Modern Governnment Is Now Useless
'Collapse in public policy is the real cliff beckoning us' (The Australian 28/12/12)

Policies are either damaging or futile

IF you're looking for optimism as the world turns towards 2013, stay up late watching paid-for television explaining how to turn wrinkles into miracles. Past that, my own reservoir of uplift is a bit dry this year.

A famous and successful American optimist, Ronald Reagan, put his finger closer to the problem when he suggested there was little limit to what people could accomplish if government would get out of the way. As Barack Obama flies from Hawaii's beaches to Washington's cliff, there may be four or five liberals who've come to agree with the Gipper.

Indeed, a reality has become too obvious for the world's dazed inhabitants not to notice: the greatest threat to the upward arc of human progress is the collapse of public policymaking. That is the biggest cliff of all. Governments are giving government a bad name.

Japan's once-thriving economy has been in the dumpster for years. California, said to be the world's sixth largest economy, is joining Japan in decline. The euro crisis, now in its third year, is less a crisis than a chronic condition of policy failure across Western Europe.

As to the US fiscal cliff, no comment.

Then came the Newtown massacre. A few days after this event, a familiar US policymaking consensus called for federal gun-control laws. More precisely, they want congress to repass the ban on big, dramatic-looking assault-type weapons that existed from 1994 until the law sun-setted in 2004.

Government, for the past 80 years or so, has seen its purpose as mainly to "respond" to society's failures the moment they occur or whenever they are imagined. Adam Lanza killed with guns, so modern policymaking logic posits that government must pass a law. Whether that law will accomplish its goal is irrelevant.

Policymaking has become an activity that supports the genetic and financial needs of policymakers and their follower tribes. The community's role, we've lately learned, is to provide revenue. Medicaid, for example, is medical care for the poor. As administered by the policy professionals, it has been allowed to become awful.

The experience with guns is hardly better. In November last year, the National Institute of Justice convened its Firearms and Violence Research Working Group to examine what the best research reveals about reducing gun-related violence. In 2005 the National Research Council produced a 250-page study of this subject. Both concluded that the quality of data about gun violence and prevention programs was poor, and it was possible to reach very few policy conclusions about what worked.

Programs and laws abound already. For years, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has run the National Tracing Centre that operates the firearms eTrace system. Every new US firearm goes into the eTrace system from point of manufacture to first retail sale, but past first sale, tracing guns or bullets has proved impossible.

A real-world look at where killers and other career criminals get guns emerged in October when the New York Police Department put on display 154 guns — most of them bizarre-looking handguns — that it obtained in a high-risk sting operation in Brooklyn. Incidentally, these police anti-gun efforts are about the only program that research has identified as effective.

Buying or possessing a gun legally in New York City is so difficult that it is a non-subject for most New Yorkers. So where did the NYPD get these guns? A Kerwin "Trini" Gobin allegedly sold undercover cops 87 of the weapons, including a Sten machine gun able to fire 550 rounds a minute. Machine guns have been illegal since the 1930s, but not in Trini Gobin's world. The illicit firearms market is global. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are all wrestling with how to control blackmarket gun traffic after recent outbreaks of firearm violence, much of it gang-related.

A consensus has formed around the unacceptability of young people being killed by guns — as bystanders in the inner cities or as mass-murder victims in the suburbs and on campuses. Policymaking today ordains that we pass laws no matter how little we know and ignore what we've already learned.

After Newtown, mental health experts pointed out the hardly disputed linkage between violent behaviour and some untreated or poorly medicated patients who have a severe mental illness. But legislation to monitor or mandate effective treatment for individuals already identified as dangerous is frequently voted down by various civil libertarians. Public programs that exist are often poorly administered.

Government's problem for a great many people around the world today is that its advocates are enacting policies that do damage or don't work. The public record of national governments as we approach the New Year calls to mind the minimalist optimism of a prescient book title from the 1960s: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.