What did governments get right? Gotta list them all!

by Stuart_Armstrong2 min read18th Sep 201347 comments

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When predicting future threats, we also need to predict future policy responses. If mass pandemics are inevitable, it matters whether governments and international organisations can rise to the challenge or not. But its very hard to get a valid intuitive picture of government competence. Consider the following two scenarios:

  • Governments are morasses of incompetence, saturated by turf wars, perverse incentives, inefficiencies, regulatory capture, and excessive risk aversion. The media reports a lot of the bad stuff, but doesn't have nearly enough space for it all, as it has to find some room for sport and naked celebrities. The average person will hear 1 story of government incompetence a day, anyone following the news will hear 10, a dedicated obsessive will hear 100 - but this is just the tip of the iceberg. The media sometimes reports good news to counterbalance the bad, at about a rate of 1-to-10 of good news to bad. This rate is wildly over-optimistic.
  • Governments are filled mainly by politicians desperate to make a positive mark on the world. Civil servants are professional and certainly not stupid, working to clear criteria with a good internal culture, in systems that have learnt the lessons of the past and have improved. There is a certain amount of error, inefficiency, and corruption, but these are more exceptions than rules. Highly politicised issues tend to be badly handled, but less contentious issues are dealt with well. The media, knowing that bad news sells, fills their pages mainly with bad stuff (though they often have to exaggerate issues). The average person will hear 1 story of government incompetence a day, anyone following the news will hear 10, a dedicated obsessive will hear 100 - but some of those are quite distorted. The media sometimes reports good news to counterbalance the bad, at about a rate of 1-to-10 of good news to bad. This rate is wildly over-pessimistic.

These two situations are, of course, completely indistinguishable for the public. The smartest and most dedicated of outside observers can't form an accurate picture of the situation. Which means that, unless you have spent your entire life inside various levels of government (which brings its own distortions!), you don't really have a clue at general government competence. There's some very faint clues that governments may be working better than we generally think: looking at the achievements of past governments certainly seems to hint at a higher rate of success than the reported numbers today. And simply thinking about the amount of things that don't go wrong in a city, every day, hints that someone is doing their job. But these clues are extremely weak.

At this point, one should look up political scientists and other researchers. I hope to be doing that at some point (or the FHI may hire someone to do that). In the meantime, I just wanted to collect a few stories of government success to counterbalance the general media atmosphere. The purpose is not just to train my intuition away from the "governments are intrinsically incompetent" that I currently have (and which is unjustified by objective evidence). It's also the start of a project to get a better picture of where governments fail and where they succeed - which would be much more accurate and much more useful than an abstract "government competence level" intuition. And would be needed if we try and predict policy responses to specific future threats.

So I'm asking if commentators want to share government success stories they may have come across. Especially unusual or unsuspected stories. Vaccinations, clean-air acts, and legally establishing limited liability companies are very well known success stories, for instance, but are there more obscure examples that hint an unexpected diligence in surprising areas?

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We operate in an environment of government basically functioning to such a degree that we don't notice it. Why is news about government dominated by government breaking? The nature of the role of government is usually to prevent bad things. So, when it does extra-well, no one can tell. If we note these actions, what do we get? Focusing on what has affected me personally:

Police can probably take some credit for the following:

  • I have gone 3369 days since I was last robbed; my family has not been robbed.
  • I have gone 7960 days since I was last assaulted; my family has not been assaulted.
  • The police and fire departments assist the (non-governmental) rescue squad
  • Though annoying when it must be done, the roads and rails around me are maintained. (I do not count utility work since that is not controlled by the government here)
  • My daughter is receiving an acceptably good level of education
  • There are nice parks available to us
  • A nearby fire did not grow and consume our house
  • The sciences are supported
  • Something I left on the train was kept and I was able to recover it.

Of course, it could do better. In some cases, a lot better. But you were asking about the positive.

