Noble Intentions, Counterproductive Results: The Tragic Inefficacy of a Deontological Policy Approach

The Rittenhouse trial reminded us of what we already know: Americans are now more divided than ever. Questions of race, class, and fairness are important, but discourse on these issues tends to be vague, grandiose, and informed by generalities, abstractions, and righteous indignation. This is not helpful. To identify the key drivers of inequality in America, we ought to look at concrete data. When we do, we’ll see that, contrary to popular belief, progressives and conservatives actually want the same thing: to improve people’s lot in life and to protect the promise of social mobility that continues to attract more immigrants to the United States than to any other country in the world.

In Cannery Row, John Steinbeck describes Monterey, California as a place “where men in fear and hunger destroy their stomachs in the fight to secure certain food, where men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about them.” That succinctly describes the approach that many take to some of America’s most important policy issues. Both progressives and conservatives want to help people and improve their quality of life. Their policies, however, often do the opposite.

Poverty has sat at the top of the progressive docket for the better part of the last 50 years. And yet, it remains a problem. In general, the progressive response to poverty involves enlarging the welfare state, relying on tax hikes to redistribute wealth to those most in need. This approach, while noble in intention, seldom alleviates poverty in the way that progressives hope.

According to US Census data, in 2019 (pre-pandemic), poverty rates sat at 20.8 percent for Atlanta, 21.2 percent for Baltimore, 18.4 percent for Chicago, 35 percent for Detroit, 20.1 percent for Houston, 19.1 percent for Minneapolis, and 21.8 percent for St. Louis. Meanwhile, the national average sat at 11.4 percent. In other words, these cities, all of which have been governed by Democratic mayors for decades, had poverty percentages that were nearly double—and in some cases triple—the national average.

Every mayor of Atlanta for the past 142 years has been a Democrat. Every mayor of Baltimore for the past 54 years has been a Democrat. Every mayor of Chicago for the past 90 years has been a Democrat. Every mayor of Detroit for the past 59 years has been a Democrat. And every mayor of St. Louis for the past 72 years has been a Democrat. Just two of Houston’s last 14 mayors have not been Democrats; in other words, Houston has had a Democrat mayor for nearly 83 percent of the last 78 years. Minneapolis has also been governed by Democrats almost exclusively for the past 47 years—the only exception being Charles Stenvig who won as an independent in 1976.

On the other hand, cities that have been ruled by a mixture of Democrat and Republican mayors have generally performed significantly better. In 2019, Jacksonville had a poverty rate of 6.7 percent, Virginia Beach of 7.3 percent, and Miami of 14 percent. All have had a mixture of both Democrats and Republicans, illustrating that a middle-ground approach may be more conducive to alleviating poverty than a purely progressive one.

If progressives want to address poverty, perhaps they should consider decreasing the size of their governments, scaling back welfare, and limiting social programs and entitlements. Instead of taking these steps, they tend to argue that it’s not their policy failures that have resulted in poor outcomes but the fault of systemic racism. Democrats and their activist allies point to police brutality as the most obvious example of this problem. And the media attention that police brutality receives seems to indicate that it is widespread, ubiquitous, and indeed systemic.

In fact, police brutality is rare. Many of the instances routinely cited by progressives as irrefutable examples of discriminatory policing are not straightforward, and do not demonstrate that a victim was targeted because they were black. The most well-known cases of the last year—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ma’Khia Bryant—were unquestionably tragic. But even if we grant that these three cases were, indeed, instances of racial discrimination, their deaths were still isolated incidents, statistical outliers unrepresentative of a systemic or widespread problem.

The DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 2018 saw 61,500,000 police interactions. The Washington Post Police Shooting Database put the number of police shootings in 2019 at 999. Within this group, 54 suspects were unarmed. Of the 54 unarmed suspects, 12 were black, and 26 were white. In other words, assuming that 2019 had a similar number of police interactions as 2018, 0.00002 percent of police interactions resulted in the death of unarmed black suspects. One is too many, of course, but it is worth remembering that, statistically, in a country of 328 million people with more than 60 million police interactions per year, the sample size is incredibly large. And with such a vast sample size, extremely unlikely events are more likely to occur, even if it is only 0.00002 percent of the time. The notion that young black men are being systematically hunted is simply untrue. And it’s incredibly damaging for black youth to grow up believing that it is.

