Government Efficiency: Public’s Lack of Knowledge

I was following a discussion the other day. It was between some liberals and conservatives.

What intrigued me and irritated me was the issue on which this particular group of people agreed. I don’t remember the exact discussion, but it had to do with government. Somehow the issue of efficiency came up. At least one liberal in the discussion agreed with the conservatives that government is inefficient. Can you believe that!?!

That is simply not true as a generalization. Studies have shown that in providing certain services the government does it more efficiently than the private sector. The private sector can have a lot of competition and hence redundancy. What the private sector excels at isn’t necessarily efficiency but choice. You get many choices. Some of those choices may be efficient or not, but it’s quite likely that the average customer isn’t getting the most efficient service. Government typically offers fewer choices, but the choices it offers tend to be very efficient (except in situations where a government is dominated by or obstructed by fiscal conservatives; making a fiscal conservative a poltician is like making an atheist the Pope or making an anarcho-socialist the CEO of a transnational corporation).

Even without looking at studies, this should be commonsense. Why do so many people not get this? Why has this misinformation become accepted as fact?

Furthermore, why is the implicit assumption that efficiency is always good? Fascists were known for their efficiency. The Italian fascists made the trains run on time and the German fascists also were good about making efficient train transport. Maybe we should put other values above mere efficiency. This is the failing of capitalism. Most value that creates benefit for individuals, for communities and for society as a whole can’t easily be measured in monetary terms.

That is what government is for. Even though government can be more efficient in doing many things, that isn’t it’s primary purpose. Government is there to create public good, a result of which capitalism is inferior in achieving in many cases. Government exists to step in to do the work that the private sector fails at doing well or doing at all.

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12 thoughts on “Government Efficiency: Public’s Lack of Knowledge

    • I’m not one who defends all government as good. It’s not a matter of government being more efficient about everything. It just seems silly to make such a broad generalization that government is inherently inefficient, that no matter what it does inefficiency will somehow always be the result. Just on the face of it, it sounds ridiculous to me.

  1. Is our welfare and unemployment system efficient? Y/N? School system? Y/N? Is aid $ to foreign governments efficient? More than direct donation to social innovates on the ground? Y/N? Answer is likely N. Why? because of a lack of innovation, transparency, information sharing, collaboration, and ground-up efforts by people close to the problems they are trying to assist. The fact is, social innovation and social business leverage competitive drive and self-improvement, as does wikinomics. Donors Choose is a good example. Take poverty. I agree we need some reasonable amount of tax money at all levels to help fight poverty. But, $ for $, is government more efficient than social philanthropy and social innovation? If anyone actually believes that putting tax money into a red tape crapshoot to trickle aid down massive layers of government burocracy and stove-pipe special interest is somehow more effective than targeting $ through local transparency, horizontal comparative competition, and grassroots social innovation on the ground, I would be rather shocked, literally

    • I would make several points.

      I wouldn’t claim that government is more efficient in all ways. That would be as willfully ignorant and ideologically blind as claiming the private sector is more efficient in all ways. When you are talking about creating public good for all citizens, instead of just good for a specific group, then yes government is better at that. In fact, that is the government’s one and only credible purpose. If the private sector didn’t regularly fail in regard to the public good, there would be no demand for a government.

      So, it depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you want to make the best product or service for a select group of people, then the private sector quite likely is the best place to do it. But if you want to make the best product or service for an entire population, the private sector will inevitably fail. For example, private charities are notoriously inefficient and generally wasteful of money.

      To put this in perspective, I would add that the idea of efficiency is relative. There is no perfect efficiency. It’s a question of what is more efficient for what purpose. If you put government up to the standard of the private sector, then government can be judged as inefficent. Then again, if you put corporations up to the standard of public good, then corporations can be judged as inefficient. But this seems stupid to judge something by the standard of something else.

      Anyway, there is no reason to assume efficiency is always a good thing.

      Democracy is less efficient than dictatorship. That is actually the reason democracy is superior. It’s inefficiency allows for slower, more egalitarian change with checks and balances to protect against the efficiency of oppressive concentrated power.

      Consider another example. Indigenous people may live an inefficient lifestyle from the perspective of modern industrialized societies, but why is that the standard to judge them by. When a corporation steals their land and pollutes their air and water, most indigenous people wouldn’t praise that corporation for its efficiency in doing so. Efficiency is less than worthless if its result is harmful.

      This is why government regulations exist. Regulations do cost money to enforce and do slow down industry, but they also protect the public, especially those with less power. By the way, in this globalized world of transnational mega-corporations, the less powerful includes both the average worker and the average business. Like most workers, most business owners aren’t members of the plutocratic elite that is able to manipulate less democratic governments.