I concur. My own list would look (in part) something like this:

  • I essentially never worry about being substantially defrauded in my dealings with my employer, my bank, companies I buy from, etc., because there is a legal system in place that effectively disincentivizes fraud and gives me a fair prospect of recovering my losses if I am defrauded.
  • I have essentially no fear of robbery, assault, and other major crimes directed against me, because the police and the legal system make them very rare (at least around where I live; I acknowledge that there are places where they're less effective).
  • Because the country I live in has a single, stable government, I do not need to worry that war will break out around me.
  • The money in my bank account holds its value reasonably well; inflation is nonzero but decently controlled and outright bank collapses are very rare and somewhat guaranteed-against by the government.
  • If I become seriously ill, government-funded healthcare will do about as good a job of fixing me as can be done, and I will not be bankrupted by medical bills in the process.
  • I received a good education, paid for by the government; my daughter is doing so too, and (this is important) so are the other people around me. I can generally assume that people I interact with are at least semi-literate and have some idea of how the world works.
  • I can drive from one place to another in reasonable confidence that the roads will be adequately maintained.
  • If I and my family suffer enough disasters to put us into poverty, make me unable to work, etc., then there is a safety net in place that will at least make us unlikely to starve to death or have to sleep on the streets.
  • There is a similar safety net for other people, so that even when economic times are bad there isn't so much misery as to provoke mob violence.
  • When I buy food, it is almost certainly the sort of food it is advertised to be, is probably about as fresh as it is alleged to be, and probably contains no harmful substances to speak of besides the ones it has to to be that kind of food.
  • When I buy a toy for my daughter, its design and manufacture are almost certainly checked well enough that it is unlikely to do her unexpected harm.

I could go on at length. However, while this sort of thing may be a useful antidote to the idea (as Stuart puts it) that "governments are intrinsically incompetent", and offers some evidence against certain strong libertarian positions, I'm not sure it actually answers the question posed -- which was not about the effectiveness of government at solving routine (though perhaps difficult) problems but about how well governments can be expected to respond to surprising new problems (mass pandemics, superhuman AI, large asteroid strikes, etc.). Running a reasonably effective police force is a very different problem from responding to an alien invasion.

I have essentially no fear of robbery, assault, and other major crimes directed against me, because the police and the legal system make them very rare

Is this the true reason?
I'm not saying it's not, I cannot account for your personal motivation, but it can be criticized on two levels.
The first: is truly the police and the legal system that make threats very rare? Or they simply move towards more resource rich environment like large cities?
The second: are you cognitively equipped to fear modern day threats in accordance to their effective level of presence? That is, is your fear positively correlated with modern hazards?

Is this the true reason?

It's hard to be sure, of course. But: (1) even in large cities in the country where I live the rate of serous crime is low, and the regions of those cities where the rate is higher are not the more "resource-rich" regions; (2) most likely I fear violent crime more than I should on the basis of its frequency; certainly everything I've seen suggests that most of us do. If #2 still bothers you, though, please pretend that I wrote "need have essentially no fear".

[EDITED to fix a typo.]

I'm the first person to explicitly call out public sanitation? Wow, ok.

Wherever humans gather together, big piles of human shit will inevitably follow. Cities are great, but if you want to live in one you have to solve the feces management problem. The traditional solution, rediscovered in widely disparate times and places throughout human history, is to poop in a pot and dump it in the river. You can get farther with that strategy than you'd probably think, but sooner or later everyone starts getting cholera and you have to switch paradigms.

The exact solution depends on the available technology; I happen to think ours (ubiquitous yet unobtrusive pipes which converge on chemical treatment plants) is especially nice. But somebody needs to build the aqueducts or lay the pipes or whatever, and then force absolutely everybody to use them (because recall that our goal is not the convenient flush toilet, it's to eradicate cholera).

And so we have. Probably every sidewalk you've ever walked on had a sewage pipe underneath it. In fact, it's likely that you're less than 100 feet from human feces at this very second, but you don't have to care because an infrastructure of staggering complexity and robustness exists to handle it for you. And if it breaks down, you can call a person who's made it their life's work to solve this sort of problem. Those things exist because we as a society now believe, with the kind of religious fanaticism that would make L. Ron Hubbard explode with envy, that shitting in the river is for animals. And we believe that because our ancestors created that world ex nihilo, their children grew up in it, and their grandchildren knew nothing else. Sometimes you can get that kind of paradigm shift out of private industry--just look at the automobile. But sometimes you don't.

More concretely, the leaded gasoline thing was pretty good.

In general, I think the purpose of government is to solve collective action problems. It'll succeed at insofar as 1) everyone agrees that that it's an actual problem, and 2) the solution is well-understood. To get #1 you have to build your government out of people whose understanding of reality is fairly well-aligned (the way everyone understands that it's bad for the tribe downstream to get cholera, for example). #2 does not generalize as well.

Less formally, one might say that government is for solving the problems about which everyone says "Ugh, yeah, someone should do something about that".

7 years from discovery of nuclear fission to creation of atomic bombs.

68 years after creation of atomic bombs without the world ending.

