The following is a lightly edited excerpt from an e-mail recently sent to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy by a front-line worker in the state's welfare department:

"As a state employee for over 20 years, I would challenge you to come to the Department of Human Services and walk one day in our shoes. It is like a hospital with 400-500 patients for each doctor: Desperate people coming in with gaping wounds of addiction, spousal abuse, poverty, child neglect, terminal illnesses, hunger, homelessness or mental retardation. ...

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"... [Meanwhile,] we employees have sacrificed pensions, furlough days, raises, health benefit deductibles, layoffs, early retirements and mental health for sake of the State, but the hole just gets bigger. Now they want to cut the retiree benefits? ... This should be the time when the Baby Boomers are uniting to heal the nation; instead, we are a flood of forgotten voices who have allowed our generation to be passed over."

The Mackinac Center's Jack McHugh responds:

Dear Front Liner:

I sincerely sympathize with you and others on the DHS front line. I believe that your characterization of the mission you been asked to accomplish and the reality that confronts you are completely accurate.

Where I disagree is about the ability of the enterprise itself to accomplish much of that mission under any conditions.

Let me be specific: I don't oppose welfare and related government social service programs because I'm against wealth redistribution per se, or even necessarily because they "cost too much."

I oppose them as currently constituted because government bureaucracies themselves are inherently incapable of dealing with many of the problems that the welfare state has undertaken to "fix." Let me explain.

Government programs consist of bureaucracies. Bureaucracies are very good at doing some kinds of things, like collecting taxes, running license bureaus, and even adjudicating justice, where clearly defined "if-then" rules and procedures can be established. However, our society has applied this same tool to addressing complex human needs and problems with which it cannot possibly cope. The outcome is the situation you have described.

Here's the key point: Because of this core limitation of bureaucracies, no amount of money funneled into this system can "fix" or even substantively affect most of these conditions.

Making the problem even more intractable is the enterprise's interaction with a political system that must extract the wealth it redistributes, and which establishes the conditions by which that wealth will be doled out. What this means is that the system inevitably will be crippled with conflicting missions, policies and procedures. I have little doubt that you yourself could cite any number of examples.

In addition, baked into much (but not all) of the enterprise is the real issue of "moral hazard," which is the potentially corrosive effect of unearned entitlements on individuals and cultures. Also inescapable is the ultimate constraint represented by scarcity: Demand for goods and services is by definition unlimited, while supply is always limited, and subject to many competing demands. Rationing is inevitable, and in a welfare state it is accomplished by political and bureaucratic processes, with all the dysfunctions and skewed incentives associated with those institutions.

Most of us at the Mackinac Center have thought long and deeply upon these matters, and concluded that because of its inherent contradictions the welfare state as currently constituted is not capable of fulfilling the functions our society has asked it to accomplish. Further, that because of those contradictions no "reforms" can make it capable, nor can dedicating more of the society's wealth to it.

This conclusion is separate from whether one believes that wealth redistribution is inherently right or wrong: Like me, many (but not all) who share our conclusions about the efficacy of the current welfare state do not believe that some wealth redistribution is necessarily wrong. Some have proposed alternatives that avoid our current system's inherent contradictions but still involve wealth redistribution. (At the top of my list is Charles Murray's "A Plan to Replace the Welfare State.")

I personally am very willing to explore such alternatives, but have no interest in evading reality by discussing imaginary proposals to "square the circle" of the current welfare system's contradictions. Circles don't square, and conceptually flawed systems can't be "reformed."

Sincerely,

Jack McHugh