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.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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