      On a less positive note, from my perspective, one of the best examples of efficiency in the world is the tax-funded US military. It isn’t operated democratically nor is it operated according to a free market. It is simply an efficient operation that conquers countries and subdues populations. No private defense company could ever come close to the efficiency. It’s highly questionable, though, that this deadly efficiency is always or even usually desirable.

      The cult of efficiency is in some ways contrary to a free democratic society. There is nothing wrong in achieving efficiency in and of itself, but when it is destructive of the public good then there is a serious problem. On the other hand, there is no greater achievement than an efficient public good, although an inefficient public good will always be better than an efficient public bad.

    • Let me get back to charity because that probably is the most useful area of comparison. I have even analyzed it before (as one small part of a longer post):

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/haidt-mooney-moral-foundations-spiral-dynamics/

      In that post, I was analyzing differences between conservatives and liberals, but it touches upon the issue of charity in terms of private donations versus taxation.

      Some argue that the data shows conservatives give more money in private donations than liberals. This may be true and I haven’t yet seen evidence to the contrary, Nonetheless, it is definitely true that blue states give more money in federal taxes than do red states, and it is also true that red states receive more federal funds (welfare, infrastructure, emergency services, etc) than they give in federal taxes. So, blue states are paying for red states. Despite conservatives giving more private donations, conservative states remain impoverished and in need of outside help from the government. No one forces these red states to take the money given to them by blue states.

      This goes beyond just who is giving and who is receiving. To get back to the issue at hand, the question is whose money is most efficient and effective. Federal funds can help maintain basic services such as roads to drive on and clean water to drink. And federal funds can help people when in times of need, whether in terms of emergency services (emergency rooms, fire stations, etc) or welfare (unemployment, disability, etc). But federal funds can’t solve the fundamental problems found in the conservative culture. Red states have more problems in the first place.

      This is significant in another aspect. Blue states not only give less in federal taxes but also give less in their own state taxes. Conservatives are less willing to pay for the necessities of public good, less willing or able to solve their own problems. So, its obvious that conservative charity is failing to achieve its ends. Despite the belief in private sector efficiency, charity has proven itself to not be effective.

      I think the best way to solve many social problems is neither with the private sector nor with the federal government but rather with local government. What liberals are willing to do is pay for the local government which solves local problems before it ever becomes a bigger issue for big government or big money charities. This seems to be proven true since blue states have fewer problems while also paying more taxes. The evidence supports the idea that government is better suited for solving the root causes of social problems.

      This makes sense even in terms of a free market. In nature, there are no free markets. Like corporations, free markets are created and maintained by governments. A market is only free to the degree that freedom is maintained by regulation such as breaking up monopolies, punishing corporate espionage, and controlling risky financial speculation that can take down whole economies. Even charities need to be regulated or else they can lead to corruption.

      I would add that the issue isn’t so much the public sector versus the private sector. Rather, it is an issue about democracy versus forces that undermine or destroy democracy. A government is only as good as it is democratic. The same goes for the free market. There is no freedom, in government or markets, without democracy. The problem with big business these days is that they have become undemocratic: bureaucratic, hierarchical, concentrated power and wealth, cronyism, corporatism, etc. The problem is big, both big government and big business. The bigger an institution or organization gets the less democratic it becomes, hence the more corrupt and oppressive it becomes.

      In discussions like these, I often feel the wrong issues are being focused on and the wrong questions asked.

