Not counting the cost
Posted by aogSunday, 13 June 2004 at 20:59 TrackBack Ping URL

Over at Harry’s place is a post about how the doctor who operated on Reagan after he was shot was helped out by tuition loans and federal research money.

This is a common refrain, that if a government program has any benefits then it’s obviously worthwhile, regardless of cost and only the truly despicable would oppose them. I wonder sometimes why this doesn’t apply to private iniatives, such as school vouchers. If I can find one example of some child’s life which was saved because of school vouchers, does that consitute devasting evidence against the supporters of public education? I think we all know the answer to that.

It seems to be a phenomenon where only benefits are counted and costs are ignored if it’s done by the government (because government programs that do “good” things by definition never do anything bad?). There’s no consideration of the concept of cost to benefit ratios. That’s apparently “heartless” but one truly wants to improve the human condition such considerations are very important. There are always limits to resources and tradeoffs. To pretend there are not is delusional and that’s never a useful paradigm for deciding on actions.

It all reminds of the efforts of Björn Lomborg who is accused of being an anti-environmentalist because he claims that we should spend resources on the environment effeciently rather than with no regard to cost1. To oppose a particular program or effort isn’t to deny that some good might come from it. But I still think it’s reasonable to wonder if the overall results are positive and even if they are, is that the best way to spend resources? It’s a rare government program that gets past that barrier.

1 Yes, I know that many “environmental” initatives are counter productive, even when viewed from an environmentalist perspective, but one can say the same thing about many poverty relief programs.