Government Efficiency Matters a Lot

(cc photo by takomabibelot)

(cc photo by takomabibelot)

Tad DeHaven today continues his bizarre crusade against more efficient provision of public services. He opens with a standard libertarian argument about how absent the profit motive, a public sector agency is unlikely to operate at maximal efficiency. This, however, is neither here nor there and then he offers this:

Therefore, the question of how efficiently government provides services is less important than deciding what services government should provide. For example, it matters little how quickly the USDA processes subsidy checks for farmers. More important is whether farmers should be receiving subsidy checks at all.

This is deeply confused. We can all agree, I think, that the government should provide the service of national security. But it would be ridiculous to think that the widespread consensus on this point constitutes a more important question than the minor issue of whether or not pursuing a grand strategy of perpetual global military domination is a reasonably efficient means of providing that service. If it’s actually true that such a strategy is integral to American security, then we’d darn well better pursue it. But if it’s not true, then we could use some massive policy changes.

Or consider the provision of subsidized rental housing to poor people. One way to do this is by having the government operate public housing in which poor people can live. Another way to do it is to have the government disburse housing vouchers to poor people that they can use to help with the rent. Now suppose switching to vouchers is much more efficient than public housing—that the same level of expenditures allows more people to house their families decently. Whether or not you think the government should be providing housing services, which option is chosen still has an important impact on human welfare.

Alternatively, consider something the government shouldn’t be doing—trying to brainwash teenagers into believing that having sex without being married is morally wrong. Evidence indicates that abstinence education programs don’t work, but I also see no reason to believe that persuading more people to abstain from sex before marriage would be beneficial. If the government developed a more effective brainwashing scheme that would be “more efficient” but bad.