Heart vs. Mind

Should we support a government program just to do something?


Yesterday I participated in a phone survey about a proposed ballot measure to approve the county selling bonds to finance low-income housing construction. The survey asked for my opinion about a number of sentences that support the measure. The sentences were all like “the measure will offer housing to veterans”, “the measure will help low-income people crushed by high home prices” and “this measure will give homeless people a place to live”. After I answered all the questions that I will not support the measure and ended the call; I thought about how is this measure being sold and how government programs start.

The usual government program life start when a disaster happen or with news media focusing on people affected by a certain problem. Then loud voices in the media shout that we need to do something and politicians suggest a new government program to do something. Activists then urge People then to either vote or pressure their representatives to vote to support the program that will do something. Eventually the program passes and the media and the activists move to the next issue that we need to do something about.

This story is always missing asking two important questions:

  1. Why do this problem exist or why did that disaster happen?
  2. Does the proposed program actually solve the problem?

Let’s take the example of the topic of the example measure. The first question is, Why cannot the low-income people find homes in the county? the second question is, if the county built that housing project will the problem of low-income people not finding homes be solved?

For the first question the answer is no because anyone who lives in an area with housing shortage such as California’s Bay Area knows that the high cost of government regulations and all the laws and zoning codes that restrict house building make it very expensive to build new houses, so any sane developer will only build office buildings or high income housing to cover such costs.

For the second question the answer no because the proposed housing project will give houses for a certain group of low-income people, but because the main problem of restricting supply isn’t fixed we will have more low-income people who need housing.

So, the answer for the two questions is no, but most probably people will end up voting for the measure and government will spend the money and the main problem will remain unsolved. The reason is that the advocates of such programs don’t try to engage the voter’s mind to solve the problem, but engage the voter’s heart and bad feelings about the problem and the people affected to pass a “let’s do something” type measure.

Anti-gun rights activists use the same technique trying to pass gun control measures. They tried to use the people’s anger after the Sandy Hook Elementary’s shooting of 20 children to pass a set of gun laws that fail to pass the two questions test established earlier. Fortunately, the Congress refused to do that under pressure from the second amendment rights groups.

The federal government is doing the same now to weaken encryption standards in smartphones. The government waited until it got the perfect case, a smart phone used by a terrorist, to ask for court order forcing Apple to break the encryption. The government has hundreds of criminal cases that have locked iPhones, but they used the one case that will trigger the public’s need to do something. What the government wants also fails the two questions test.

We can trace all the bad programs the government started over the years to the need to do something. We should not let our feelings influence our voting decisions and instead apply very strict benefit analysis to any government program.