More Than Intentions

Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek makes a good point which is too often glossed over in political debate:

Writing about health-care, Paul Krugman asserts that “conservatives … don’t want Americans to have universal coverage” (”The Defining Moment,” Oct. 30).

Among the earliest lessons that I teach my freshman economics students are (1) intentions are not results, and (2) to oppose a government program is not necessarily to object to the intentions stated by that program’s advocates.

Paul Krugman obviously teaches his students differently, for he clearly believes that (1) if government intends for Americans to have universal health coverage, then the result will be that Americans actually get universal health coverage, and (2) anyone who opposes a government program promising universal health coverage is a person who objects to Americans actually getting universal health coverage.

This is perhaps the most common fallacy of all in political argument for people to follow the form: I support bill/candidate X because I think it will have good result Y. You don’t support X. Therefore you don’t care about Y.

Generally speaking, Y is a very general positive sentiment while X is a very specific prescription. Examples:

“You don’t support abolishing NAFTA, because you don’t care whether ordinary Joes can make a decent wage in America.”

“You don’t support school vouchers, because you don’t care whether poor kids can get a good education.”

“You don’t support the current health care reform legislation, because you don’t care whether poor people can see a doctor when they’re sick.”

What this approach ignores is that the topic of dispute in politics is often not whether some general good should be achieved, but whether a particular proposal will actually contribute to the general good — and if so whether its effects will be more positive than negative. This type of intention-based argumentation is an attempt to shut down any discussion on whether a proposal will have the desired effect (and whether its negative side effects will outweigh its intended benefits), and as such it strikes at the very root of reasonable political discussion.

One Response to More Than Intentions

  • American Knight says:

    Far too many people fail to understand this point. Thanks for pointing it out.

    It is also interesting to note that many proposals for a preceived common good are actually desinged to create exactly the opposite result. By presenting them as means to a good common end the debate then becomes about how best to implement that particular strategy; rather than aksin if the means themselves are intrinsically at conflict with the proposed ends. Also, are the implied ends the real desire, or simply a lie to sell the struture to bring about an opposite end.

    We can reduce the number of abortions by providing free access to contraception under the label ‘family planning’ which will end up including abortion but pay no attention to the obvious fact that by providing free access to abortion the number of abortions will rise, just vote for the bill, it is a crisis after all.

    When I look at politics I feel like I am on a street corner with $10 on a shell game.

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