If You Want Crappy Public Services, Means-Test Them

by Will on August 19, 2010

Lately I’ve been hearing the idea that Social Security and Medicare should be means-tested. Superficially, that’s an idea that seems appealing — why should the very wealthy get free cash and medical treatment? But if the idea were adopted, it would lead to an inevitable decline in the quality of the programs.

Look at the free lunches provided to poor students at public schools. They’re awful: unpalatable and unhealthy. Wealthier students don’t buy them; their parents send them to school with better food from private sources. But if every student just got the lunch for free, those wealthy parents would not want to turn it down, and also wouldn’t stay hush about the low quality. They would use the influence their wealth gives them to prevail upon the school board members, the school principal, or whomever, that their kids deserved better meals. Services provided for free to wealthy people tend to retain their quality because of the recipients’ influence, whereas services provided only to the poor are prone to deterioration.
The trend in this country has been to means-test most public services. I think that this, rather than some Anglo-Saxon antipathy to “big government,” explains why our public services function much more poorly than in northern Europe.

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