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The Inevitable Failure of Federal Social Programs

June 15 2003

About 12 years ago, I had the opportunity to explain conservative ideals to the students of one of San Francisco's elite private secondary schools. The young son of my business partner invited me to address the student body and to my surprise the administration agreed. The faculty sat off to one side as I spoke. I mentioned that as our society has become more democratic, our government has not. I expressed concern that government bureaucracy was smothering our country and reducing more and more of our freedoms and rights the Constitution was framed to protect. The faculty's increasing agitation (for the most part but not all) as I spoke was as evident as their Woodstock era clothing.

It reached its peak when I stated that the Great Society social program of Lyndon Johnson's presidency had not reduced poverty but in fact had increased poverty. And that no program provided by government that touted a solution to a social ill would ever reduce the ill but in fact would only increase it. During the Q&A session at the end of my time, one of the more agitated teachers raised her hand and challenged my Great Society assertion. I pulled out my chart of U.S. government data that showed poverty levels declining steadily (the fastest declines during the Eisenhower years!) from the 1930's until the mid 1960's. It was 1965 when Johnson began the Great Society debacles. The chart clearly showed an up tick and growth trend in poverty levels at that point.

Conservatives often say that government legislated social programs will not or do not work. Liberals say just give these solutions time and they will evolve into effective bureaucracies. I propose that that evolution is actually the seed to their perpetual ineffectiveness.

Robert Nisbet, a major influence in my conservative thinking, declared "Bureaucracy" as the "new despotism". "…bureaucracy has become the fourth branch of government, threatening to emasculate each of the other three - executive, legislative, and judicial … ." He cites that at one time teachers, policemen, and firemen were the most numerous public employees and that citizens were well connected to them. Now government civil servants are the most numerous public employees. That growth in civil servants has been paralleled with increasing alienation of our citizenry from public institutions.

It would be easy for us conservatives to point fingers at the liberals for this bureaucratic /ineffectiveness growth. We have an ideological aversion to the government gaining control of any part of our lives, while liberals have an overt, distinct reliance on direct government intervention in society (the source of bureaucratic "despotism"). The problem, however, is that even our GOP Congress continues to promote government solutions, i.e., Homeland Security and drug benefits for Medicare. We all know federally mandated drug benefits will turn into a massive out-of-control financial and health care failure. But, it appears it will pass into law anyway!

I plan to use this space over the next several editions to explore why government programs, like the Great Society or the GOP led Medicare drug benefit, though born with good intentions, will inevitably fail when structured they way they are. They will NEVER evolve into effective instruments of improvement as the authors claim. I heard Jack Kemp, when he was Secretary of HUD, state that for every $1.00 Congress appropriates for HUD, less than $.30 reaches the field. This is not an exception due to inefficiencies or mismanagement. It is inevitable in a government bureaucracy.

Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.