Where the government fails, ordinary Americans are stepping in to look out for one another, a model that is proving increasingly effective.
Opinion — Recently, I’ve 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 to those provided by government agencies like FEMA, it’s hard to deny how much better the voluntary organizations perform.
Based on many of the discussions I’ve been having about recent events, it is obvious that many people realize something important is almost “hiding in plain sight.” ‘We the People’ already provide each other with most of the services we rely on, but this fact 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 almost half of the country’s resources go to the government.
Common sense says we should send more resources to those who can do the best work with them. Yet when it comes to the public services, that common sense seems lacking.
Whenever we simply 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 doing 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 the public relies on, 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, creating an imbalance between inputs and outcomes. This contributes to ever-increasing waste and inefficiency over time. FEMA had a $13.9 billion budget in 2016 yet was expected to run out of money even before superstorm Irma hit Florida as this year’s hurricane season was just beginning. And that’s after $6.7 billion was allocated to disaster relief in the 2017 budget. In contrast, 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 without taxpayer funds.
The fact that the Cajun Navy arrived on the scene quicker 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 the “FEMAs” have?
The Cajun Navy is just another example of Americans coming together and putting their differences aside to help each other in times of need. It’s truly a beautiful thing to witness. As Charlie Chaplin famously said in the film The Great Dictator, “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 we would like to see done – if only a small fraction of those resources were redirected to those who do better with them so they could give those most in need the best possible assistance.
A model for this has already been implemented with excellent results.
In Arizona, 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 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 those who do the most good have the resources they need to do even more good? If we do, the sky will be the limit for the “Cajun Navies” out there in both number and effectiveness. Given the uncertain environment we live in, 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 on a bathroom, the GSA spending more than $800,000 at a conference in Vegas, and the Pentagon fudging its own accounts by $6.5 trillion? 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 help know where and how to get it, and empowering communities to send their resources 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 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.”
We already do better. We can do more of that.
Jason Casella is the Grassroots Coordinator of We Do Better, an orgnization that promotes the freedom and well-being of all Americans by maximizing the quality and accessibility of public services and accountability in their provision.