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  • Victor Bolles

What Works

“I guess to make a broader point, so often in the past there’s been a sharp division between left and right, between capitalist and communist or socialist. And especially in the Americas, that’s been a big debate, right? Oh, you know, you’re a capitalist Yankee dog, and oh, you know, you’re some crazy communist that’s going to take away everybody’s property. And I mean, those are interesting intellectual arguments, but I think for your generation, you should be practical and just choose from what works. You don’t have to worry about whether it neatly fits into socialist theory or capitalist theory — you should just decide what works.”

President Barack Obama, Argentina town Hall, March 23, 2016

President Obama made this statement on March 23rd at a town hall meeting with young people in Argentina. He goes on to praise Raul Castro for the accomplishments of his Communist government. It is clear that he makes no clear distinction between the American free market system and socialism/communism. His philosophy is outcomes based not process based. Under this line of thinking if you don’t like the outcome you arbitrarily change the outcome rather than fix the process. If the income distribution is not as equal as you like you simply take money from the wealthy and give it to the poor. Problem solved. If minority kids can’t get into a good college because they went to crappy high schools then mandate that colleges accept a certain percentage of minority students for reasons of diversity. Problem solved.

Or is it? If poor people receive the money earned by talented, educated, hard-working people then what will they do in order to improve their position? Hone their talents, get educated or work hard. I think not. They will try to elect politicians that will give them even more of other peoples’ money. And making colleges accept poorly educated minority students doesn’t solve the problem of the crappy schools they go to. There is growing evidence that these unprepared kids don’t do well in college or get their degree. So the “solution” is mere window dressing that does nothing to solve the underlying problem. Furthermore, these “solutions” come from government programs making the beneficiaries ever more dependent on government and in need of more “solutions”.

There is a moral and ethical problem that is a direct consequence of an excessive reliance on results. The reason that some outcomes differ from those desired can be due to multiple factors. The oft-cited gender pay gap is attributed to discrimination against women and legislation has been proposed to remedy this situation. It is true that there is discrimination against (and sometimes for) women, but that is only one of the many factors affecting the pay gap. Other factors include time off for child rearing, different work priorities and job specialization. Forcing a result (equal pay) based on the assumption that a single factor caused the injustice creates injustice in those cases where other factors are the reason.

There are also unintended results for this type of policy making. Affirmative action in hiring results in ratios of minority employees similar to the general population but also taints all minorities as not achieving their position on merit but from affirmative action.

But poor policies and unintended results are not the worst results of outcomes based policymaking. Great evil has been perpetrated because of a results based focus. In order to achieve his goal of collectivization of the economy Stalin ordered the elimination of the kulaks (small farmers) as a class. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn estimated that as many as six million people died as a result (the Soviets admitted to only 700,000). Mao’s attempt at collectivization (the Great Leap Forward) resulted in millions of deaths (some estimates as high as 45 million).

All these examples use the coercive power of the state to achieve a state defined or approved goal. The state will strive to achieve such goal by any means necessary (“what works” as described by president Obama). A principled policy can only strive to achieve a goal by actions within the founding principles. If the goal is not achieved we must look to the cause of the variance from our intentions. This is a self-correcting mechanism that does not exist under the “what ever works” philosophy.

Finding real solutions is hard work and can involve telling people that they are part of the problem and need to change what they are doing in order to be part of the solution (like lowering the out-of-wedlock birthrate itself an unintended consequence of lenient welfare and tax policy “solutions”). This is not easy and it takes real leadership but it is the only thing that really works.

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