  2. I’m pleasantly shocked by the intelligent and detailed reply. Usually I get some typical talking point blather, (from both sides, as I am a political moderate), but there are multiple points of insight and importance here, and I feel there is more common ground than I expected to see. The points on multinational finance and indiginous people are focal points of a social project I’m working on in Peru. About the reply…Some of it I sincerely agree with and some not, and I do want to respond when I get a chance (I’m off to a bar right now). For now, a few obligatory ‘devils advocate’/ ‘however’ points: (1). I still feel that liberals in general (in academic, journalistic, activist and political realms) overlook and excuse far too much government dead weight, waste and inefficiency, often due to group-think, soapbox talking points, and other reasons (present company excluded, obviously). (2) I also think that our over-reliance on and addiction to federal subsidy and management has lead to embarrassingly atrocious outcomes across the country, from alcohol and soft drug regulation (a liberal complaint, ironically) to a disgracefuly ineffective and illogical unemployment and welfare system (I know from hard experience and factual evidence) and substandard school system. This is all the more disgraceful considering the vast talent and resource pool of human capital, both moral, intellectual, creative, and financial, that we have across our 50 states and countless cities and counties. (3). I think that this dependency on federal government has been enshrined by liberals and Progressives for decades, often unintentionally. (4) I totally agree that Local governance, and good, accountable and transparent governance, is the best approach, and this is one area Conservatives (who rightly value local autonomy, local responsibility and fiscal transparency) and Liberals can and absolutely should agree on. (5) But government cannot, in my view, solve the root causes of many if not most social problems, …only shape the conditions in which they exist. And even if it can, most social policies are driven by emotion and special interest over logic, thought and evidence. Left and right extremes of gun policy; drug and alcohol policy; so-called morality laws; welfare policies…none of these have solved the evils they aim to eradicate, and often have made them worse. Should we have some form of welfare? Of course…but government has done a mediocre, sometimes terrible job. (6) The best approach locally is the ABCD, or Asset-Based Community Development approach, which is inclusive and participatory, horizontal and grass-roots at the local level, typically in a city and county. It involves private sector, charitable, non-government, and government, and, more recently…the emerging area of social business and social innovation. THIS is the new trend that will become far more effective in many areas than both traditional charities and government (which, like it or not, relies on the political class). Liberals (and conservatives) are missing the boat here. (7) Liberals in general rely too much on government and the political class, and not enough on social innovation, which can and is going far beyond traditional charity. Liberals usually believe in evolution when it comes to biology, but not nearly as much when it comes to social innovation without reliance on government. If the best we can do to get $ to needed recipients is government, then we are in a huge world of hurt, trust me. We can do SO much better, and both sides need to get on board. More on that later, I need a drink. -J

    • I’m always glad when a discussion can be raised to a higher level. I’m not a fan of emotional arguments and partisan rhetoric, although like any person I can be pulled into such tiresome and depressing activities. I try to resist the temptation to argue for the sake of arguing and instead make the best case that I can make. I sometimes succeed and sometimes not.

      I must admit I’m also pleasantly surprised at your response and glad you decided to leave that comment. It makes me happy. It’s nice to meet someone I can give honest opinions to and receive a genuine response. An attitude of mutual respect is something I appreciate more than almost anything in life. It’s so hard just to get to the point of even common decency, much less mutual respect.

      I doubt we disagree on a whole lot. In my writing here, I was arguing from a particular viewpoint, but I’m not an ideologue. My views on lots of issues aren’t perfectly consistent for the simple reason I don’t assume I have things figured out. My political views shift as my knowledge and experience changes. It also depends on who I’m speaking with as I sometimes find myself more arguing against something than for something.

      As for our discussion here, I’m not particularly for or against big government. I don’t even have a clear opinion about big business. Generally speaking, as I explained above, I’m wary about big anything. I’m not necessarily an anarchist, but I suppose I’m a minarchist. I would point out that like ‘efficiency’, other terms such as ‘big’ are also relative. In the US, even many state governments are larger than the federal governments in other countries. So, the question is: What is a government big compared to? Considering the size of many transnational mega-corporations, the typical federal government isn’t all that big. At least, a federal government is limited to a single country, unlike transnational mega-corporations that have no loyalty to any single government or citizenry.

      Let me give your recent comment some thought. I’ll get back to it later.

    • I just wanted to leave a quick note. I plan to get back to this, but I don’t know when. I’ll try to not forget about this.

    • “1). I still feel that liberals in general (in academic, journalistic, activist and political realms) overlook and excuse far too much government dead weight, waste and inefficiency, often due to group-think, soapbox talking points, and other reasons (present company excluded, obviously).”

      I’d differentiate between different demographics of liberals, just as I would with conservatives. There is the average liberal which the media ignores, including the liberal media. And then there are various categories of liberal elites such as in media, academia, and politics. Even the liberal elites in academia are mostly ignored by the liberal political elites, the latter having more in common with the conservative political elites.

      What further complicates matters is that most Americans support liberal policies while self-identifying as conservatives. This means the average conservative is a moderate liberal, although the conservative movement itself is of course dominated by and controlled by the conservative elites.

      So, it is difficult to talk about. You always have to qualify which specific demographic you’re speaking about.

      Nonetheless, there is a general truth to what you say. I’d go even further with it. Most Americans in general overlook and excuse far too much government dead weight, waste and inefficiency. Likewise, most Americans in general overlook and excuse too much corporate corruption, bribery, and government manipulation. The reason most Americans ignore such things is because the corporate media ignores it, both liberal and conservative.

