Recently, I have been reading and hearing a lot about groups like the Cajun Navy, which rescued hundreds of people during Hurricane Harvey. The organization formed spontaneously in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and is stimulating a new and much-needed conversation. When you compare the voluntary provision of important public services by the “Cajun Navies” of the world with those provided by government agencies like FEMA, it’s pretty hard to deny how much better the voluntary organizations perform.
From many of the conversations I’ve been having about recent events, it is obvious that many people realize that something important is almost “hiding in plain sight”. We the People already provide each other with most of the services on which we rely, but this fact so often goes unnoticed. Whether it’s the production and supply of food, clothes, electrical power, houses, systems and modes of transportation, medical treatments, or most modern forms of communication – all public services on which we depend – We the People are responsible for most of them.
And yet about half of the country’s resources go to the government.
Common sense says that we should send more resources to those who can do the most good with them. Yet, when it comes to the public services, that common sense seems lacking.
Whenever we just increase the amount we are sending to a government program or agency to deliver a public service, we are skipping the critical step of identifying the best way of doing something before we do it – or do more of it.
In almost every other area of life, when we want to improve outcomes, we look at methods of delivery. If we did this for the services on which the public rely, we would all Do Better.
The provision of public services by the government has some unique and fundamental flaws; for example, the guaranteed supply of potentially unlimited revenue (through taxation) reduces the accountability of those who spend it, decoupling inputs from outcomes. This contributes to ever-increasing waste and inefficiency over time. As Matt Agorist recently noted, FEMA, which had a $13.9 billion budget in 2016 was expected to run out of money even before superstorm Irma hit Florida, even though this year’s hurricane season is just beginning. And that’s after $6.7 billion was allocated for disaster relief in the 2017 budget. Meanwhile, volunteer organizations have been performing many of the same functions of FEMA even more effectively without taking any tax dollars from the public to do so. Amazingly, the Cajun Navy does its life-saving work while refusing even to take cash donations.
The fact that the Cajun Navy arrived on the scene more quickly than FEMA and saved more lives on a shoestring budget begs a profoundly important question: how much more good could be done by the “Cajun Navies” of the world if they had even a small fraction of the resources that the “FEMAs” have?
The Cajun Navy is just another example of Americans’ coming together, putting their differences aside, to help each other in a time of need. It’s truly a beautiful thing to witness. As Charlie Chaplin said, “We all want to help one another; human beings are like that.”
The good news is that we are already spending more than enough to do the good that we would like to see done – if only a small fraction of those resources were redirected to those who Do Better with them, so that they could give those most in need the best possible assistance.
A model for this has already been implemented, with excellent results.
It can be found in Arizona, where residents are able to redirect some of their tax dollars to organizations that Do Better in supporting the causes they believe in. Arizona’s “charitable tax credit” allows each taxpayer to redirect up to $400 (recently doubled from $200) of their individual state income tax liability to a nonprofit in their local area that serves the poor more effectively than does the government. Taxpayers receive a dollar-for-dollar credit for donations, so if they have a tax bill of $1,000 from the state of Arizona, but have sent $400 to their favorite local charities, they now only owe the state $600.
Whether we are responding to catastrophic events, such as hurricanes, or the basic, everyday needs of our communities, doesn’t it make the most sense to ensure that those who do the most good have the resources they need to do even more good? If we do so, the sky will be the limit for the “Cajun Navies” out there in both number and effectiveness. In the uncertain environment in which we live, why would we want to do anything less than put ourselves in the best possible position to meet tomorrow’s needs, or to deal with the next emergency – whatever it may be?
There are countless examples of harm done by the wasting of resources by those who have no real incentive to deploy them carefully. How about New York City spending $2 million dollars on a bathroom, the GSA spending over $800 at a conference in Vegas, and the Pentagon not being able to account for $6.5 Trillion dollars? The list goes on and on…
Recognizing all of this, the We Do Better project is about finding organizations that Do Better in each community; ensuring that those who need their help know where and how to get it; and empowering communities to send their resources to where they will do the most good.
In Arizona, where the charitable credit was implemented, local charities in several communities formed tax credit coalitions to publicize the credit, making it easier for donors to give, and for beneficiaries to find them. This increased cooperation among charities has had the wonderful side-effect of making them more effective in helping people who were facing multiple challenges at once (such as food insecurity, homelessness, and addiction), hugely improving human outcomes and the strength of the community’s social safety net.
Doing the most good means being morally committed to better human outcomes – rather than ideologically committed to a particular method of achieving them. Let us start measuring our compassion not by our good intentions, the efforts we make, or even the money we spend – but by the good that we do for each other.
As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”