January 21, 2008

When laws meant to help really hurt — and what would it take for the NYT to quote Ronald Reagan on the subject?

Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt give some vivid illustrations of the way well-intended laws can backfire: The Americans With Disabilities Act motivates doctors to reject deaf patients, and the Endangered Species Act incentivizes the destruction of anything that might come to be regarded as a habitat for something rare.
[W]ith a government that is regularly begged for relief — these days, from mortgage woes, health-care costs and tax burdens — and with every presidential hopeful making daily promises to address these woes, it might be worth encouraging the winning candidate to think twice (or even 8 or 10 times) before rushing off to do good.
Reading this terrific essay, I thought it should be necessary to acknowledge the famous Ronald Reagan line: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"

At first, I thought, well, maybe you can't do that in an issue of The New York Times that features a big Frank Rich essay called "Ronald Reagan Is Still Dead." ("[T]he G.O.P. is running on empty, with no ideas beyond the incessant repetition of Reagan’s name.")

But then I searched the NYT archive. I found the transcript of Reagan's August 13, 1986 news conference that contained the line. [Restricted access link.] Since then, however, the New York Times has never printed the entire Reagan quote and has only used the final 9-word quip on 3 occasions.

1. August 22, 2006:
In the lexicon of American business, “cynicism” means doubt about the benevolence of market forces, and it is a vice of special destructiveness. Those who live or work in Washington, however, know another variant of cynicism, a fruitful one, a munificent one, a cynicism that is, in fact, the health of the conservative state. The object of this form of cynicism is “government,” whose helpful or liberating possibilities are to be derided whenever the opportunity presents.

Remember how President Reagan claimed to find terror in the phrase, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”?
This was from Thomas Frank. Of course, the author of "What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America" thinks this cynicism is wrong.

2. October 21, 2001:
Since Sept. 11, Washington's sense of itself has changed utterly. ''Washington solutions'' have gone from inherently suspect to indubitably essential. The federal government is now seen not just as capable but also as uniquely capable of performing a great variety of urgent tasks: fighting our enemies abroad, stimulating our flagging economy, rescuing bankrupt airlines, rebuilding the ruins in New York City, protecting us from bioterror and making the skies feel safe again. Reagan's old joke about the 10 scariest words in the English language -- Hello, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help'' -- isn't a joke anymore. It's the literal attitude of Reagan-revering Republicans who toured the devastation at ground zero.

With this can-do attitude has arrived a renewed feeling of self-esteem....
This is from Slate's Jacob Weisberg, who also, obviously, disagrees with Reagan.

3. August 1, 1993:
Unlike the Reagan and Bush Administrations, which opposed most Federal efforts to assist American industry, the Clinton Administration enthusiastically supports technology policy and has selected the National Institute of Standards and Technology as the civilian agency to help manufacturers.

The institute is one of the few Federal agencies where the statement "I'm from the Government and I'm here to help you" would not be greeted with derision among most business people....
This is a profile of Arati Prabhakar, the woman President Bill Clinton named director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Again, the context is that the quote is wrong and the government can help.

So, you see, The New York Times has never once invoked that famous Reagan quote for the proposition that the well-meaning government efforts can prove harmful.


JSF said...

Fot the NYT to acknowledge the quote, it would have to acknowledge the DMV hassales are a part of Government as well.

To the NYT, the Government is always as workable as the New Deal.

How New is the New Deal?

From Inwood said...

Wonderful post.

The road to hell....

The law of unintended consequences....

Nevermind; this time we have the solution; really; you lack the foresight to see it, you yahoos.

We have seen the future & it works.

From Inwood said...

Paul Johnson has said:

"There Are only three things a government must do, because no one else can: external defense, internal order, and running an honest currency. There are thousands of other things a government can do, and often does. But remember: the more things it does, the more likely it will neglect these three essentials"

Heroes © 2007

ricpic said...

"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help,' " does not express cynicism, it expresses dread: no small distinction.

Elliott A said...

HIPAA is one of these laws and a legacy of Bill Clinton. The "Portability" portion is wonderful since it prevents pre-existing condition denials and the like when people have to switch insurance because of job change. The "Privacy" portion is a disaster. Intended to protect electronic records far in the future (from 1997), this law has created a mountain of requirements which hospitals, medical and dental offices, etc. must climb. It costs them and consequently us, to do this It prevents the sharing of pertinent information such as the mental illness of the Virginia Tech murderer. His roomates did not even have the right to know that they were living with a severely unbalanced individual. Others are living with HIV positive individuals and do not know.

When my son was a senior in college, he got a severe case of Mononucleosis. Before it was diagnosed and after he became ill, we were unable to get information from the school student health service about his condition because he was unable to talk to them to authorize us to hear the information. We were 400 miles away. They had to protect his privacy.

You cannot get any information on sick elderly parents, spouses, children, friends, even if it is necessary to help manage the situation from afar. A disaster with good intent, but horrible consequences. People have died because information was inaccessible.

Once there is a law this involved, changing or removing it requires years, if doable at all. The more we count on the government to help and the more wonderful laws that are passed, the bigger the mess.

rhhardin said...

