“Bad Apples”, “Bad Bets”, and Bad Rhetoric

In March 2007 The Boston Globe published an opinion piece by Peter H. Schuck of the Yale Law School and Richard J. Zeckhauser of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard which described the adverse effects of so-called “bad apples” and “bad bets” on the effectiveness of government assistance programs. By “bad apples” they meant people whose persistently bad behavior not only makes their own situation worse but subverts the effectiveness of the assistance provided to everyone else. By “bad bets” they meant people who are effectively beyond help and who, therefore, can consume incommensurate levels of assistance and be little better off for it. As a matter of optimizing allocation of scarce public assistance resources, Schuck and Zeckhauser advocated finding ways — and highlighted a few ways that have worked in the past — to shunt assistance around such people either by excluding them from the system entirely or by finding less resource-intensive ways of managing their disruptive conditions.

Amusingly, two of the three responses published by the Globe parroted precisely the objections the professors themselves noted in their article as the major roadblocks to implementing such a policy: an abhorrence among those who generally support public assistance programs toward either stigmatizing people as “bad” or giving up on them as “hopeless”; and a concomitant determination to solve the problem of “bad apples” or “bad bets” by allocating yet more resources toward their redemption. In other words, a dogged determination to ignore the realities of affliction, venality, and scarcity.

I had a different objection, not to their goals but to their prospects for success. This response to them was published along with the others. Note that this version largely follows the edits imposed by the Globe staff for publication, with the major exception that the italicized phrases were omitted from the published version but retained here.

27 Mar 2007

Peter H. Schuck and Richard J. Zeckhauser lament the fact that “bad apples” and “bad bets” subvert public assistance programs both by wasting resources and by undermining public support (“Good programs vs. bad apples,” Op-ed March 26). But, though they cite a few successes in weeding out the worst offenders, it seems unlikely we will ever succeed on a large scale until we change the language we use to talk about such things.

For the most part these kinds of assistance programs are called “entitlements”. We routinely hear politicians and activists for the downtrodden talk about “rights” to such assistance, about a “right to health care” or a “right to decent housing”; Michael Dukakis famously declared a “right to a good job at good pay” when he ran for President.

As long as we think of people as being “entitled” to disbursements from the public purse — as long as we accept the dubious assertion that someone has a “right” to something that others must produce — we will have difficulty conditioning those disbursements on personal behavior. Conditioning them on some rational metric of benefit for a given cost will be effectively impossible. A “right” is inalienable. If I am “entitled” to something how dare you deny me?

When we accept the proposition that public assistance is not a right but a privilege of living in a wealthy and compassionate society, we will be free to begin a rational discussion of how best to allocate public resources to that purpose. Until then, the language of “rights” will always trump the language of resource management.

(C) Copyright 2007, Augustus P. Lowell

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