I’ll try to answer your second question, Diana, but first we need to make it defensible; it’s simply untrue that “public policies cannot ever seem to achieve what they proclaim as their goal and instead seem to create the opposite effect or worse.” If that were true, we would live in a marvelous world. By creating policies designed to put more criminals on the street, to retard industry, or to cause war, I would solve the world’s problems.
In fact, even Bastiat would say we go too far if we claim that all public policies are doomed to fail. Bastiat believes that public policy is necessary to temper humankind’s self-interest:
Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain — and since labor is pain in itself — it follows that men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work. History shows this quite clearly. And under these conditions, neither religion nor morality can stop it. When, then, does plunder stop? It stops when it becomes more painful and more dangerous than labor.
This, then, is Bastiat’s purpose of public policy: to make plunder more painful than labor. It is from this point that we can understand why public policies fail and how to make them succeed.
As Bastiat notes, humans will act for their perceived self-interest (not even “religion or morality can stop it”). This is the fact from which successful public policy begins. Unsuccessful public policy begins with the assumption that it is the strongest force in society.
If we are to build a successful public policy, then, we must realize that the ground1 of our system is greater than the law. It is true that the state has police power, and this leads many to think that the state is capable of great control; however, police power is itself dependent on a system of officers and incentives. Police power will fail if it goes against the ground (e.g., in the corrupt Brazilian police force). Why do the laws of Rio de Janeiro often fail? Because legislators think that they can control the system despite the ground. They pass a law with no thought as to what motivates the police force, and the law goes unenforced. This is failed public policy.
Successful public policy plans for self-interest and systemic forces. Our constitution works well partly because it was planned under the assumption that self-interest would drive the government. As James Madison said: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” The obligation of which Madison speaks is the difference between successful and unsuccessful public policy. Successful public policy recognizes that it is simply words on a page; it must rely on the ground of the system to manipulate the system, and it must rely on the ground to manipulate the ground.
1. By “ground of the system,” I mean the material and ideal causes that give rise to human social and economic systems. For example, a materialist who describes the rise of democracy out of the means of production or an idealist who describes the rise of democracy out of the idea that all men are equal are both talking about the grounds of the system democracy.