Mistrust of government – some practical considerations

As a “conservative” (leaning libertarian…) I tend to have something of a mistrust of government. My mistrust comes in two forms; one principled and the other practical. The principled mistrust is a subject for another day; today I want to reflect on the practical mistrust.

Despite its best intentions, government so frequently ends up being more harmful than beneficial.

This article outlines some of the recent discoveries about AISH; the Assured Income for Severely Handicapped. The author explains,

Alberta’s auditor general has found what thousands of Alberta’s disabled people, and their families, have known for years.

The system called Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) is so cold and distant that it makes handicapped people wait an average of more than 200 days for benefits, and won’t even speed up for the dying.

The auditor general found that some approved palliative care applicants did not get proper application forms, received fewer benefits than they were entitled to, or died before receiving any benefits at all.

In short, AISH was designed to to help those most in need of help, but it seems to be having the exact opposite impact.

The problems range from ridiculous delays between numerous stages of approval, to complex forms that handicapped people have trouble dealing with, to rejections because of minor details that could have been resolved at the start.

The author shares the story of one family,

“I was more exasperated after each fruitless visit to AISH. The person we saw was never the same when we returned. We presented our case many times and were never offered even basic courtesy.

“We waited for weeks to have inquiries replied to. I lost count of how many doors we knocked on trying to make sense of the AISH maze.”

“One indignity follows the next, one uncaring person transfers you to the next, and the only escape from the AISH hell is to give up.

And this, in a nutshell, is why I just don’t think the government should be the primary resource people turn to when they need help. And I definitely don’t think the government should ever pretend it could be, even in theory.

Simply put, many government programs eventually devolve into bureaucratic, impersonal, paperwork processing machines. Of course there are individual government employees who defy this; people who truly care, and will passionately do whatever they can – within the binding constraints of their seriously limited power – to help those in need. And there are certain government programs and branches that defy this trend (I have benefited from some of those) but those are the exception, not the rule.

I wish I had some clear explanation, or even a theory, as to why this happens. I have some possible concepts bouncing around in my head, but nothing worth putting into words at this point. But whatever the cause, this is a widespread effect of government programming. We might banter back and forth as to the underlying reasons, but whatever the reasons let’s at least acknowledge this is a perpetual problem, and simultaneously recognize that a superior solution is needed; one that is somewhat more immune to slipping into these patterns.

A superior system would be one where the service providers responded in a timely manner, where they had a sincere, personal, concern for those they were helping and, ideally, actually got to know them more deeply than just “the next citizen to stand on the other side of the counter.” And the system would have to be infinitely flexible in order to allow the service provider the opportunity to customize their response to the person, providing resources in a manner perfectly appropriate to their specific situation.

The problem with such a system is the vast amount of energy needed to get to know people as individuals. Such a system would go well beyond checklists and forms, and cannot operate in an environment where it’s a different person at the counter every time you show up. And that kind of flexibility is not becoming of government which needs to avoid any trace of favouritism or discrimination.

Such a system would require a significantly larger time investment from a single individual (or team) assigned to that person’s particular case.

Traditionally, a public institution that used to fill that role was called the “family.” It involved a biological mother and biological father in a life-long, contractual relationship (traditionally called a “marriage”) raising their biological children. The process of raising them was highly specific to their individual children, the parents were highly invested and passionately concerned for the well-being of their children.

And that familial concern was inter-generational. Grandparents, aunts and uncles would all remain relatively tight knit, and would look out for each other. I can attest to this in our own lives when Denise was in the hospital. It was our family, not the government, that I turned to for help. And, oh, did I receive help!

The man who would have been my father-in-law passed away when my wife was very young. My mother-in-law ended up raising three kids all by herself. But, in a manner of speaking, she wasn’t all by herself; her extended family stepped up to the plate. To this day they continue to remain very helpful, though the form of their help has obviously shifted over the years (see; it’s flexible!).

But with the widespread breakdown of the family institution, so went one of the strongest, most intimately dedicated, and highly personal, forms of assistance known to humans. Interestingly, in that news story, the man who was interviewed was obviously not intimately involved in the life of his wife and son; another example of family breakdown leading to the need for government assistance.

In the place of family, what’s the next “plan B?” I would suggest an ideal plan B is charitable organizations; particularly the church. The benefit of charities is the fact that, unlike the government, there are so many of them and they don’t have to all be the same. People who approach charities will find that they are not all the same, and therefore they will not respond to people’s problems in exactly the same way. Some charities might not be able to help me, but others definitely will. And the form of help from one charity may not be as well-suited to my needs as the form of help from the other charity. As needs multiply, so do charities. They can respond much quicker than government programs can, and their assistance is often far more customized to the needs of the recipient.

And the kinds of people who work at charities are usually extremely passionate about being there. The nature of the work (and the associated pay grades) naturally selects for compassionate people who want to help others, as opposed to government jobs which don’t necessarily attract that kind of altruistic person. Not that they exclude them – of course not – but government programs can attract all kinds of people, whereas charities tend to specifically attract more of the selfless types.

One of the strongest forms of charity also happens to be something of a non-biological family; it’s called the “church.” As with our biological family, I can attest to the great assistance that our church family played in our lives while we were dealing with that trauma a few years ago. And I can attest to the active role that the church plays in many people’s lives as it lives out its love for other people, motivated by its love of God, and God’s love of us.

Good luck finding such theological motivation in any government office!

If the government really wants to help people, it should begin with a highly focused campaign to strengthen families. If we had fewer broken households in the first place we would have fewer of these kinds of problems, as I describe in For the Love of Alberta.

Second, they would do everything they can to encourage people to support charities. As it stands now, taxpayers get a 50% tax credit for donations to charities; why not increase that? Why not make it 100%; dollar for dollar? After all, if people are donating to charities that are dedicated to helping the needy, then that’s one less thing the government has to take care of, right?

Lastly, government should still have services like AISH. I’m certainly not suggesting we get rid of it; of course not! But AISH should be a last resort for people who don’t have any other options, and the government should be actively promoting those institutions (family, church, charities) that are better suited to the flexibility, timeliness, compassion and personal response that those in need ought to receive.

And when they go to AISH, my goodness, they shouldn’t have to face the bureaucratic nightmare that it apparently is these days. For shame!