Society and Culture

The 3 laws of social programs

Image credit: Ragesoss (Flickr) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image credit: Ragesoss (Flickr) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.

11 thoughts on “The 3 laws of social programs

  1. There is a fourth law and that is:

    The Law of Good Intentions

    When social program creators/administrators are rewarded more for their good intentions than achievement of goals, few goals will be met.

    As an example, the educational establishment gets “points” for their good intentions in spending more money on K-12 education over the last several decades. Meanwhile educational achievement has not improved. The public also awards good intentions points for raising the minimum wage; yet that action actually harms the very people it is supposed to help. You get rewarded for your intentions’ You don’t get penalized for lack of results.

    • That’s not what happened. Schools have indeed been penalized for lack of results under NCLB by being closed down or having management replaced, with the justification you’ve presented here. To a much lesser extent, teachers have been punished as well for not improving test scores. The reason it hasn’t helped much is that schools do not know how to improve student test scores. You can penalize people all you want, but if you’re asking them to do the impossible, it won’t help.

  2. All 3 are totally valid which is all the more reason for the GOP to provide substantiative reform proposals to address these issues.

    instead they are hiding in the closet whining that the POTUS is not making proposals so they don’t have to.

    The GOP are feckless weenies when it comes to credible entitlement reform proposals.

    • Credible proposals… I agree that the GOP needs to get in front of this, instead of shrinking away.

      So, taking what Dr. Murray lays out here as inherent, fundamental characteristics of entitlement programs, are there any credible, rational, substantive proposals that /can/ be offered other than a drastic reduction in the size, scope, and number of entitlement programs?

      If an entitlement or transfer payment is left intact, Dr. Murray’s argument is that at least one of the three laws above will inevitably and predictably come into play, which will continue to exacerbate the problems the GOP purports to care about.

      • I would think you could take a similar approach to entitlements as to taxes:

        1. – close the loopholes

        2. – capt the total benefits received.

        how about it?

        the hell of this is – that there are a LOT of different ways to comprehensively change the entitlement programs. It’s NOT a black and white, on and off, either/or proposition no more than taxes are.

        Yet the GOP is actually like a bunch of spoiled kindergarteners.

        what happened to the GOP that had thoughtful ways to deal with taxes, cuts and spending?

        they’ve turned into a bunch of whiny lard-asses.

      • Dear Eric T.:
        It is quite probable that Dr. Murray voted (at least during 2012 election cycle) for GOP candidates.
        However, I do not think that Dr. Murray is such an adept of GOP in narrow sense.
        As Derbyshire proudly says about himself
        “I am REACTONARY, not a GOP card-carrying member.”
        In a similar manner, Dr. Murray may feel more like a libertarian.

        Observations by Dr. Murray are
        1) valid and
        2) important,
        independently of policy prescriptions,
        be those for Republican party, for Democratic party, or for any other.

        • Oh, I agree. I don’t believe Dr. Murray is attempting to steer Republican policy choices, or influence specific dialogue during the Crisis du Jour.

          My point was in response to LarryG’s request for GOP proposals on reforming entitlements. If we accept (which I do) Dr. Murray’s analysis here, then the only consistent and logical course to pursue is limiting the damage done by entitlement programs. But since the Democrats are never going to bend on that issue, it falls (sadly) to the Republicans in office to make such a case.

          And to the extent they cannot, Dr. Murray has laid out what we can reliably expect moving forward.

          • I just think the GOP has spent years talking about entitlements. Back under Clinton, they were so vociferously against “Hillary Care” that they support the individual mandate.

            Since that time they have spent much more time talking about entitlements than doing something about them.

            you would think that they would have a clear plan by now and that they would have the courage and leadership to release that plan and promote it, put in on the table… support it.

            There are dozens of different ways to go about this short of advocating outright repeal which is dumb politically and a non-starter if you want to start somewhere and work at change.

            here’s just one thought. Medicare. People with 200,000 in income and millions in assets pay 100.00 a month because the current means-testing goes to 200k and does not count assets.

            These folks are using Medicare to preserve their assets.

            That’s not why Medicare was created. It was created to keep people of limited means from losing everything they had and become destitute.

            Now… it’s become a way to preserve your assets to pass on to your kids – who, by the way, are going to inherit trillions in debt, in no small part because our taxes are subsidizing their parents in preserving their assets for their kids.

            Mortgage deductions. How about ONLY for one home – your primary residence – and it’s CAPPED at median home prices? If you want a half million dollar house or a vacation home -then fine – but no “entitlement” deduction.

            these are things that principled Republicans could form a plank to propose – to put on the table – but instead what do they do? nothing, they blame the POTUS for not putting something on the table.

            What the heck has happened to the GOP?

    • The hard work of compromise was done years ago….the result was sequestration. Let’s go to the cliff, the stand-by and watch president can have a rally about it later.

  3. What about phasing in a combined federal/state workfare program (managed by private companies) being funded by money re-directed from phasing out welfare and crony capitalist programs?

  4. And of course, the giant elephant in the room is………. never-ending, mass immigration. Mass immgration feeds Big Government and it’s attendant social programs. Most immigrants, whether legal or illegal, support liberal Democrat policies.

    Gee, do ya think it might have something to do with the fact that most immigrants are, how shall we say, “non-white”?


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