The Magazine

A BENCHMARK FOR TROUBLE

Jul 21, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 44 • By ALAN EHRENHALT
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Five years ago, the government of Oregon looked far into the future and made a list of goals and commitments it called "Benchmarks." By the year 2010, the state legislature declared, all two-year-olds will be immunized against contagious illness. All displaced workers will be guaranteed jobs at 90 percent of their previous pay. Spouse abuse will be cut in half, and teenage pregnancy by two-thirds. Ninety percent of the adults in the state will be doing aerobic exercises three times a week.


In January, Oregon issued a five-year progress report. It was mixed. In some fields, such as job and income growth, and clean air, Oregon was just about where it wanted to be. But when it came to crime, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and a whole host of social problems, the situation had gotten worse. On crime and drugs, in fact, the state gave itself an unambiguous "F."


I have been fascinated by the Oregon Benchmarks project from the beginning, in part because it has spawned admirers and imitators all over the country. In the years since it started, dozens of states and cities have drawn up similar lists of long-range goals and begun keeping track of their progress. But there is something more fundamentally interesting and important about this whole phenomenon: It symbolizes the naivete of American government at all levels in the 1990s.


There are problems of public management and funding, and there are problems of human behavior. It is in our interest to appreciate the difference. The benchmark movement doesn't appreciate the difference, and that is its signal flaw.


Managerial solutions are relatively easy. Immunizing first-graders doesn't require that they think or behave in any particular way. It requires only that the government provide the serum and the nurses, and that the kids show up at school. But problems involving human behavior are far more difficult: Immunizing those same children against having babies at the age of 14 involves transforming their ideas, beliefs, and daily conduct. That isn't just a harder task -- it's a task from an entirely different conceptual universe.


In fact, I would argue that we would all be better off if every discussion of public policy solutions started with one simple question: Does this solution require the transformation of human conduct in any significant way? If it does, it belongs in a separate pile. And it should go there with the clear understanding that, based on what we know of history and human nature, it is a long shot.


The intractability of perverse human behavior may seem an obvious point -- too obvious to make much fuss over. At some level, I suppose most policy makers understand it. But often they don't act as if they understand it, and that has been an endless source of confusion, frustration, and ultimate public disillusionment when programs that promise to cure intractable social ills fail, as they inevitably do.


Government has always sought to manipulate human behavior, of course. Indeed, there have been long periods in modern history when it has seemed interested in little else. Five hundred years ago, the majority of laws on the books in any community in Western Europe were called "sumptuary laws." They were aimed at telling citizens what they could wear, what they could eat, and how to conduct the routine of daily life in ways that did not constitute a violation of public decency, as defined by the local elite.


Sumptuary laws were about behavior; their aim was to control it, not to reform it. The governments that passed them didn't mind if people harbored secret desires to dress inappropriately. What mattered was that they not do so in public, on the street. The elevation of human moral standards was a task for the church, not the city council.


Well into this century in America, the relationship of government and personal behavior was fundamentally what it had been in medieval Europe -- a matter of commands and controls. The ultimate expression of this fact was the Prohibition experiment. Prohibition has always been described as a moral crusade, and certainly it possessed an element of that. Its advocates would have been delighted if, in the absence of legal alcohol, Americans had lost their thirst and had come to appreciate the evils of intoxication. But Prohibition was not fundamentally an attempt to educate or motivate; it was an effort to stop people from drinking by taking away the product. It was an attack on supply, not demand.