XLV – The Unintended Consequences of Good Intentions

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Those
who have given themselves the most concern about the happiness
of peoples have made their neighbours very miserable.

~
Anatole France

Many
years ago, I drove to the preschool that my children attended to
give them a ride home. One of the mothers was standing outside the
school with a handful of flyers, in various colors, for the children
to take home to their parents. The woman was an avid environmentalist,
and the flyers addressed the importance of not littering the landscape.
It was a windy day, and as I drove away from the school I noticed
the streets and neighboring properties littered with dozens of these
flyers that had gotten loose.

I
recalled this incident as I read of the New York Times' recent
embarrassment with a reporter's fabricated and plagiarized news
stories. Jayson Blair's stories dealt with such matters as the recent
sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C. area, and the grief experienced
by family members of persons killed in Iraq. The problem arose not
as a one-time occurrence that was caught and dealt with by alert
editors, but as a continuing practice that had gone on, and been
internally commented upon by other reporters and editors, for many
months. According to the Times, “new problems” had been found
in “at least 36 of the 73 articles” Blair had written just since
last October.

This
was not the Times' first experience with dishonest news reporting.
In the early 1930s, the paper had a reporter — Walter Duranty —
who wrote a series of articles praising the success of Stalin's
“Five-Year Plan,” going so far as to deny — when he knew the facts
— that the Soviets had intentionally starved some seven million
Ukrainians to death. As a result of his dishonest reporting, Duranty
was awarded a 1932 Pulitzer Prize!

I
do not know whether the 1930s editorial staff of the Times
was aware of Duranty's deceit. It is evident, however, that Blair's
“long trail of deception” — as the Times' headline characterized
it — had been known to various editors. His falsehoods had been
overlooked, according to some observers, out of a concern for protecting
the paper's endorsement of “affirmative action” policies, and the
desire not to do anything that would stand in the way of a promising
young black writer's career.

Like
the preschool parent, the Times has experienced a common
downside of human behavior: the detrimental, unintended consequences
of actions undertaken for what are intended to be noble purposes.
Students of economics are familiar with this phenomenon: minimum
wage laws that produce unemployment which, in turn, leads to unemployment
compensation and welfare fraud; wage and price controls that generate
shortages of regulated products (e.g., the “oil crisis” of the early
1970s); and alcohol and drug prohibition which created organized
criminal activities which, in turn, led to expanded federal police
powers to deal with such politically-engendered crime. People who
may mean well promote and enact measures that produce results they
neither intended nor anticipated.

The
explanation for this discrepancy between what is planned for and
what results can be found in the study of chaos, or complexity.
The ability to predict outcomes is dependent upon an awareness of
all factors influencing events. With complex systems, however,
such complete knowledge is always unobtainable, meaning that there
will always be information loss that will produce unforeseen consequences.
This distortion increases with the passage of time.

The
hubris that motivates some people to use the power of the state
to impose their well-intended visions upon others derives, in part,
from an ignorance of the inherent uncertainties that are embedded
in complex systems. Arrogance is grounded in the unstated assumption
that one's understanding is so complete as to render their actions
infallible. This is why, on the whole, mankind has suffered less
from ill-motivated persons who intend us harm, than from the unintended
consequences of goodness. It is “saints,” not “demons,” who most
bedevil us!

This
problem is not confined to political decision-making. As Ford Motor
Company's experiences with the Edsel demonstrate, the tastes of
millions of individuals are too varied and inconstant to allow for
accurate predictions of marketplace preferences. Likewise, the aforementioned
environmentalist had apparently failed to calculate into her self-defeating
leaflet campaign such factors as strong winds and the weak resolve
of small children to carry messages.

The
incalculable influences that lie hidden in complex relationships
doubtless played themselves out in the New York Times' “affirmative
action” policies. The Times was apparently so committed to
such policies that management was willing to overlook repeated dishonest
practices that compromised the paper's very reason for existence:
to be truthful in their reporting. The paper failed to comprehend
how such policies could, like a virus, insinuate themselves into
its very lifeblood and, ultimately perhaps, destroy it.

How
does one act in an unpredictable, complex world in order to achieve
desired ends? A partial answer to this question is to be found in
what I call the art of implicit thinking. To be “contained,
but not apparent” in a given situation is one dictionary's definition
of “implicit.” In the face of uncertainty, we must become
increasingly sensitive to the dynamics of cause and effect relationships,
particularly as events play themselves out over time. We need to
become aware of consequences that are implicit in our actions,
even if they do not lead to predictable results.

A
deadly accident is implicit in a drunken man driving his
car on a highway. This does not mean that his actions will
result in such a mishap: indeed, knowing that one is so incapacitated
has doubtless led many to be extra cautious in their driving and
to arrive home without incident. It does mean, however, that one
ought to recognize the enhanced likelihood of such harm that inheres
in such a state.

Over
a more protracted period of time, one could say that serious respiratory
or heart disease is implicit in the daily smoking of two packs of
cigarettes. That many people do smoke with such regularity without
incurring illnesses confirms that the results are not predictable
even though they remain implicit.

Implicit
thinking includes a focused awareness of the connection between
ends and means. If I am a manufacturer desirous of
maximizing profits, and if I have a job opening for a punch press
operator, I will want to establish hiring practices to put the most
skilled punch press operator on the job. The race, religion, gender,
or other factors irrelevant to the competent operation of a punch
press will not enter into my decision-making. One of the unintended
consequences of such policies in my firm would be that employees
would enjoy a demonstrated sense of their competency and accomplishments;
there would be no contradiction between the quality of their work
and their rewards.

