Good intentions pave the road to hellacious policies

(Centennial Fellow) Good intentions will get you if you don’t watch out. That’s true of the invasion of the body scanners, of minimum wage laws, of some welfare programs and—please don’t forget it—a supposedly altruistic push by federal agencies and politicians to put low–income families in their own homes.

Again and again, the government throws us lifesavers that aren’t lifesavers at all, but weighty, entangling devices that ensnare us, sink us, drown us.

Because body scanners won’t detect bombs in body cavities, they’ll do no good even as they humiliate airline ticket–holders on a scale only a world power could devise.

As literally dozens of studies have proven, minimum wage laws invariably cost workers jobs because employers cannot afford the new standards.

And those mortgages the government insisted banks bestow on those who could not afford to pay them? All they did was contribute mightily to a rash of foreclosures, the worst financial crisis in decades and a recession wrecking the lives of millions of people.

To learn the real lowdown on how good motives can produce bad results, it helps to heed the writings and speeches of Jay Richards, a Princeton philosophy–theology Ph.D., author of “Money, Greed, and God,” and someone whose thoughts I recently took in at a speech at Colorado Christian University.

“Piety is no substitute for technique,” he said, quoting the Christian philosopher Etienne Gilson and adding this by way of explanation in the book: “What he meant is that having the right intentions, being oriented in the right way, doesn’t take the place of doing things right.”

A pilot, Richards wrote, may care deeply about his passengers, and that’s fine. But what you mostly want from the person in the cockpit is skill in flying the plane. And while people should care deeply about the poor, more than a caring heart is needed, Richards adds. An alert mind is just as necessary, one that understands, for instance, that free markets have succeeded remarkably in rescuing humankind from impoverishment at the same time various socialist escapades have failed miserably.

Offering a variety of examples of how “intent does not determine effect,” Richards came at one point in the speech to the financial crisis so often summed up as resulting from nothing more than “greed on Wall Street” and “capitalism run amok.”

There are other places to look for causes, he said, such as at “NINJA loans,” mortgages extended to people with “no income, no jobs and no assets,” a practice encouraged by numerous office holders and vastly enabled by the quasi–governmental institutions of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Richards is dead right, in my estimation. Few would discount Wall Street recklessness, but it was a recklessness abetted in endless ways, such as overly low interest rates instituted by the Federal Reserve and the insistence of various White House residents that mortgages be extended to borrowers with awful credit ratings. Bankers would have been scared to miserliness by the sight of them if they weren’t more scared by a government leviathan that was simultaneously easing the way.

Despite the concerns of some that the whole thing could come tumbling down, the folks at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were happy–go–lucky, snatching up the subprime mortgages and fashioning them into disaster–prone securities.

Here’s a phrase that ought to inform the thinking of makers of public policy every minute of their day—unintended consequences. They are almost inevitable when a favored few figure they can manage the particulars of the lives of millions better than the millions themselves can.

I myself will usually grant the good intentions of the activists forever having at us with their major–league programs, but for reasons of hubris, imprudence and inadequate appreciation of freedom in the economy and in individual conduct, their techniques are too often not up to their intentions.


Centennial Institute Fellow Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.

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