social programs explain a lot of what has happened to the working class since then.