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Long-term and cumulative consequences
should be considered more carefully
than short-term benefits.
“There are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and
- James Madison, Federalist 62, 1788
“It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man who knows what the law is today can guess what it will be tomorrow.”
- The Bible, Proverbs 19:2
“It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.”
Human nature is prone to look at the short-term, rather than plan for the long-term. We try to stop immediate pain without considering the pain we — or worse, our children — will face later.
This is perhaps the most challenging task for government officials who want to do what is right and best for their constituents, their state, and their country. It goes to the core of what it means to be a statesman—a steward of the foundation of freedom. So many ideas that sound good and will help people in the short run actually do harm in the long run.
One of the most devastating examples of unintended consequences is our welfare system. By “welfare” we mean any program in which the government takes money from one person (the taxpayer) and gives it to another person who has not earned it. This could be given to the recipient directly, by check or debit card, or indirectly, by having the government pay for products or services on their behalf.
There is no doubt that many people have had their immediate needs met by government welfare programs. The impetus for those programs was a genuine concern for those whose need for food and medical care were not being met. Families, neighbors, churches, and communities worked hard to help each other meet those needs, but still there were some people and some needs that fell through the cracks. As a result, there developed a prevailing notion that the government needed to step in to fill those cracks, or at least create a “safety net” underneath them. It all sounded so good, and there were real needs that were met.
However, the long-term negative impact of those programs is immense. By targeting financial assistance to low-income women with children, the programs contributed to the perception that husbands and fathers were no
longer needed, at least financially. By devaluing marriage as the starting point for raising children, they helped launch an alarming escalation in the number of children born to unmarried mothers, resulting in single-parent families and, ultimately, entire neighborhoods where children would never see an intact marriage.
Because children in single-parent homes are highly likely to live in poverty, it’s clear that the very system designed to help the poverty-stricken has in many ways led to more poverty, not only financially but relationally. That system also helped create an atmosphere of “entitlement,” the idea that “merely by being alive one is owed costly things at other people’s expense,” as one writer put it.
The welfare mentality extends to people who would give to meet the needs of the poor, if they didn’t think the government was taking care of them. In other words, the more government steps in, the more private individuals and organizations step out. This results in new pressure for government to fill that new void, creating a perpetual cycle of more government provision and fewer relationships that would provide accountability, emotional support, and spiritual support. Before government programs were so widely available, that type of additional support accompanied personal assistance - because it was personal assistance from one person to another, not help from a bureaucracy. The problem with government programs (and now some non-government programs) is that they help people while they are in their poverty, when the real need is to lead them out of poverty.
This is but one example of the long-term legacy of well-intended government programs: they help some people in the short run, but they harm far more in the long run. To paraphrase one writer, the only thing government programs have done for the poor is give them lots of company.
In addition to the long-term effects of policy, it is important to consider the cumulative effects. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville warned that democratic nations had a special form of tyranny to fear—administrative despotism. This form of tyranny would not be like the cruel and violent tyrannies of ages past. It would be “absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild.” This type of government would be one that ensures the happiness of the people, “provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, [and] directs their industry… [W]hat remains but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”
How does such a government come about? Toqueville predicted that such a despotic system would not be forced on the people; it would be self-imposed by the people through the elective process. After each group of leaders is popularly elected, the people will revert to their normal lives, largely oblivious to the expanding power of government they have allowed for. In many ways, our nation fits this pattern. Apathy, cynicism, or perhaps blind trust have allowed the creation of a bloated government, resulting in an erosion of personal freedom.
In recent decades, in response to isolated cases of abuse of existing laws, lawmakers have often passed additional laws and regulations that far exceed the scope of the abuse. Regulations that might be reasonable on their own have been piled on other reasonable—and some unreasonable—regulations, with the cumulative effect of stifling the economy with unnecessary costs and encouraging disrespect for the law by imposing such crippling burdens that circumvention is a constant temptation.
The cumulative effects of government policy must also be considered because there will always be someone on the edge, a person on the margin who makes a little too much money to qualify for a certain government benefit or program. The temptation is to expand the circle – just a little – to include that person. It's only fair, right?
But such a process is infinite. With each expansion, a new perimeter is created, with even more people just beyond it. These new almost-beneficiaries were far from qualifying under the original system, but incrementally, the border has been expanded to almost include them. So, the pressure builds to expand the scope just a little bit more, creating yet another class of almost-qualified.
The story is told that hunters in the Arctic protect themselves from wolves at night by taking daggers, coating them with several layers of an animal's blood, allowing each layer to freeze before applying another. The hunters then secure the daggers to the ground or ice around their encampment and cover the handle with snow, leaving only the blade standing at attention.
As a wolf draws near, it smells the blood on the dagger and begins to lick the blade. As it tastes more of the blood, it craves more, speeding the pace of its consumption. So voracious is its appetite, so feverish its lust for more, it ignores the sting of the blade when the other animal's blood is gone. It eventually succumbs to weakness and death, never knowing that the blood it was ultimately consuming was its own.
Such is the consequence of denying the cumulative effects of "just one more" beneficiary or "just one more" regulation. What begins with an appetizing promise of hope and provision ultimately devours the lifeblood of those it is intended to help.
Counting the long-term cost—financially and culturally—is essential for preserving the foundation of freedom. Those who seek to guard that foundation in this way will govern with humility and restraint.