I think we have to take anthropic effects into account for this one - even if there is total nuclear war in most possible worlds, only in the ones where it doesn't happen (perhaps by luck) will most of us still be around to give anyone credit for stopping it.

I wouldn't give anthropics too much credit here. The sources I've read place direct fatalities from total nuclear war in the hundreds of millions, with deaths from secondary effects (mostly global disruption of food supplies) possibly in the low billions: an unprecedented scale of fatality, but not an extinction-level event.

(Note however that the OTA study linked through the FAS site took place in the late Seventies, a relative low before the Reagan-era arms buildup.)

I think the containment of the SARS epidemic in 2003 is a under-appreciated success story. SARS spread fairly easily and had a 9% mortality rate, so it could well have killed millions, but it was contained thanks to the WHO and to the quarantine efforts of various governments. Their wasn't much coverage in the vein of "hooray! one of the worst catastrophes in human history has been averted!" afterwards.

Here is a short list of the most emblematic ones I can think about right now, there are many more but it would require more digging. And I'll try to avoid the most subjective ones, I would include things like minimal wage and paid holidays, but I know some will speak against them, and I don't want to start that debate right now.

  1. Scientific research : the whole "space conquest" (Sputnik, Apollo mission, ...), CERN, DARPA fallouts (like the Internet), ...

  2. Universal healthcare. Countries like France spend less per person (and a lower share in GDP) in healthcare than the USA, and yet we have a higher life expectancy, and no one is denied treatment because of money issue.

  3. The whole French civilian nuclear power program, which worked fast, with no significant accident, and delivers us cheap, clean, reliable electricity.

  4. The French train network, especially TGV (high-speed train) which carries millions of passenger a year between the main French city, with high speed, safety, reliability and reasonable cost.

  5. Eradication of smallpox (but you already spoke of vaccination).

  6. Literacy campaigns in Latin America (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador).

  7. Mision Milagro (joint operation of Cuba and Venezuela that treated sight-related issues of more than one million of third world (mostly latam) inhabitants, for many of them allowing them to recover sight).

Successful government engineering/research projects:

  • The Manhattan Project
  • Some subsections of NASA (e.g. programmers)
  • DARPA has lots of examples of successful scientific developments- most obviously, the internet
  • Possibly government spy agencies- almost everything is non-public, but they're known to have had some notable non-classified successes (e.g. RSA)
  • The last generation of USAF aircraft were famously well-designed
  • The US Navy has a perfect record of safety on its nuclear reactors (the USSR had 14 known accidents on a smaller fleet; there were also numerous civilian meltdowns)

It seems like most of these successes are due to either throwing money at a problem until they've hired enough smart people and equipment (Manhattan Project, DARPA, NSA) or to the government imposing higher standards and more discipline on its workers than was the norm elsewhere (NASA programmers, nuclear safety.)

Relevant.

This is just a loose impression, but it seems to me that the government is somewhat more consistent at recovering from notable failures; this is arguably because it's (usually) a monopoly, and has no other choice, whereas companies will often simply abandon a product if it fails sufficiently. Examples include military reform after Vietnam and in the middle of Iraq. I have no idea if this experience leads to it becoming better at recovering from failures.

The "perfect record of safety" claim for Navy nuclear reactors made me think of Thresher. I guess I can see putting it in a different class from meltdowns and radiation leaks, but it does seem that part of the reason it sank is that the reactor did fail (by going into automatic shutdown at a time when the sub needed the power), and I'm not sure how convinced I am by the government reports that the radiation released from the wreck is insignificant. Of course, they did dramatically upgrade safety procedures after Thresher, which is perhaps another one for your "recovering from notable failures" category.

Possibly government spy agencies- almost everything is non-public, but they're known to have had some notable non-classified successes (e.g. RSA)
[...]
The US Navy has a perfect record of safety on its nuclear reactors (the USSR had 14 known accidents on a smaller fleet; there were also numerous civilian meltdowns)

First you acknowledge that there classification and then you say that the lack of public knowledge about US Navy reactor safety issues means that there weren't any?

  • NSA stuff is classified because its release would alert others to the US's capabilities; the fact of an accident would not
  • One would expect the USSR to be equally eager to classify their mistakes, and to have greater success; they are believed to have failed utterly
  • Any argument in favor of classifying nuclear accidents would apply equally to the Thresher, Scorpion, Guitarro, San Francisco, and Miami, for which no serious attempt was made at classification
  • Nuclear accidents, judging by the USSR's experience, almost always involve the loss of an entire ship, and many fatalities. It is not possibly for the Navy to just "lose" a ship or a dozen sailors. (No submarine certified under the navy's safety plan, SUBSAFE, has ever been lost, for any reason.) It is even less possible for them to evacuate an aircraft carrier and then rely on tugs to move it to a dock for repair..