“Affirmative
action” policies, in contrast, are grounded in contradiction. They
appeal to that prevailing attitude in modern culture that was so
well expressed by a writer whose name I do not recall: the desire
to be something without doing something. Such policies
may provide one the short-term benefit of employment, but what long-term
sense of self-worth must attend those whose hiring was predicated
on race, gender, or ethnicity? An unintended consequence of the
Times' practices has undoubtedly been to cause other black
reporters to feel less assured regarding the quality of their work
and, perhaps, to have their colleagues raise similar questions.
Is it not evident that rewarding people on the basis of factors
other than competency in the content of their work is counter-productive
even of the ends sought by the Times?

The
“art of implicit thinking” involves expanding our sense of time
in order to discover hidden influences that might not reveal
themselves for many years. This is particularly important in the
far-reaching nature of government activity, where the state routinely
fails to consider the adverse consequences implicit in its programs.
It should be evident to thoughtful minds that the terrible events
of 9/11 were implicit — even though unpredictable — in years of
interventionist American foreign policies.

Implicit
thinking entails the application of Einstein's theory of relativity
to compress time – at least in one's thinking — to where
all of time gets reduced to the immediate moment. I remember having
my car hit by another motorist who had run a red light, and experiencing
that compression of time in which I watched — for what seemed like
minutes — as my car spun around in the intersection. I remember
looking at the light to make certain I had had the right-of-way,
and watching for other cars and pedestrians, hoping that my spinning
car would not hit any of them. There was an immediate life-threatening
causality that led me to focus all of my energies on the moment.

It
is this sense of immediacy that makes freeway driving so remarkably
safe. The same people who will engage in activities or advocate
government policies that may end up being fatal to them over time,
will behave quite intelligently when behind the wheel of a car.
Why? Because they know that, implicit within a miscalculation of
speed or maneuver, lies a dangerous accident. The decision they
make right now will likely have either a beneficent or harmful
consequence right now.

How
does one develop this art of implicit thinking? It begins with an
awareness of the importance of a state of mind that incorporates
the future into the present. Edward Banfield, in his book The
Unheavenly City Revisited
, did a “class system” analysis
of this practice. He defined, as “upper class,” those who took a
long-term view of their actions, while “lower class” people were
those who lived simply from moment-to-moment. To Banfield, an impoverished
woman who scrubbed floors to earn money so that her children could
have an education was “upper class,” while a rich playboy who dissipated
his inheritance would be considered “lower class.”

In
my youth, it was the purpose of a “liberal arts” education to foster
implicit thinking. In the study of history, economics, literature,
the arts, the sciences (the real ones), philosophy, psychology,
etc., students were expected to glean from the accumulated experiences
of mankind the kind of understanding that would permit them to distinguish
truth from falsehood, to discover the bases of understanding, to
experience levels of emotion and spirituality that run deeper than
pleasure-seeking, and to learn to engage in critical analysis. In
such disciplines, one's understanding was tested not by the
ever-shifting windsock of public opinion, but by transcendent principles
and unforgiving laws of causality that owe no loyalties to fashion.

Most
colleges have abandoned such an emphasis in favor of what amounts
to career-driven training. The rigorous mind of the independent
thinker has been replaced by a mushy groupthink; philosophic principles
are now subordinated to political correctness; while a passionate
commitment to individual integrity has been eroded by the forces
of Stepford
Wives
–like “niceness.” The measure of our cultural
decline can be observed in the fact that, in my youth, it was a
compliment to tell a person he or she had a “discriminating”
mind. Today it is an accusation!

The
modern world is characterized by a mass-mindedness in which the
betterment of society is seen as the product of “social engineering”
directed by institutional authorities. More often than not, these
practices are undertaken with varying degrees of political enforcement
behind them. “Affirmative action” is a prominent example of the
use of state coercion designed to accomplish the kinds of social
transformations desired by those in power. But we need to understand
what is implicit in the use of force, namely, the effort
to overcome resistance. The study of physics ought to make
us aware of the likely consequences of such behavior. In more than
just our physical world, every action produces a reaction,
a truth often overlooked by those who zealously work to remake society
in their preferred images.

The
employment policies of the New York Times were doubtless
crafted by men and women who, themselves, were the products of such
cultural shifts, and who saw, with the best of intentions, the importance
of having the paper conform to the modern credo. Had they been more
attentive to the longer-term implications of their policies, however,
they might have saved their own reputations and that of their newspaper.
They might have understood that, when one is hired for reasons unrelated
to the quality of their work, they should expect the quality of
that work to suffer.

Adherents
to the doctrine of institutionally directed social change would
do well to consider less formal processes that are more likely to
generate lasting, beneficial results. As Carl Jung and others have
observed, orderly change in society occurs gradually, and only as
individuals transform their lives and thinking. When H.L.
Mencken was editor of a leading journal of his day, the American
Mercury, he published the works of some aspiring young black
writers. He did so, however, not as a “social reformer,” but only
out of recognition of the innate quality of their work. Had the
Times insisted upon employment practices that sought the
most promising reporters — based upon their work-related talents
rather than the quantity of melanin in their systems — it would
likely not now be dealing with the unintended consequences of trying
to force change through inauthentic means.

The
New York Times has long been the bell-cow of opinion for
the political establishment in America, which will now conduct a
campaign of damage control in an effort to salvage the reputation
of its “newspaper of record.” In so doing, we can expect the bulk
of the blame and adverse attention for this debacle to focus on
Jayson Blair who is, of course, primarily responsible for his falsehoods.
But a more critical eye will see that this young man was not the
only person faking reality at the New York Times.

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