It is true that blacks make up a larger share of police shootings relative to their population size than whites. But to appreciate what this shows, the statistic must be considered contextually. In 2019, of the 328 million person population in the US, 14 percent was black and 60.1 was white. Meanwhile, 251 blacks (.0005 percent of the black population) and 424 whites (.0002 percent of the white population) were killed by police. These totals include both armed and unarmed suspects. Police shootings, however, are fairly well predicted by crime rates, and blacks commit a disproportionate amount of crime relative to their percentage (14 percent) of the population. In 2019, blacks accounted for 36.4 percent of the arrests for violent crime (aggravated assault, murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, and robbery) and 41.5 percent of arrests for property crimes (arson, burglary, larceny-theft, and motor-vehicle theft). Blacks also perpetrated 39.6 percent of the country’s homicides.

Progressives tend to focus on only on the first cited statistic—that blacks make up a larger share of police shootings relative to their population size than whites—and to view it in a vacuum. This is profoundly misleading and results in backwards policies, such as the rallying cry of BLM and its activist allies to “Defund the Police.” In many cases, they have gotten their way, and police presence has been scaled back. The result has been a spike in crime in many of the places where the policy has been enacted, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the Ferguson effect.

If progressives care about saving black lives as much as they proport to, perhaps they should consider that decreased police presence has done the opposite.

Affirmative Action likewise hurts its supposed beneficiaries more than it helps them. Even traditionally progressive outlets like the Atlantic and Slate have run articles criticizing the policy. Nonetheless, it persists. Championed by progressives, affirmative action has not demonstrably helped minority populations. Moreover, an unfortunate side-effect of the policy is that it sometimes discredits high-achieving minorities in the eyes of their peers. This is grotesquely unfair to those who have to bear the burden of knowing that no matter how hard they work, they may be seen as less deserving because the system conferred an unfair advantage for which they never asked. As with metropolitan governance, a complete overhaul is not necessarily required. An approach that emphasizes diversity of thought, however, would likely produce superior results more amenable to all parties.

Finally, there is the issue of speech. Permissive speech is a cornerstone of free societies and has been since the Enlightenment, when it was codified by John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government in 1689 in Britain, by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789 in France, and by the Declaration of Independence in 1776 in the United States. The blood shed for this right matters little to certain factions of the contemporary Left. Each year, progressives eagerly concede more of their autonomy to authority in the name of equity and inclusion. As a result, the window of acceptable speech has shrunk and even disagreeing with somebody about what does and does not constitute an offence can be construed as offensive. Again, the intention of fostering an inclusive environment is a good one. But the consequences of over-policing speech far outweigh any good it may bring and fall most heavily on marginalized populations who have benefitted from the right to free expression and in whose name progressive censorship is most often justified.

It’s worth bearing in mind that discrepancies between intention and outcome are not simply a problem on the Left. Conservatives have also stubbornly pursued policies that demonstrably do not work.

The human consequences of the War on Drugs, declared by the Nixon administration in the 1970s, have been dire and the progress dismal. Like many other things, the war began with honorable intentions: cleaning up the streets and legitimately addressing issues of illicit substance abuse. In 2011, however, the non-partisan Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose leadership includes Kofi Annan, Paul Volker, Richard Branson, and Louise Arbour, released a report which stated that “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” Even the Wall Street Journal has run at least half a dozen op-eds expressing dismay at this policy failure. This ought to have spurred conservative reconsideration years ago. Reforms to drug policy have at last slowly begun, but more will be needed if we are to address drug-related issues in the United States.

The War on Terror is another recent example of counterproductive conservative actions. In the wake of 9/11, conservatives introduced a suite of domestic and foreign policy initiatives intended to keep Americans safe. This, prima facie, seemed sensible enough. While success is difficult to measure, and while it must be admitted that counter-terrorism initiatives have achieved some of their goals, the consequences of many of these policies are irreconcilable with liberal democratic principles and have sometimes set us back more than they’ve moved us forward. National security apparatuses that surveil citizens en masse and have unapologetically affronted civil liberties have not necessarily made America safer in the way that conservatives envisioned they would. Nor has some of our engagement in open-ended and intractable conflicts overseas.

Both progressives and conservatives are bound to get it wrong sometimes, no matter how worthy their intentions. Inflexible ideological assumptions and value judgements are not always well-suited to addressing the problems of a complex world filled with conflicting interests and the perverse and contradictory impulses of human nature. It is for this reason that consequentialism ought to be privileged over deontology when evaluating the efficacy of policies. When they have exhausted their trial period and failed to achieve their intended goals, policies ought to be scrapped or at least re-evaluated on a cost-benefit basis.

