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‘Why Government Fails So Often’ by Peter H. Schuck

Peter H. Schuck.
Peter H. Schuck. Harold Shapiro

Our federal government is a behemoth. It employs about two million civilians and does business with untold numbers of contractors and consultants. In 2011, it spent about $ 3.8 trillion on programs that touch everyone.

Unfortunately, Peter Schuck reminds us, Americans have a dismal view of the performance of their government. In 1958, 73 percent of respondents told pollsters they trusted Washington D.C. to do what is right “just about always.” In 2011, 10 percent held that view.

In “Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better,’’ Schuck, an emeritus professor of law at Yale University, a former official in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and a self-described “militant moderate,” attributes this crisis of confidence to dysfunction in Congress and poor performance of the government.


Using cost-benefit analysis and relying on empirical evidence, he assesses a vast number of domestic programs and finds that, with a few noteworthy exceptions, they are woefully wasteful and ineffective. Most distressing of all, Schuck claims that the root causes of this endemic policy failure are “largely inescapable under present policy-making conditions.”

Although he appears, quite often, to accentuate the negative and devotes insufficient attention to factors that produce success, Schuck makes a compelling case that many domestic programs, including those that have considerable public support among Republicans as well as Democrats, deliver benefits at costs that are much higher than necessary and contain damaging unintended consequences.

Schuck’s targets include federal drought insurance, income transfers to the disabled, student financial-aid programs, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac government-backed mortgages, ethanol subsidies, and the Dodd-Frank reform of financial institutions. He cites a raft of carefully conducted studies that have consistently found that the academic, developmental, and health benefits of the Head Start program, whose budget has grown from $400 million in 1968 to almost $8 billion in 2011, dissipate within a couple of years.


In a series of chapters that comprise the core of his argument, Schuck analyzes the myriad structural impediments to successful government policies. Markets, he emphasizes, are so powerful “that they tend to resist, distort, override, and marginalize” well-intentioned policies.

Program goals are frequently unrealistic; incentives are perverse; complex, ambiguous laws that are, at times, “beyond the ability of the rule drafters . . . to fully comprehend,” invite litigation. Credible information about proposed programs is in short-supply and less than 1 percent of government spending is supported by “even the most basic evidence of cost-effectiveness.”

The government workforce is “demoralized, poorly equipped, marginalized, publicly scorned and [literally] undisciplined,” because it is virtually impossible suspend, demote, or fire a civil service worker.

Schuck, who has voted Democratic in every presidential election but one, is not anti-government.

To improve government performance, he recommends programs designed to engage the self-interest of recipients rather than changing their behavior. Mindful of “the remorseless law of unintended consequences,” he advocates a cautious incremental approach to reform that precludes radical change.

Schuck supports field-testing through pilot programs. And he calls for enhanced enforcement and audits.

Schuck’s principal aim is to help tailor the ends of government to its institutional means and capacities by persuading liberals that they need to worry a lot about the political implications of poorly performing government programs and convince conservatives that, since big government is here to stay, they can — and should — demand greater efficiency.


That said, his claim that policies often do not satisfy even the most minimal, reasonable standards is likely to demoralize Democrats and energize Republicans, especially members of the Tea Party, who want to “starve the beast.”

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.