There's little dispute among social scientists that most of our major public programs are counter-productive on their own terms. There is also little analysis of this phenomenon as a pattern in need of an explanation and a solution.
Prisons are supposedly intended to reduce crime, but instead increase it. Young people who when they commit crimes are arrested and punished become much more likely to commit crimes as adults than are those young people who when they commit crimes are just left alone.
Fixing public schools by requiring endless test-preparation and testing is ruining public schools. Kids are emerging with less education than before the fix. Parents are sending their kids to private schools or charter schools or homeschooling them or even pulling them out of school for a few months during the worst of the test-preparation binging.
Free trade policies are supposed to enrich us. Trickle-down tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations are supposed to enrich us. We keep trying them and they keep impoverishing us.
War preparations are supposed to enrich us, but impoverish us instead. War is supposed to protect us, but generates enemies. Or war is supposed to benefit some far away place, but leaves it in ruins. Is more war the answer?
When a road gets crowded, we enlarge it or build another road. The traffic responds by enlarging to fill the new roads. So we cut funds for trains in order to build yet more roads.
We're several times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. So, we give police officers weapons of war to make us safe.
We're making the earth's climate unlivable by consuming fossil fuels. So we ramp up the consumption of fossil fuels.
Guns are supposed to protect us, but the more we spread the guns around the more we get killed intentionally and accidentally with guns.
What causes us to pursue counterproductive programs and policies? And why does it seem that the bigger the program is the more we pursue its counterproductive agenda? Well, let's look at the above list again and ask who benefits.
We've made prisons into a for-profit industry and an economic rescue program for depressed rural areas. Enormous profits are being made from children who abandon public schools; from the point of view of those profiteers there's every reason to fix schools in a manner that actually makes them horrible. Corporate trade pacts and tax exemptions for billionaires don't impoverish everyone, just us non-billionaires. Some people get rich from road construction. Weapons companies don't mind when one war leads to three more (especially if they're arming all sides), or when police pick up used weaponry that can then be replaced. Oil and coal profiteers aren't focused on the inhabitability of the earth. Gun manufacturers aren't worried about how many people die so much as how many guns are sold.
What keeps us from seeing this as a pattern is the myth that we live in a democracy in which decisions are made by majority opinion. In reality, majority opinion is badly distorted by anti-democratic news media and largely ignored by anti-democratic officials.
Major public pressure will be needed to change this situation, to strip corporations of power, ban bribery, provide free media and public financing of elections, and create a democratic communications system.
We should begin by dropping the pretense that we're rationally testing policies and adjusting them as we go. No, the whole thing is broken. Experiments keep failing upward with no end in sight. Enough is enough. Let's change direction.