The reason that solutions backfire is that all the problems that direct action can solve, have already been solved.

What's left to solve are problems that respond to direct action perversely.

A social Le Chatelier's principle.

So perverse problems have an evolutionary advantage.

Good intentions are usually not going to work, as a result.

Unknown said...

“I am from the government. I am here to help you.”

This is the result:
"The government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it."
Ronald Reagan

dbp said...

To a person that thinks government solutions are generally a good thing, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" is cynical. To the rest of us, it just seems like an obviously true statement.

Cudos to rhhardin, I have never seen Le Chatelier's principle invoked outside of a chemistry context. Nice to see one of the more usefull priciples put to non-chemical uses.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

The Reagan quote remindes me of another joke/analogy that has a lot of truth to it.

A motorist is stranded with a flat tire on the side of a highway.

The Republicans drives past the person; they're late to the country club and figure, "who needs help fixing a flat tire".

The Democrats stop to help; they fix the flat tire but in the process accidentally set the car on fire.

I think of this everytime I pass a housing project.

Randy said...

It would take wholesale regime change at teh New York Times. Unlikely to happen in our lifetimes.

dbp said...

Now that I think about it, the Laffer curve is really just an application of Le Chatelier's principle to explain returns on rates of taxation.

I have never seen it put that way before, even though it seems apt. Now that I am aware of it I will undoubtably see refrences to it all over the place now.

From Inwood said...

Ah yes let us not forget the “save water” toilet. “Government” mandated a reduction in water usage for each flush & people simply flush three times now, thus using more water to get the necessary results, a/k/a disposal. Even Limo Libs, especially Limo Libs. They don’t want to smell the results of the one flush; they’re not déclassé.

And, “They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.”

So, one other thing: Landmarks Preservation.

Property developers in NYC (& elsewhere with similar laws), not generally willing to put new wine in old wineskins, often significantly alter or demolish some of their structures before such structures can be legally designated as “landmarks” since these benighted folk see, generally correctly, that such designation will result in a diminution in value. Sometimes, as with The Brokaw Mansions (1 & 7 E. 79th St.), the Willkie Memorial Building (20 W 40th St.), & the building across from the Association of The Bar of The City of New York, which name escapes me now, they come like a thief in the night & denude, denude, denude precious structures which are blessed with location, location, location.

And, yes sometimes the Landmark people get carried away with their idea of “Things Worth Preserving” (everything) & care not about “Change” (apologies to the ’08 politicians) even when necessary & appropriate, & let’s not forget the overweening "Environmentalists”, but these property developers consider themselves Progressives & Liberals & disdain Republicans, who they see as hoi barbaroi, & are often card-carrying members of the Hate BushHitler clique.

And, BTW, personal privilege, Robert Caro thought that Robert Moses should’ve brutalized The Henry Hudson Pkway thru the Inwood Valley, where the folks one step up from The Great Unwashed had raised themselves, rather than thru Inwood Hill Park, where it now runs, relatively unobtrusively. Caro’s Good Intentions did not take into consideration my parents’ well being. But he Knew Better. Today, without Moses dictatorial hand, government would build no Henry Hudson Pkway & Limo Liberals lurking on the UWS would have one less hiway up to their Mountain Retreats.

An unintended consequence of Moses’ generally accepted evilness. (In fairness, some historians are now reviewing Moses’ life & three exhibitions were presented in NYC last year showing that he, um, did some good.)

ricpic said...

Without Bob Moses us lesser beings would've never been able to make use of Jones, or as we called it, Jones's Beach, because there would've been no Belt Parkway to get to it.

PatCA said...

Anyone who has worked for the government knows it is the least effective agent of the common good.

I remember one incident when I worked for the govt. A small fire broke out in the garage, the alarm went off, and the whole population of the building surged down the stairs. The fellow in a wheelchair on the third floor was stuck: he had a birth defect that left him with shrunken useless legs. We all waited while they tried to decide what to do; people were panicking behind us and about to stampede. Finally somebody yelled, pick up the little guy! Two guys scooped him out of his chair and down they went. He almost died, and many more with him, for the sake of the purity of the ADA.

Simon said...

From Inwood - but "internal order" is a pretty broad term. External defense and maintaining a currency (fighting words to a Ron Paul supporter, by the way) are fairly specific mandates, but maintaining "internal order" could account for anything from ancient Athens to the government of the Soviet Union. I suspect what Johnson had in mind was things like policing activities that are universally agreed ought to be criminal, but the FCC regulates "internal order" by allocating and managing a scarce resource, for example, and I think it'd take a pretty hardcore libertarian to think that was an inappropriate government function.

KCFleming said...

1. The elderly is the largest growing aging group in the US. But geriatricians are becomng scarce; no one wants to go into it.
Why is that?
In order to make sure older adults can afford to see the doctor, Congress and Medicare have cut prices for doctor's visits for the past 10 years. By 2012, they are expected to be cut another 40%.
Now old people have trouble finding a doctor at all, as many practices limit their proportion of elderly to less than 20%
Too bad for the rest.