Relevant links from Yvain's excellent Non-libertarian FAQ:

Government Success Stories The Forgotten Achievements of Governments

These are mostly the usual suspects, though.

[-][anonymous]7y 5

Only the United States fought a war to abolish slavery. Every other nation on Earth abolished it by government passing laws, and most of them within a few generations.

Only the United States fought a war to abolish slavery. Every other nation on Earth abolished it by government passing laws, and most of them within a few generations.

Huh? Haiti's slave revolution strikes me as an internal war to abolish slavery, and Britain declared an external war to abolish slavery in other countries, comparable to previous wars on piracy.

Haiti is certainly a counterexample, as is Zanzibar, but "all but 3" is pretty close to "all but 1," hardly deserving of "Huh?" Yes, Britain's war on the slave trade weakened slavery, but did not immediately end it in any state. I believe the conquest of Zanzibar is the only example of Britain forcing another state to abandon slavery.

I'm more concerned about the difference between "nation" and "state," which I think makes the original statement rather misleading. There are many states today, but most of them were parts of European colonial empires and their abolition was imposed from Europe. This was done peacefully by governments that gained their power through unrelated violence.

hardly deserving of "Huh?"

That was my attempt to express a model conflict, basically "this disagrees with my sense of history." As I understand it, global abolitionism was basically a British phenomenon, and the motive force seems to primarily be private groups, not state actors. It may be a point in credit to governments that they mostly acceded to the abolitionist movement nonviolently, but I don't think it's reasonable to claim they were the primary actors, or to claim that most governments did it independently. (There are still modern proponents of slavery around the world, as well as ongoing illegal slavery which is mostly opposed by European / Anglosphere groups.)

Do you recognize that you are saying something completely different from your original comment?
(completely different from and much better than)
Your previous comment appears to be claiming substantial disagreement over facts.
Also, you switched from talking about the British government to private actions.

Assigning credit is difficult. Yes, maybe Trevor's example is bad, even if his facts are essentially correct. But if you credit British violence, you have to give that government credit for long term planning and cost-effective, minimal violence.

Yes, private writings, the Enlightenment, pushed slavery out of fashion. That was the important step, but there's still the step of actually ending slavery, which was done by governments. It is impressive how many managed to expropriate rich people without violence. (But I don't give them credit for being cheap, rather than paying off the rich people, as only(?) Britain did.)

Do you recognize that you are saying something completely different from your original comment?

They look comparable to me. I still think that the factual claim "Only the US fought a war to abolish slavery" is incorrect, as is "Every other nation on Earth abolished it by government passing laws". Writing down that the slave trade is illegal is one thing, the West Africa Squadron is another. (I didn't explicitly raise the disagreement with "within a few generations" like buybuydandavis, but disagreement on that point is also strongly relevant, as I'll get to in a bit.)

It seems best to start by disagreeing on facts, because those are easier to resolve.

In the second comment, I elaborated on why I disagree on interpretation as well as disagreeing on facts. This thread is about what governments got right, and so I am reluctant to say "governments got slavery right" without a clear arrow pointing from the existence of governments to the consequence of slavery being resolved correctly. What it looks like to me is that in the time after the kingship descended from heaven, continuing on to the present day, governments have actively encouraged and perpetuated slavery, with Britain in the 1800s as the primary outlier, primarily because of the actions of private British citizens in altering the direction of the British government, and (current politics warning) most governments today banning private slavery while maintaining their slavery.

One of the other reasons why I focused on disagreements of fact first is because the sense of history plays strongly into how claims generalize. I know some about the history of global abolition, which I'll call V_H, but if someone else makes the claim "abolition is a sign of government competence" then I need to know what their history of abolition, T_H, looks like because I can guess what other things they'll think are similar enough to abolition to also fit the claim that those things are signs of government competence. And if T_H didn't actually happen, then that seems like evidence against government competence.

Let's stick to factual disagreements. Did Britain forcibly end slavery? I say no, outside of Zanzibar. What do you say? I think that there's a big difference between forcibly ending slavery and forcibly ending the slave trade. What do you think?

This may be sort-of true, but I would say that it's not entirely true. France abolished slavery via laws, but it was part of the same host of "liberty and equality" laws that heralded the French Revolution and Reign of Terror. Slavery was reinstituted shortly after Napoleon took over.

