To do good or do better
Published July 29, 2021
By John Hood
There are at least as many different ways to explain the origins of political disagreement as there are political commentators. I, for one, think such factors as cultural traditions, religious views, family background, educational experiences, and interpersonal relationships all help to shape how we choose our preferred political candidates or “sides” – and how we choose to act on those preferences.
Whatever the origins of political disagreement, one way to think about it is that it reflects different assumptions about the purpose of political action. For some, politics is about doing good. For others, politics is about doing better.
I’m not playing a Wicked the Musical word game here. Those who define politics as “doing good” tend to evaluate political action by intentions. If you think of yourself as seeking to do good, then you tend to see those with whom you come to disagree as either seeking to do harm or not seeking much of anything at all, except perhaps political power for its own sake. Both alternatives look abhorrent to you.
Those who define politics as “doing better,” on the other hand, tend to evaluate political action by results. Unless you are an anarchist – in which case you spend your time theorizing about people and conditions that don’t actually exist – you recognize that political action has the potential to make you and your neighbors safer, wealthier, and happier. But these outcomes are comparative and far from guaranteed. Some government programs might well increase the safety of your person and property. Others might well imperil your living standards, your liberty, or your life. The intention of the program is, in this context, utterly irrelevant.
History is full of examples of governments generating both benefits and costs for their citizens that no one intended – or even could have intended.
Consider the basic architecture of the Internet. Progressives are quite right in observing that federal spending was integral to its creation. But in funding the development of the Internet’s infrastructure and protocols, government’s intention was not to give shoppers the ability to buy Star Wars paraphernalia or tweeters the chance to debate the superiority of the Justice League to the Avengers. The federal government was seeking to secure critical assets and information in the event of war.
The commercial, intellectual, and recreational applications of the Internet were unintended byproducts of this work, much as previous generations of tinkerers and innovators had adapted military advances in metallurgy, construction, shipbuilding, and ballistics to create other wonders of the modern world. (If you truly want to turn swords into plowshares, in other words, build a dynamic, competitive private economy and turn it loose.)
Examples of the unintended costs of government action are just as prevalent. Welfare programs aimed at alleviating immediate suffering can instead create greater suffering in the future by reducing the incentive to work, save, or form families. Regulatory programs aimed at improving the moral character of the population can instead push regulated behavior (such as alcohol consumption during Prohibition) off into the shadows, where it may fester outside our immediate gaze, increasing the level of risk, criminality, corruption, and disrespect for the law in areas where it deserves to be respected.
No political movement is immune from intentionality bias. Over the past five years, far too many Republicans have come to believe their rivals aren’t just misguided but actively evil, just as too many Democrats view Republicans as, inevitably, bigots and villains.
Still, I would submit that the modern Left remains more likely to judge government action according to intentions, and to see those with whom they disagree not as mistaken but as malicious. And the modern Right remains more likely to subject government policies to evaluation by outcomes, measured against what one might expect from alternative policies.
In other words, conservatives and libertarians are more likely to heed the warning of economist Milton Friedman that “concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.