The expression, “close enough for government work” is an idiomatic, humorous, and disparaging way of saying that something isn’t worth investing the time to do correctly. For example: “The fence posts aren’t quite perpendicular, but they’re close enough for government work.”
It’s human nature to put one’s own interests before someone else’s. And while that may seem obvious, we should find it curious how so many people fail to understand that very basic aspect of human nature when it comes to government; some people actually believe government bureaucrats have the citizenry’s best interest at heart.
People are people everywhere, and those in private industry are pretty much the same as the people who run government bureaus. During the Cold War, citizens of the former West Germany were not very different than the citizens of the former East Germany. Yet the results of their respective economic systems were light years apart. Why?
The answer can be found in the fact that interests are served by a different set of actions in the private sector than they are the public sector because the consequences for failure in the private sector are far greater than those in the public sector.
Let’s assume Mr. Smith opens a business in the private sector, he understands from the get-go there are no guarantees his business will be successful. And if the business fails, he will lose his money and will be left with a choice. “Close up shop” and start looking for a job, or if he wants to keep the business going, he will either have to borrow money or dig deeper into his own pockets.
But borrowing money in those circumstances may prove difficult and digging into one’s own pocket may include siphoning funds set aside for his children’s education or monies he’s allocated for retirement or any one of a number of things that will restrict his and his family’s future activities. When considering the foregoing it should be obvious that Mr. Smith has the strongest of incentives to do whatever it takes to make his enterprise a success.
But that’s not the case in the public sector. Let’s assume for a moment that Mr. Smith’s neighbor, Mr. Jones, is operating a program in the public sector and the program fails to deliver as promised. The consequences for Mr. Jones are very different from John Smith’s, because Mr. Jones doesn’t have to face the reality of his decisions.
All Mr. Jones needs to do is convince the people who hold the purse strings, i.e., the politicians who legislated the program into existence in the first place that the program would have been successful had it been tried on a larger scale, at a different location, with special staffing or any number of other ‘logical reasons’ all the while knowing that his or her own personal resources are never at risk.
And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that once a government entity undertakes an activity some legislator deemed beneficial, regardless of outcome, the chances of its continued existence are high. And once having committed themselves publicly to an idea, such as the government-run worker training programs that have long outlived their usefulness, ensconced bureaucrats have little incentive to admit they were wrong and every incentive to minimize any subsequent negative outcomes.
As a sidebar, we should find it interesting that only later generations of politicians and bureaucrats ever admit to the mistakes of their predecessors—and even then, only when there’s no jeopardy to their own careers.
The reality is clear, human nature dictates that people will always be more careful with their own money than they are with someone else’s, and people will always act in ways they perceive as being in their own best interests. And seldom are the best interests of the citizenry the same as those running government bureaucracies whose raison d’être isn’t to benefit the masses, but rather to continue the existence whatever government program they happen to be operating.
In one of the more striking examples of this phenomenon, after 50 years and more than $22 trillion in taxpayer dollars, the much heralded “War on Poverty,” didn’t come close to eliminating or even reducing the causes of poverty in this country. This isn’t to demean government actions to improve the lives of its citizens; rather it’s a reminder that far too many government programs, while noble in intent, fail to take human nature into account.
Quote of the day: “The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program.”—Ronald Reagan