The United States was a latecomer in abolitionism.

Within a few generations of what?

Of each other, I think it means.

Other nations abolished it within a few generations of the US abolishing it? Plus or minus a few generations?

Ok, guess that's how I'd read that.

For which government are you counting that as an achievement?

For which government are you counting that as an achievement?

Apparently the governments of "every other nation on earth". Which is odd, because I don't think my country achieved that. I can only assume countries which never had slavery are excluded.

Did your locale never have slavery, or did it just never have slavery under a particular flag?

My understanding is that slavery was a near universal in the last couple thousand years of human history, and lack of slavery was the exception.

Australia had slavery. It was entirely unregulated until 1868. The practice mostly ended when Australia decided on a mass deportation of all Pacific Islanders in 1901, for racial reasons.

We can argue about it's long-term sustainability because of the baby boomers retiring and all that, but just in terms of administration and execution, the social security program is incredibly well-run and effective. According to internal reviews, the error rate is amazingly low:

The FY 2011 error rates for RSDI overpayments and underpayments were 0.32 percent and 0.13 percent, respectively

http://www.socialsecurity.gov/improperpayments/documents/AO_Report_2013.pdf

And the administration overhead cost of the program is relatively low as well, considering it's very high accuracy rate. It looks like the overhead and administrative costs of the program has been less then 1% of the total cost of the program every year since 1989.

http://www.ssa.gov/oact/STATS/admin.html

But its very hard to get a valid intuitive picture of government competence.

The topic is complicated.

First, governments are not monolithic but are diverse collections of people and organizations. The variation in competency between them is considerable.

Second, what do you mean by "competence"? Efficiency (measured in what? money?) in pursuing goals? Any goals?

Third, I don't think "future policy responses" have much to do with competence. I would think they will be determined by the goals and interests of politically powerful groups. Governments are mechanisms through which political power is wielded.

Fourth, reading the media is remarkably poor way of estimating pretty much anything. What's wrong with estimating the government's competence by looking at real-life results, long-term data?

What's wrong with estimating the government's competence by looking at real-life results, long-term data?

Do you have good sources for that?

Statistics published by large organizations such as UN, WHO, IMF, etc. They shouldn't be taken as gospel, but should be sufficient for looking at broad outlines -- e.g. infant mortality, education, public infrastructure...

Obligatory link to the classic "What have the Romans ever done for us?" scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian.

The US has sufficient checks and balances that Cheney could not, by himself, bomb Russia.

The US no longer uses leaded gasoline, for the most part. Though in fairness to conservatives I should note that the federal government may have deliberately extended its use at one point.

Some answers in this comment of mine.

It seems like someone in the media, at least at some sufficiently high level, should be able to distinguish between those scenarios. It also seems like that level can't realistically be any higher than whoever runs a specific newspaper, for example (rather than the CEO of the company which owns that newspaper as well as ten others and a TV station or two).

I don't think you'd need to be in the media, necessarily. A lot of information about what the government does and how it does it is in the public domain if you care enough to look, at least in the United States; it should be possible to get fairly detailed financial information, for example, for most everything that isn't concerned with war or spying. That isn't perfect, especially since it's hard in many cases to find private-sector projects to compare against, but if you're interested in finding a true measure of government efficiency it seems like a better place to start than media reports.

[-][anonymous]7y 0
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Good, worthwhile post.

The purpose is not just to train my intuition away from the "governments are intrinsically incompetent" that I currently have (and which is unjustified by objective evidence).

"Incompetent" is too strong perhaps. But I think it is safe to say that bureaucracies are intrinsically prone to certain inefficiences. And a large government, like in the US, would not be exempt.

So I'm asking if commentators want to share government success stories they may have come across.

"Success" is too vague. Success from whose perspective? And by what parameters?

I think what tends to happen in this sort of examination is that we would identify governments as the means of optimizing toward certain ends. Some policies are successful to 51% of the people in a country. Some are successful to all citizens of that country, whille being significantly detrimental to the rest of the world. Some make everybody equally ecstatic right now and doom the whole lot us in the future.

At least in terms of domestic impact, would it make sense to compare and contrast countries with relatively large governments against those with small governments? I posit that you'd see less of an answer to which size/style governement is best, and more a landscape of the sorts of consequences they tend to yield.

Two words: King Asoka.

I do not see how this is relevant, or how the information regarding him is sufficiently accurate to be trusted.