2. Because of HIPAA I can't tell a patient's wife about his medication changes because he forgot to sign the release form and lost the written instructions. Because he has dementia.
She takes care of him, but cannot know.
Too bad.

3. Houses in my neighborhood decay over time. They are old, most over 50 years old. Regulations prohibit rehabiliation of these homes unless windows are replaced by massive ones that firemen can get into.
But these are too expensive.
So no one buys the houses. No one fixes them up.
Did I mention there's a homeless problem here?
Too bad.

Ralph L said...

I'd heard the phrase in the 80's as one of the Great Lies, along with:
The check's in the mail
I love you
I won't cum in your mouth.

During the oil crisis of 1979, I had my first summer job with the part of DoE that enforced the emergency allocation rules (and price controls). Diesel wholesalers from all over were calling in trying to find out how to fill out the forms. The guy who'd designed it had gone on vacation for 2 weeks, so we transferred them all around the building 'til they gave up.

Richard Fagin said...

What can be intensely frustrating is when The New York Times et al. make it very clear that they view people who are suspicious of government intervention as morally inferior. The suspicious may only want the unintended consequences of government action to be given due consideration before the action is taken. Instead they are vilified as cretins by the pooh-bahs of the press.

There were may who predicted the unintended consequences of the Americans with Disabilities Act pretty much as they have occurred. "Shoot, shovel and shut up" is a perfectly predicatable, if antithetical response to the Endangered Species Act, at least as it is currently enforced.

All people can ask is that a decision whether the benefits of government action still outweigh the costs of unintended consequences is made after a fair hearing, rather than what happens in practice.

Trooper York said...

The two greatest lies in the Polish language:
The check is in your mouth.
I won't come in the mail.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Revenant said...

Reagan's remark was by no means cynical. A better word choice would be "honest"; the US government DOES hurt more than it helps.

blake said...

It's almost as if the New York Times couldn't agree with Reagan even when they agree with him...

From Inwood said...


Of course.

Then there's that pesky Constitution which speaks, inter alia, of the need to

"insure domestic Tranquility,...promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Prosperity"

which some see as per se justification of the welfare state, the need to mandate things like CFLs in place of incandescent litebulbs & sh**y toilets, & the opportunity to adopt the various nonsense discussed here, deemed necessary & appropriate by Those Who Know Best.

Note, unlike some über Libertarians, Johnson acknowledges that

"There are thousands of other things a government can do, and often does."

I don't think that he meant mandating only CFL bulbs in his must rubric, "internal order", nor do I think he meant CFL mandating as one of the things he thinks that a government can do as in “do well”.

What this country needs is a 5¢ litebulb!

How many environmental wackos does it take to change a CFL bulb?

Fiat Lux, but only densus fluorescentus lux.

Peter Hoh said...

I've always thought that the presidency of George W. Bush could be summed up thusly: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

From Inwood said...


Even Moses had to, um, bend the Northern State & the Triborough for the elites. Moses proposes….

The Triborough bend actually helped Inwoodites going to Jones Beach & the Northern State bend was just going with the flow, but they both sure got Caro's knickers all knotted up. Endlessly rolled the invective.

FYI, we were treated with much disdain by the elite if we pronounced it “Jones es” & so we learned not to early on.

Unknown said...

Sure. Ronnie disliked the govt and that is why he ran to run the friggin thing! Don't like govt? then trust the pharm industry and the insurance industry instead. And ask that you bank deposits not be insured or social security be given you or medicare or VA hospitals be provided for our military.

Unknown said...

I worked, some ten years ago, at a museum located in a historic home. We wanted to add on to our space.

It was very interesting to watch the whipsaw between the historic preservationists (don't you dare change that) and the advocates for the handicapped (you must widen this and take out that barrier and change such-and-so).

Sorta like watching Hilary and Obama flail each other with ovaries and melanin respectively.

Strabo the Lesser said...

I want government healthcare. The compassion of the IRS, the efficiency of the post office,the wait of the DMV, at Pentagon Prices.

Dan_in_Austin said...

Half the harm in the world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm, but the harm doesn't interest them. Or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves. - T.S.Eliot

spool32 said...

@from inwood:

It's "... to ourselves and our posterity..."

Not 'prosperity', 'posterity'. The signers are declaring that the intention of the document is to do all the things in teh Preamble for themselves and for their descendants, and for all those Americans who come afterward.

From Inwood said...


You lecture me on my typo re posperity/prosperity by referring to
"the things in teh (sic)Preamble".

Um, it's "the". Maybe you should avoid lecturing 'til you are up to speed yourself, no?

MDIJim said...

Glad to see HIPAA brought up. It is an example of misguided intentions.

If you were around at the time, you know it was all about making sure that people who left their jobs were able to get health insurance. Nobody said anything about the regulatory nightmare that was abuot to descend on the health care industry. I wonder how many Congresspeople read that law. Of course all of the things that health care providers and researchers have to comply with are not in the HIPAA statute. They're in the Clinton administration's regulations. There is an argument that by standardizing the way insurers process medical claims HIPAA is reducing administrative inefficiency and will be beneficial in the long run, but I doubt that anyone has bothered to study that.