Don't Ever Confuse Legislation With Problem Solving

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A common failing of politicians in general and liberals in particular is to believe that passing legislation or issuing regulations that address some concern implies the problem has been solved. Unfortunately, in many cases legislation does little to solve problems and in some cases the legislation just causes different problems to take the place of the one addressed by the new laws.

The track record of regulation is not much better. The lesson to be learned is that implementation of laws and regulations is where the actual problem solving must occur (if the problem is going to be solved by government intervention). People need to stay focused on the problem until they see whether it is really fixed or not.

President Obama may have secured passage of the Affordable Care Act, but so far only a few of the problems it was meant to address have been "solved," and many of the problems in our health care and medical insurance systems remain the same or worse than when the bill was signed into law. Aggregate spending on health care has not declined and the number of uninsured remains roughly the same as it was before the law. I did get my flu shot for free this year, but my insurance premium went up. Free health care is not really free.

Liberals thought they had achieved their long held dream of universal health insurance when the Affordable Care Act was passed. Now with the employer mandate delayed for a year and Republicans still vowing to either repeal the law or defund it, liberals are learning that the legislation solved nothing.

The Obama Administration is putting out regulations, interpretations, waivers, and explanations all designed to move implementation forward. However, they are learning that implementation is hard and that new problems pop up every time they think an old problem is solved.

The facts that union health plans are threatened by the Affordable Care Act's provisions and that employers are cutting employees' hours to under 30 hours per week to avoid offering them health insurance are just two examples of unintended consequences of the law that now need to be addressed.

Gun control bills have been passed repeatedly by Congress and by many state legislators. Politicians who favor stricter gun control laws call for more such laws whenever high profile crimes are committed with guns. Yet it does not seem to occur to them that the laws passed previously have not come close to solving the country's problems with gun violence. Passing laws is easy, but it is also consistently ineffective at keeping guns out of the hands of criminals. Passing laws has been confused with having solved the problem.

Laws have been passed to raise the minimum wage, provide for welfare, disability payments, and food aid, to fund job training and subsidize education. In total, government has transferred roughly $15 trillion over the last fifty years from high earners to the poor. Yet poverty remains stubbornly unaffected by all this legislation. All the legislation and all the implementation of these programs has done virtually nothing to alleviate the problem the liberals meant to solve. Yet liberals continue to believe in the face of all evidence that legislation can lead to a reduction in poverty and income inequality.

Environmental regulations have actually fixed some problems. Our rivers and lakes have gotten cleaner and air pollution has been reduced considerably. This is a rare area of successful legislation and implementation. Unfortunately, other environmental problems have not been solved quite so smoothly.

Over one hundred countries signed the Kyoto Treaty on climate change but little has been accomplished to reduce the greenhouse gasses it was designed to reduce. Few countries are meeting their targets. Depending on whom you listen to, global warming may or may not have stopped or slowed, but nobody is claiming that if it did it is because of any legislation on the issue.

The No Child Left Behind Act was the federal government's most involved and most expensive piece of legislation designed to improve K-12 education nationwide. This was a bipartisan law with President Bush pushing it in partnership with the late Senator Ted Kennedy. The outcomes have been so disappointing that the Obama Administration is waiving the law for any state that asks. The legislation was such a big failure, the law is being waived out of existence.

Prohibition was not successful at stopping people from drinking and our current drug laws have had a similarly spotty record at reducing the use of drugs. Certainly drug laws have done an excellent job of filling up prisons and costing taxpayers billions of dollars, both in costs for law enforcement and for the subsequent incarceration of those convicted. However, the point of the laws was to reduce or eliminate the use of the specified drugs, and at this they have failed more than they have succeeded.

The current debate over immigration reform shows clearly how previous legislation on that issue has failed to solve the problems it was meant to address. Over ten million people ended up in this country without legal immigration status even though the amnesty and immigration reform during Reagan's presidency was supposed to stop exactly that problem. Employers continue to hire workers who are not here legally and the government does very little to discourage or stop them. The law's intent is clear but its implementation has left the problem unsolved.

In fact, the recent recession was more successful at reducing illegal immigration than any government legislation has ever been. People left the country voluntarily when their jobs disappeared due to the economic downturn, not in response to any legislation.

The federal government has recently been trying to expand the green energy industry by legislation that provided government funds and loan guarantees to companies in this area to fund both production and research. Related legislation that was part of the stimulus package designed to help the economy during the most recent recession was meant to encourage people to weatherproof their homes and improve energy efficiency at the residential level. Unfortunately, neither has been very successful.

A large number of green energy companies that received government funding have gone bankrupt or fallen short of their goals. Most of the government funding to green energy companies appears to have been wasted or used poorly and the results so far are nearly nonexistent. Few homes were weatherproofed and few jobs were created to perform that work. Legislation on green energy has led to very little other than wasted taxpayer dollars.

Laws designed to nudge us into better eating habits is another realm where the legislation does not seem to have solved the problem. Early evidence is that laws requiring restaurants to provide nutrition information on their menus did not lead us to consume fewer calories. In fact, we consume slightly more calories when given more information. Apparently the items we were ordering turned out to be not quite as unhealthy as we thought, so once we were provided with fuller information we decided we could eat even more than when we were guessing how bad our diets were.

I do not mean to suggest that legislation never leads to problems being solved. Sometimes it works, either because the law is well-crafted or because the implementation is well done. However, as listed above, in many cases legislation has left problems unsolved or even created new and larger problems than we started with. Too often liberals assume that all problems can and should be solved with legislation and government intervention. Worse, they believe the problem is solved as soon as a new law is passed. Reality time and again has proven this belief to be false.

Early indications are that the Affordable Care Act is going to be another in a long line of examples where laws are passed and problems remain. My suspicion is that the law will create far more problems than it will solve. In the real world, problem solving and legislation are usually two different things. One should not be confused with the other.


Jeffrey Dorfman is a professor of economics at the University of Georgia, and the author of the e-book, Ending the Era of the Free Lunch

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