      “(2) I also think that our over-reliance on and addiction to federal subsidy and management has lead to embarrassingly atrocious outcomes across the country, from alcohol and soft drug regulation (a liberal complaint, ironically) to a disgracefuly ineffective and illogical unemployment and welfare system (I know from hard experience and factual evidence) and substandard school system. This is all the more disgraceful considering the vast talent and resource pool of human capital, both moral, intellectual, creative, and financial, that we have across our 50 states and countless cities and counties.”

      The other side of the problem is the answers most conservatives offer are worse than the problem itself. It all goes back to the powerful plutocratic elite who control the political debates and the political narrative, control the mass media, and control the two party system. It’s all an issue of big, whether big government or big business. Big is the opposite of democratic. The worse problem is few Americans even know what democracy is and many Americans have accepted the fascist propaganda that democracy is a bad thing (e.g., ‘mobocracy’).

      “(3). I think that this dependency on federal government has been enshrined by liberals and Progressives for decades, often unintentionally.

      Well, even conservatives defend big government. It’s just that they want a big military-industrial complex via their preferred neocon ideology. They also want a big FBI, a big CIA, big secret prisons and assassination programs, big border control, big war on drugs, big war on terrorism, big capitalist empire enforcing trade agreements all over the world, etc. They want big government funding of social conservative programs (i.e., compassionate conservatism).

      Also, like liberals, they want big government funding of social security and medicare. They want just as much big government as liberals, but they just don’t want to pay for it and instead would rather use deficit spending.

      “(4) I totally agree that Local governance, and good, accountable and transparent governance, is the best approach, and this is one area Conservatives (who rightly value local autonomy, local responsibility and fiscal transparency) and Liberals can and absolutely should agree on.”

      Yes, they should agree upon. However, this would require more direct democracy. There is almost nothing conservatives hate than direct democracy, not that they actually know what it is. If we could get Americans on both sides to understand and value democracy, all our problems could be solved easily and quickly. The challenge in achieving this is that the elites on both sides don’t want the American public to understand and value democracy. Disinfo and propaganda abounds.

      “(5) But government cannot, in my view, solve the root causes of many if not most social problems, …only shape the conditions in which they exist. And even if it can, most social policies are driven by emotion and special interest over logic, thought and evidence. Left and right extremes of gun policy; drug and alcohol policy; so-called morality laws; welfare policies…none of these have solved the evils they aim to eradicate, and often have made them worse. Should we have some form of welfare? Of course…but government has done a mediocre, sometimes terrible job.”

      A democratic government can solve the root causes of many if not most social problems. The central issue is that we don’t at present have a functioning democracy. I suspect America is already a Banana Republic or close to becoming one.

      “(6) The best approach locally is the ABCD, or Asset-Based Community Development approach, which is inclusive and participatory, horizontal and grass-roots at the local level, typically in a city and county. It involves private sector, charitable, non-government, and government, and, more recently…the emerging area of social business and social innovation. THIS is the new trend that will become far more effective in many areas than both traditional charities and government (which, like it or not, relies on the political class). Liberals (and conservatives) are missing the boat here.”

      I’m not familiar with ABCD, but it sounds interesting.

      “(7) Liberals in general rely too much on government and the political class, and not enough on social innovation, which can and is going far beyond traditional charity. Liberals usually believe in evolution when it comes to biology, but not nearly as much when it comes to social innovation without reliance on government. If the best we can do to get $ to needed recipients is government, then we are in a huge world of hurt, trust me. We can do SO much better, and both sides need to get on board.”

      I think you’re missing part of the picture. Liberals realize our present crony capitalism is the opposite of social innovation. They also understand that capitalism and free markets aren’t always or necessarily synonomous. Capital is just one part of an economy and it isn’t probably the best part to center your entire economy around. Labor and land, for example, are at least as equally important if not more important.

      Capitalism by nature tends toward crony capitalism and eventually monopolies. You can only artificially make capitalism superficially resemble a free market through massive government regulation. Better yet, it would be wiser to not make the entire economy centered on capital and capitalists and instead make the economy democratic.

  3. Awesome, no worries. I’m working on several books and white papers on a variety of topics, including better approaches of common ground, decency and respect in political discourse. I’m glad you appreciate the nature of this dialogue but am also somewhat saddened by how rare it seems in today’s dead-weight partisan climate…especially when the sober, discerning dialogue appraoch is so much more productive on all fronts. This exchange here reveals a lot on the utility of such an approach, and that it can indeed happen more than we think. I yearn for the day when liberals and conservatives work together on half the issues they fight over by finding common ground, from grassroots local government, philanthropy and social innovation, drug and justice reform, campaign finaince, corporate welfare and rent seeking, political decorruption, small business, and other things.

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