Perhaps it is because I had a persuasive libertarian publisher who was also a friend early in my editorial page career. Or maybe it goes all the way back to my misspent youth as a member of the generation that mistrusted everyone, especially those in authority.
For whatever reason, my career in editorial writing has been marked by a serious skepticism of government efforts to solve problems, especially those emanating from Washington. I don't know that I'd go as far as Ronald Reagan and call government the problem rather that the solution, but I certainly believe federal power has gotten much too big and is far too involved in our daily lives. And when we ask the government to do too much, especially in areas where it has no business, it has no time, energy or money to do things it should be doing, and it ends up doing nothing at all very well.
And, yes, of course, I realize I'm fighting a losing battle. Every year, the debt gets bigger, the intrusions become more outrageous, the public becomes more comfortable with trading its liberty for stability.
No one asks the kinds of questions that should be asked that would give us a sane, sensible government. That includes ordinary citizens, of course, but most of my opinion-dispensing colleagues. Alas, it also includes the overwhelming majority of the people we send to Washington. Even the ones who urge us to send them there to clean up the mess end up getting sucked into the culture of authority — and now that I think of it, they are the most loathsome of all creatures.
But since I am obviously used to fighting lost causes, I thought I would at least provide a checklist of the kinds of questions I ask whenever something new is proposed. These aren't all the questions that could be asked, and much more could be said about the 10 I have listed. But it's a start.
1. Is this activity (e.g. program, outreach, solution) actually needed? Would it substantially help one group of people without significantly harming others? Is there, in fact, an actual problem?
2. If yes, is government the best way to get the activity accomplished, or would some other avenue be more effective or desirable?
(It's amazing how many government proposals can be eliminated by simply asking those first two questions. My rough guess is about 80 to 90 percent of them. However, if yes is the honest answer to both, then we proceed to the rest of the questions.)
3. If government is the answer, which level? Do we automatically assume there is a federal solution to whatever problem we have discovered, or could it be better handled at the state or local level?
4. What will this program cost? (And be sure to double, triple or even quadruple whatever answer you originally estimate.) Will the results be worth the cost?
5. Who will pay the cost? Put another way, which group of citizens will pay what kind of tax to fund the ongoing efforts? Will it be, for example, a general tax that everyone pays or a more focused tax that more resembles a users' fee?
6. How long will the program last? If the answer is, even if no one has the courage to say it out loud, forever, shouldn't a sunset clause be built into the proposal?
7. How will we measure success? How will we know if the program is actually working as advertised, and will we have the courage to end it if it isn't?
8. There are always winners and losers in any major appropriation or reallocation of funds (which is what government initiatives almost always involve). We know (or think we do) the winners going in — but who will the losers be? Do the benefits to the winners outweigh the costs to the losers?
9. What will the hidden opportunity costs be? What are we not using our money, time and effort for because we are doing this instead?
10. What might the unintended consequences of this program be? Negative fallout from a positive effort is always unintended, but that does not mean it cannot be anticipated. What are the steps we can take to mitigate these consequences before they happen instead of having to clean up the mess from them afterwards?