Policy’s Consequences Don’t Matter – Its Intents Do

By Graham Peterson

It is widely accepted in the social sciences that the consequences of a policy are what matters, not its intents.  But I think a properly cultural view of government forces us to recognize, regardless our party affiliation, that indeed a majority of government action is all about intents, and not about consequences.

That is, if government is, as I claim, largely a symbolic pageantry through which we negotiate our cultural values and archetypal social narratives, then it makes perfect sense that policy making and law writing continues to proceed with almost no regard for the consequences of those policies and laws.

Of course, the material consequences of governments are supposed to match their intents, and we get very indignant when those two don’t align.  But imagine for a moment that only the social scientist and the political advocate really care whether policy intents match policy behaviors.  And imagine that most of these seemingly incoherent policies do actually function to promote the informal norms of behavior we use in our daily interactions.  Indeed I think it is why they persist despite their farcical appearances.

Now it needs proving that the majority of law and policy serves this symbolic, rather than material, function.  I can only suggest some examples.

Voting has been known by thinkers and government designers, from Condorcet to James Madison to Kenneth Arrow to Gordon Tullock, to be a rather strange social institution.  On even mildly close inspection, there is no reason to believe that majority voting represents a collective will, or even the preferences of the people who voted.  But what seems to matter to people about voting isn’t whether the result of a vote creates tyranny of majority, or actually expresses voters’ preferences accurately — it seems to be the symbolic ritual of voting itself that’s important to people.  Voting looks and feels egalitarian on the front end because everyone gets one vote — even if its results are, the majority of the time, shockingly inegalitarian.

Various poor laws like the minimum wage and public housing have been shown to have anywhere from neutral to sometimes devastating effects.  But here again it is the symbolic expression and reifying of norms of charity that people are here concerned with.  The economic libertarian argument, correct in its material claims or not, that many of these policies in fact damage the poor and therefore deserve precisely the opposite ethical evaluation than they get, mean very little to people.  It is the many small charities of action, being nice to coworkers and strangers on the train, that these great pageants of charity ultimately serve to promote.

The debate over international development aid over the last 20 years has shown an astonishing detail how little we’ve done by giving money to other countries, and indeed how much damage we’ve done by ultimately stoking regional conflict and government corruption in the name of helping starving people.  This work has had only a nominal impact on development work on the ground.  The importance of the ritual is the giving itself — the promotion of charity norms.

The material effects of legalized gay marriage will be quite small, really.  Its symbolic effects are incalculably large, though, and that’s why everyone’s fighting so hard for it (this is a fight we will win, thank you very much).

The material impacts of taxation and regulation are in fact quite small — the United States misallocates something like 30% of its national product without a large discernible impact on economic growth, and social democracies even more.  Fiscal conservatives fight these policies in order to protect the moral sanctity of entrepreneurship, work, and innovation; fiscal liberals promote them in order to express their distrust for businesses.

The first amendment rarely gets or needs enforcing, but it does consistently promote ideals of tolerance and the liberty of ideas in our interactions with one another in the street.

I suggest, though, that is isn’t cause for alarm.  We don’t need to set government right.  The lesson here is that the great valence of social action takes place in the negotiation of our values that motivate our actions and delimit them in our informal interactions with one another.  Could we save a lot of time and energy by finding other ways to do that than fighting over a pile of guns, marble, and law books?  Sure.  In due time.

What’s more important presently is that we begin to let go of the idea that governments are a rational bureaucracy whose official missions and policies ought to match its results — because that’s a game we’re not going to win.  It’s not what the game is for.  Government serves the same purpose, mostly, that Hollywood and pop music do.


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