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January 09, 2003

Policy Break--The Basics redux


Someone, Robert Heinlein I think, once remarked that any system of government could “work,” as long as under it authority and accountability/responsibility were aligned. (He didn't mean that all forms of “working” government were equally valid, just that if the two attributes were matched, the resulting organization would be more or less functional.)

In the case of the corporate scandals at Enron, Tyco and Worldcom we have one illustration of what happens when authority is not accompanied by accountability. Such accounting shenanigans would be pointless undertaken by the owners of a private business—who would they be fooling? Themselves? In Enron, Tyco, etc., we have managers who weren't owners, but rather speculators in the stock of a company they controlled, and this split is the origin of many such problems.

Welfare, on the other hand is an illustration of what happens when responsibility is not accompanied by authority. I have read countless editorials informing me that the "disadvantaged" are my responsibility. I’ll even posit that I feel this to be the case. However, in what meaningful sense can I be responsible for people without having the slightest authority over them? I'll accept responsibility for my minor children (limitless) and even my employees (limited), but for somebody walking down the street? If you made me the Czar of the Disadvantaged with powers to match, I might turn out to be either a Stalin or a Washington, but at least then you could reasonably talk about me being "responsible" for the outcome.

And this arrangement is no boon to the disadvantaged. Because I am not alone in my distrust of accepting responsibility with no accompanying authority (and, I assume like many people, not walking around desiring such authority), the most that results is welfare: the payment of a small stipend just sufficient to make the recipients go away and "stand in the corner" where we don't have to deal with them. Of course, the resulting isolation is especially damaging to the disadvantaged, since for many of them their main "disadvantage" is lack of (1) the skills necessary in order to profitably interact with society at large and (2) opportunities for that profitable interaction.

So my point is, to square this circle, something’s got to give. Either we give up on the possibility of many “disadvantaged” people ever living a productive and well-remunerated life, or we will have to adopt a more intrusive regime in order to aid them. When I suggested a modestly intrusive regime in an earlier posting, I was accused of being "smug in my superiority." I am not claiming an ounce of "superiority" here--the reason I'm not on welfare is because I was subjected to a very intrusive regime of, ahem, "aid" run by two fiercely committed but unapologetic despots with very little regard for my "autonomy as an individual" (sorry, Mom and Dad, but I gotta tell the truth.)

So which is more compassionate, more caring, more likely to produce results: the welfare model or the Mr. and Mrs. Blowhard model? Well, guys, we've got to choose.



P.S. This being a culture 'blog, and opinions on political and social issues being like, er, elbows (everybody's got one), I'm finished with this topic. Feel free to comment, but I ain't answering.

posted by Friedrich at January 9, 2003


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