Zero Sum and the Government
In many agreements there are 4 basic quadrants. Both win (upper right), both lose (lower right), and the zero-sum upper left and lower right: where one person wins and another loses.
When a baker sells a cake to you (for a profit), it's win-win. You got a cake for a good value (below the level where you would just make the cake yourself). And the baker sold a cake for his cost of goods and labor value (his profit).
When government makes a law, that's generally win-lose (zero-sum). If the law says the baker MUST bake that cake for a gay wedding (for example), the baker loses his liberty, while the government/recipient got to force them. The legislators and voters that won, got to feel self important. The victims and voters that loss, get to feel stepped on and enslaved. So there's a win and a loss component.
But when a government does a social program, like many things government does it is negative-sum (less than zero sum), and both sides lose. This is common in things like any prisoner's dilemma, wars or fist fights (where both sides hurt people and break things), gambling (for the players) due to the house rake, financial trading (for the investors) due to commissions, and so on. You can win in-spite of the system -- but the system itself was always a drag on the participant.
Zero-sum implies that what I take from X, gets delivered to Y.
Because government can only get money by taxing, printing or borrowing, it can only take away. Any of those burden businesses and individuals with either direct taxes, inflation, or debt. So any reward to one group, comes at the expense to everyone else: which is why government is zero sum.
But it's worse than that, because there's an overhead.
Government works that they take from X (taking freedom), and waste a bunch in overhead for doing the redistribution, then they let a bunch of unworthy people lie to get some of it (encourage fraud, that they don't stop effectively), then they give a small fraction to Y with a bunch of restrictions and stipulations (that make their fraction even less performant than it would otherwise be). Politics guarantees that X resents being stolen from and Y resents that it wasn't more -- so we get divided, resentful, and money is wasted. Everyone comes out behind.
NOTE: In theory the government can invest in infrastructure that gets you net returns in the long run. There's very very few exceptions where government might "invest" in infrastructure, which lasts long enough to eventually get a return. Bridges, dams, roads, and so on.
But it only works in theory.... as long as you don't look at two things:
- Treasury View of economics. That government jobs usually displace private sector jobs, just less efficiently -- so it would have been much cheaper for government to buy that same infrastructure via the private sector (that to build it themselves).
- That the government often builds capacity you don't need. Roads to nowhere, bridges that are rarely used, and replacing smaller things with bigger (under the theory that more is better). But under-used items are just a burden on the economy (stealing opportunity costs, and costing us in maintenance). These costs usually outweigh the few things that actually return more than they cost.
This isn't made up, I used an Economist article, and their data, to show an example of exactly how much this happens.
For each $1.00 New Jersey gets back from the fed, they have to give the fed $1.64, they have to pay $.18 in compliance costs, and the government borrows about $.81 of that dollar, and sticks New Jersey with the debt obligation. On top of that, federal work-rules and controls means that dollar is actually only about as effective as $.60 would be if it was under local or private hiring practices.
Progressives see the $.60 of real value as a net win. Anyone else, can see that you paid about $2.63 to get it.
Progressives think you can make it up in volume: if you just continued to lose $2.00 for each $.60 of value you get out of the system, you'd eventually come out ahead. Non-progressives recognize the seen versus the unseen (The Broken Window Fallacy) and the $2.00 of hurt you did, for each $.60 in help.
I wish there was a magic button that made centralized command economies work. But in recorded history, they rarely start out better than the alternative... and always end up worse. The larger the federal government gets, the more it displaces the more efficient state and local governments, and the even more efficient private sector -- so you get the opposite of economies of scale.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul, and keeping a cut for yourself is what progressive governments do.
- In the micro-economists view, it's great if you're the government -- but it sure sucks to be Peter.
- Some think that Paul is coming out ahead -- but not really. It often robs him of self-esteem and holds him down from being productive and self-reliant. A net loss for his character, self esteem, and certainly for the economy, since it turns him from producer to moocher.
- More than that, in the macro-economics view, there's no way to come out ahead. You lose money in every transaction: you can't make that up in volume.
Socially: everyone loses:
- Peter is resentful that he was stolen from (and was robbed the chance to learn voluntary charity)
- Paul is resentful, because it's never enough (and he was robbed self-esteem)
- Everyone else saw that Peter has less to invest (because it was taken from him) and grow the economy, Paul turned from being forced to work/produce into being more a moocher, and government took it's waste and cut and grew to be a bigger burden on everyone
No one comes out ahead.
This problem is obvious in all of recorded history. If it wasn't centralized command economies like Communists USSR or China, would have outperformed the western democratic ones. North Korea would be the industrialized utopia compared to South Korea (not the other way around). Cuba, Venezuela, Vietnam and a hundred other countries that tries socialism, would be outperforming their more free market neighbors or the world: yet the opposite is always the case. This was discussed and proven by Hayek (who got the nobel prize in Economics) for his work on Dispersed Knowledge, and the inefficiencies of larger and more command economies. He basically showed how more layers in a bureaucracy create inefficiency (and waste), and the more things required to go through the bureaucracy, the worse things get overall.
NOTE: This doesn't mean there isn't waste or corruption at State and Local level. They're often both embarrassingly bad. But at least at local level it takes far less attention and momentum to throw the bums out and fix it. And the size of potential corruption or abuse is smaller. With smaller incentives, you get less of it. With it being easier to fix, the abuse lasts less long. It doesn't hold up in every case, but on average, it certainly does.
The same with private sector. Things are often bad in private companies. But it takes less attention to get change, it's easier to gain momentum against problems (the population is smaller, as is the number of people required to notice and fix a problem). So on scale and scope, the largest business is a fraction the size of government (and there's better rules for transparency) -- so it's harder to hide corruption, there's less scale of the corruption, it's easier to find, and easier to fix. Statistically.