Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) during a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Wednesday. (Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
Columnist

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is outraged. That isn’t news, of course. But the targets of the Democratic representative from New York do change, and on Thursday, it was Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, of whom she tweeted:

“Only *one-third* of American children in elementary & middle school can read at grade-level. One third. Yet Betsey DeVos is trying to cut *every* Federal literacy program in the country.”

Ooh, that does sound outrageous, doesn’t it? But Betsy (not Betsey) DeVos offered a reasonable-sounding explanation for her slash-and-burn approach to federal literacy programs: She says they don’t work.

Her claim could, of course, be false. But Ocasio-Cortez’s own tweet inadvertently offered compelling empirical support for DeVos’s position. After all, if only a third of American children can read at grade level, the literacy programs aren’t working very well. We should certainly hope that there is some better method out there. And a good way to fund it might be to divert money from the current lackluster programs.

Ocasio-Cortez did not seem to notice that she had scored an own goal — further evidence of a persistent problem in the way the left thinks and talks about its policy priorities. (The right has its own peculiar policy pathologies, starting with the fact that it seems to have confused tax cuts with ginseng: a broad-spectrum snake-oil cure for every single thing that ails you. But let’s leave the right’s peccadilloes for another day.)

On the left, too often, spending money on a problem is viewed as synonymous with addressing the problem. And sometimes it is! When the problem was that old people had too little money to pay their bills, the government established Social Security to send them checks. Maybe the program created trouble along the way or wasn’t generous enough, but either way, old people definitely had more money.

On the other hand, it is also perfectly possible to spend a lot of money on some state of affairs without in any way altering the problem that prompted the spending. Just ask anyone who has taken a lavish vacation in the belief that it would fix their marital problems.

In government, as in marriage, some kinds of problems are more amenable to policy fixes than others. If a government program is designed to provide people with cash, or food staples, or home heating oil, then as long as reasonable precautions are taken to block to corrupt officials and con artists from siphoning off the aid, the program will probably improve matters. But as people’s needs become more complicated, the likelihood rises that programs to address them aren’t doing much good.

Sickness and ignorance are two of the trickiest problems that government tries to tackle. The inputs to the system are infinitely variable; every human being is a unique snowflake. That makes the outputs of a hospital bed or classroom incredibly difficult to measure — or to manage. That’s why programs aimed at making people healthier and better educated have a much higher miss rate than the Social Security system.

The problem isn’t restricted to government programs; large corporations, and for that matter small businesses, run into the same sort of trouble all the time. The more doctrinaire free-marketeer is often astonished to learn just how little companies know about what they are doing and how poorly they grasp the effect of various initiatives on their bottom line.

The difference is that if a company spends a lot of money on doing useless-to-counterproductive stuff, eventually that will show up on its bottom line. If it spends too much on marketing campaigns that don’t attract customers, IT projects that don’t make workers more productive or research initiatives that don’t deliver useful new products, the company will fail and the spending will stop. Short of a fiscal crisis, government doesn’t have that kind of natural stopping point. Decades after economist Milton Friedman said it, his observation remains true: “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”

As the primary advocates of government-spending programs to address social problems, the left would do well to develop a keener appreciation of the possibility that the spending they propose won’t work. Unless the left is willing to cut government as well as grow it, more and more resources will be devoted to programs that are solving some problem in name only. At least some of the time, left-wing politicians need to think less like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and more like Betsy DeVos.

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an economic illiterate — and that’s a danger to America

Alexandra Petri: I am sick of hearing about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from myself, talking about her

Paul Waldman: Republicans really hate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There’s a lesson there for 2020.