A Broader View for Solving Society’s Problems

Here’s a finding with interesting implications for public policy debates:

Against a grim backdrop of rising suicide rates among American women, new research has revealed a blinding shaft of light: One group of women — practicing Catholics — appears to have bucked the national trend toward despair and self-harm.

Compared with women who never participated in religious services, women who attended any religious service once a week or more were five times less likely to commit suicide between 1996 and 2010, says a study published Wednesday by JAMA Psychiatry. …

The women’s church attendance was not the only factor; which church they attended mattered as well.  Protestant women who worshiped weekly at church were far less likely to take their own lives than were women who seldom or never attended services. But these same Protestant women were still seven times more likely to die by their own hand than were their devout Catholic sisters.

Taking these findings at face value for the sake of consideration, one might suggest that the government should recommend that women attend Catholic Mass once a week, but I’d go in a different direction.  The lesson should be that people have problems and face difficulties that government just should not task itself with solving.

It’s very easy to fall into the thinking that government should try to do something and that its doing so shouldn’t preclude other approaches, but in the long term, in practice, that becomes impossible.  Ultimately, society allocates a certain amount of resources to particular problems, and the government begins to crowd out those resources.  To the extent that people believe the government has and is offering a solution, people won’t turn to alternatives that take a longer-term commitment, like developing religious involvement.  (In a way, this is like people not signing up for insurance if the government mandates that they get care when they’re sick regardless.)

It’s entirely possible, even probable, that the number of lives saved by direct government action will be fewer than the number lost because government changed society’s incentives, meaning that government action cost lives.  And this doesn’t account for whatever harm the government does by taking money from other purposes to which people would put it in order to fund its programs.

As with the economy, what the government ought scrupulously to do is to reduce the barriers that it creates to individuals’ and families’ fixing their own problems through other methods.

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