Progressives and conservatives would do well to remember that they want the same thing: to improve people’s lot in life. Righteous indignation and the desire to have one’s own worldview vindicated in a zero-sum ideological contest is causing us to forget what is really important—a focus on practical solutions to complex problems that produce beneficial outcomes and increase human flourishing. A consequentialist policy approach focused on outcomes rather than categorical imperatives can help humanize opponents, encourage a spirit of collaboration and cooperation, and assist us as we work towards more effective solutions.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/11/26/noble-intentions-counterproductive-results-the-tragic-inefficacy-of-a-deontological-policy-approach/
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Nice to see a balanced view, a good summary, of the errors of acting idealistically (meaning, with a somewhat-willful ignorance of outcomes).

I like this claim also. The author isn’t saying “let’s go whole hog down this other/better path”; just that doing this thing - using a consequentialist policy approach - might help. How much? That would be up to us, and how well we do. Sounds real-world to me.

Here’s another thing that’s real-world. There are certain policies that do make sense, from a consequentialist point of view, but that can affront us morally - they go against what we feel in our guts to be simply and absolutely not OK - even outrageous. For example, if we’re handing out free resources (an action I’ve heavily participated in - volunteering for years in food pantries). At some point you need to figure out how to deal with “the needies and the greedies”. And one perfectly practical solution (also the one that very Christian folks tend to adopt) is to just hand it out. It’d be too cumbersome to create a surveillance and analysis system that would eliminate all waste, fraud, and abuse. So it’s simply more practical to let some percentage of resources get taken by cheaters, schemers, the not-needy, the undeserving; people who act (and think) in bad ways.

The question is, what should be the percentage? Just off hand, if you could make sure that 90% of free resources go to those who are truly deserving; that seems like a pretty good, practical, realistic system. (Many processes - e.g. in agriculture, manufacturing, construction, transportation - waste more or less 10% and we call that good enough.)

The problem is that if you’re serving 70 clients in a day, that 10% means you’re going to deal, quite possibly in-person/face-to-face, with 7 people who are clearly undeserving schemers. To act despite this, you can:

  • ignore reality, but this doesn’t work for most people (go do this work for a few months, or maybe even a few hours, and you’ll see what I mean),
  • deny reality - for example being an idealist like the author describes,
  • be a saint (maybe it was Dorothy Day - when told that someone had schemed his way back into line in order to take seconds, she said “Jesus was always there for me whenever I needed seconds”),
  • be a cog in the machine whose paycheck depends on the system.

Probably that’s only a partial list.

I know there’s a philosophical “view” called consequentialism. A link to its definition is here: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/ and I won’t have the time to read all of that very soon.

I do know that the concept of “unfairness”, and also the visceral hatred of being taken advantage of, is baked into us (into our DNA?). (Ethical) experiments with primates show that when treated unfairly, they revolt. (Just search for “monkey experiment grapes cucumber slices unfair” and see for yourself). This does bear out in real life. A highly honorable and good man I knew well, volunteered in a food pantry for just one 2-hour shift. He was so enraged that he could barely stick it out for the whole 2 hours. He never had to deal with schemers in his personal or professional life; to do it in the food pantry, soured him (to say the least).

When consequentialism (or anything else) butts up against the hard rock of “how we humans feel, deep down, that other humans should behave”, it’s going to lose. We are moral creatures.

Especially when it comes to applying our morals to others…

:slight_smile:

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I will reiterate what @Stan has stated- it is good to see an essay which acknowledges that both sides are capable of ideologically based errors. I would also add that an uncompromising view on free markets and economic liberty can result in damaging the very thing which provides all the gains- the market. Adam Smith was vehemently critical of the East India Company’s monopoly and propensity to require Parliamentary bailouts, and since the Reagan era we have seen a Congress which has singularly failed to police acquisitions and mergers to the extent that in many sectors of the economy large corporations enjoy what amounts to monopoly or oligopoly conditions- compromising the very thing which makes the market work so efficiently- competition. The Democrats aren’t blameless in terms of competition either- a regulatory economy which costs 2.2 trillion a year is bound to fall disproportionately on the shoulders of small and medium enterprises, and present a barrier to entry for new and innovative competitors.

