Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Good Intentions Paving Company

An old proverb says that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Saul Bellow played a riff on that proverb and came up with the idea of the Good Intentions Paving Company. The projects of this enterprise are always well-meant, but when those projects turn out to have undesired costs and tradeoffs and side-effects, the company leaders sincerely believe that none of the blame can possibly attach to them. After all, their intentions were good!

Joseph Epstein points a number of recent projects of the Good Intentions Paving Company in his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal yesterday (December 30, behind a firewall unless you have a subscription). He writes: "I first heard the phrase "Good Intentions Paving Co." from the lips of Saul Bellow, though I cannot recall to what exactly he applied it." My own quick and dirty search found one time when Bellow used the term in print, in a short letter to Philip Roth dated January 7, 1984, that was reprinted with other letters from Bellow in a New Yorker article of April 26, 2010. Bellow gave an interview to People magazine that was turned into a criticism of Roth, which Bellow had not intended. So Bellow wrote a note of apology:
"I thought to do some good by giving an interview to People, which was exceedingly foolish of me. I asked Aaron [Asher] to tell you that the Good Intentions Paving Company had fucked up again. The young interviewer turned my opinions inside out, cut out the praises and made it all sound like disavowal, denunciation and excommunication. Well, we're both used to this kind of thing, and beyond shock. In agreeing to take the call and make a statement I was simply muddle-headed. ... Please accept my regrets and apologies, also my best wishes. I'm afraid there's nothing we can do about the journalists; we can only hope that they will die off as the deerflies do towards the end of August."

The Good Intentions Paving Company is of course a bipartisan operation, and Epstein offers a range of examples.

-- President George W. Bush and many others pushed for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, with a full range of good intentions including safety for Americans and promoting peace and democracy in the Middle East. Indeed, almost every war and every revolution can be put into effect by the Good Intentions Paving Company. 

-- The No Child Left Behind legislation surely embodies good intentions. As Epstein writes: "Leave a child behind? Perish the thought. Or so the folks in charge of education at the Good Intentions Paving Co. must have concluded when they instituted their No Child Left Behind program. The program would entail constant testing, would hold the feet of teachers to the fire of palpable achievement, would bring everyone through the primary-grades educational system up to the mark. How bad could that be? Yet again, though, good intentions went askew. The children were educated chiefly to take tests, some school superintendents cheated in reporting their schools' test scores, the teachers unions went ballistic over what they felt were the impossible demands made upon their members. The plan of the Good Intentions Paving Co. once more didn't quite pan out."

-- The dysfunctional unfolding of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was clearly another project of the Good Intentions Paving Company. Back when the law passed, it sounded like a plan that would provide health insurance to some of those who lacked it, and to experiment with some ways of bringing down health care costs, while leaving in peace those who liked the quantity and price of their current health insurance coverage. But along the way, it also turned into a Frankenstein's monster of regulations that dictate what health insurance needed to cover and what they can charge in a way that has already disrupted millions of insurance policies in the individual market and next year will do the same to millions of policies in the employer-financed group health insurance market. 

Of course, once you start thinking about the Good Intentions Paving Company, it's all too easy to multiply the examples. The efforts to support biofuels and green energy projects had good intentions. The War on Drugs had good intentions.

Good intentions do mean something: for example, they are usually preferable to bad intentions. And of course, the presence of good intentions do not automatically make something a bad idea. Without good intentions, little would happen in this world. But good intentions aren't enough. For example, a parent who decides that their child shouldn't receive standard vaccinations arguably has good intentions, but it's their judgement that's in question. The fact that the U.S. revolution, the French revolution, and the Russian revolution all had arguably good intentions does not make these events equally defensible.

The problem here has several parts. Epstein emphasizes that intentions are not outcomes. If you support an action which leads to consequences, the Good Intentions Paving Company offers only a leaky shelter from criticism. Those who supported the Afghanistan-Iran war bear some responsibility for how it actually turned out, and cannot hide behind their good intentions. The same for those who supported No Child Left Behind, the War on Drugs, and the biofuel and alternative subsidies. And yes, those who supported the Affordable Care Act bear responsibility for what the law actually says and does, and cannot hide behind their generic good intentions that everyone would get additional health care at no extra costs with no disruptions or tradeoffs. 

I would add another problem, which is that outside of Mother Theresa and Albert Schweitzer, good intentions are rarely pure and unadulterated. Show me a politician who has good intentions that run directly opposite to their political base and personal career aspirations, and I'll consider believing in the purity of their good intentions. I'll also show you a politician who will soon to be out of a job. 

In other cases, good intentions get tangled up with profit motive. Perhaps health insurance companies had good intentions in supporting the Affordable Care Act, but surely they were also motivated by the notion of millions of new government-guaranteed customers. I'm sure that organizations representing law enforcement and prison guards had good intentions in supporting the War on Drugs, but surely they were also motivated by the higher budgets they received as a result. I'm sure many advocates of biofuels and alternative energy had good intentions, but if those policies had taken money out of various pockets, instead of  putting money into those pockets, my suspicion is that their advocacy would have taken a sharp turn in another direction. 

And in still other cases, good intentions get tangled up with combative instincts about power and control.  Policies are presented for public consumption in sugar-coated good intentions, but the underlying motivations also include a health dose of wanting to sock it to the teacher's unions, or sock it to the insurance companies, or sock it to oil companies, or sock it to those who think the government owes them a living. Good intentions about protecting the safety of Americans becomes a politically and socially acceptable way of describing the desire to spy into the personal lives of millions of people. Good intentions about making Americans healthier becomes an acceptable way of telling people and passing laws about what they can eat and drink and smoke. Most of us hold within us a mixture of good intentions that we trumpet to the world and less attractive intentions that we prefer not to examine too closely.

Good intentions are seductive. There is great comfort in feeling that those with whom we disagree are corrupted by politics or profit-seeking or darker motives, while our own intentions are of luminescent purity. But after all, the reason that the road to hell is paved with good intentions is that the Devil can quote Scripture for his own purposes. When the policies we favor turn out to  have unexpected costs and tradeoffs, perhaps to such an extent that the original wisdom of the policy is called into question, we are likely to disclaim responsibility by taking refuge in our good intentions. I am personally confident that many of my intentions, much of the time, are good. But I am profoundly aware that possessing some good intentions does not provide a get-out-of-jail-free card either for my other motivations, or for the unexpected or undesired consequences of what I support and advocate.