One of the most worrying things about the current paradigm in America is migration on the basis of political affiliation. Not only does it widen the partisan chasm opening up between Americans, with fewer and fewer people knowing individuals with opposing political views through their social circle, but it also destroys the very thing which makes liberal democracies work- effective opposition forces political parties to engage on subjects and in domains which are of tangible importance to the everyday lives of the electorate and punishes them for failure at the ballot box. Without the efficient mechanism of this perennial threat, politicians pander to the most influential top 20% of the population whose interests and goals are completely divorced and alienating to the other 80% of society. Little wonder that populism emerged as a system-wide phenomenon- the highly educated class has all the intellectual gear, but no idea. They’ll still be arguing about Latinx and the inherent toxic masculinity of positive male role models when ordinary Americans are selling kidneys to keep their homes.

As usual my essays are to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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Despite the truths contained in this article, there is one critical element missing: money.

“Progressives and conservatives would do well to remember that they want the same thing: to improve people’s lot in life.”

If only that were the end of it. Bureaucracies of all flavors need to establish and subsequently maintain the free flow of taxpayer and philanthropic money to their cherished causes.

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This is not a serious analysis.

“On the other hand, cities that have been ruled by a mixture of Democrat and Republican mayors have generally performed significantly better.”

Correlation is not causation, even though causation is assumed 99% of the time. Could it be that cities with lower poverty rates are more likely to elect Republicans? Could it be that municipal policies have little or no effect and some cities (with more poverty) are more likely to elect Democrats?

In real life, mayors (in the US) typically don’t have that much power. A more serous point is that some states run by Democrats have done poorly (New York would be a prime example).

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We agree here, finally!
The other thing that would be interesting to know is although poverty is higher in some states the rate has been decreasing as prior to covid there seemed to be a downward trend in the US overall.

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“. . . contrary to popular belief, progressives and conservatives actually want the same thing: to improve people’s lot in life and to protect the promise of social mobility that continues to attract more immigrants to the United States than to any other country in the world.”

I don’t disagree with the stats, or the stated differences between the typical progressive vs conservative, Republican vs Democrat supposed attempts to reach those goals. We’ve heard all that many times.

However, I disagree with the underlying assumption that we are all good people wanting the best for everyone and that we all have simply made the innocent mistake of focusing on intentions instead of outcomes.

First off, you can’t measure outcomes until after you have made policies, passed laws, implemented solutions, etc. Too late, especially when results often look or sound very good, especially in the short term. And if they don’t, it is because it is “too early to tell”, or “we need more funding”, etc.

Secondly, we are not all in agreement over what outcomes we are seeking. If every poor person in America is finally living in government funded housing would that be the outcome we all want?

And thirdly, we are not all good people and to ignore this is foolish. And, even taking morality out of the picture, we all have our own, often competing, self-interests. Whose interests get to define the outcomes we all seek?

Another underlying assumption in the article seems to be that government is the solution. Who but politicians and bureaucrats need to start focusing on outcomes rather than intentions? There is no mention of the possibility that government is the problem and that its size and power must be drastically reduced. We all know but are willing to ignore the fact that power corrupts. Many ignore it to the extent that government and corporate corruption benefits them. That is human nature. Politicians and bureaucrats cater to that by creating solutions that provide opportunities for themselves to gain sex, power or money. They talk intentions because that is when the money is allocated. They don’t care about outcomes because those occur later and can be blamed on someone or something else.

Some of us are willing to sacrifice freedom for security and others security for freedom. Some spend their time debating over what government should do and how it should do it. Others just want to be left alone, free from constant government dictates and edicts that we must pay for and that rarely help matters but more likely make things worse. Government has become a kleptocracy. This discussion over intentions vs outcomes is nothing more than another opportunity to hand-wring and virtue signal while an oligarchy continues to rob the people and the country of our money and freedoms.

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Not to mention a sizable taste for their own efforts.

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As Peter says,

It isn’t necessarily the case that Republicans run cities better than Democrats, but it might be the case that cities with poverty problems elect over-promising Democrats whose solutions only make the problems worth. That trend isn’t good for the cities, but it is good for the office-holders who increase the size of the bureaucracy, their natural constituency.

All of which brings us back to

“Noble intentions?” A city political machine often has as it’s effective purpose just running the city well enough that nobody is too angry, but with the aim of improvement for some set of people in charge, and their allies.

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Really enjoyed this essay. Appeals to my inner pragmatist.

Identify a problem. Conceive of a solution. Then try it for a while. Then evaluate what it has achieved. If it’s working in solving the problem, keep doing it; if it’s not, scrap it. And keep ideology out of it.

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Maybe politics and government are not the best instruments with which to deal with poverty, drugs, etc.

Since politics requires an enemy, and many human activities do not go well if they are conducted as a war.

As the author notes, conservatives have proposed wars on drugs and terrorism. Bad, bad, bad.

But liberals…

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