Monday, March 8, 2010

Good Intentions v. Outcomes: What do you think?

We frequently separate good intentions from outcomes in our personal lives. For example, if the house is dirty and one person picks up the trash, but, unknown to them is the important document they threw away we could say their intentions were a clean living space but the outcome also included tossing an important document (not a true story . . . but I couldn't think of another example off the top of my head).

Should we also evaluate good intentions when it comes to policy? Or, should we say, "Regardless of the intentions I only want to evaluate outcomes."?


Doug said...

My own lack of posting has probably caused the readership to decline, or, people do not have an opinion on the matter. So, I'll give you a policy example:

We know that minimum wages cause distortions in the labor market. At higher minimum wages people enter the labor market who would never have otherwise entered the labor market. There are also effects on the labor demand-side. Now, less labor would be demanded . . . jobs could be outsourced or replaced with more machine related processes, etc. The minimum wage also is presumably targeted for the working poor. But, the bulk of the beneficiaries of a minimum wage are usually teenagers in suburban areas.

The question then . . . knowing that these wages were probably motivated by good intentions, but, also knowing that the consequences are really bad how should we judge these policymakers?

. . . especially when less distortive policies such as the Earned Income Tax Credit were on the table.

Mark said...

This is a tough question. I am sure that there are many people who sincerely think that they are carrying on Christ's mission by supporting policies that actually have bad consequences ... just about everybody can fall victim to the curse of unintended consequences: Here is a perfect example: Just go over the list of "good" things that led to the financial markets meltdown when they interacted in unanticipated ways. Or, today's discussion on Aid Watch is all about people who sincerely want to help the earthquake victims in Haiti by sending boxes of things (old running shoes) that hurt, rather than help, the relief effort. That's why it should be part of our discipline to be informed (one of the purposes of this blog, in fact).

It's easy for me to see that it's not obvious to an outsider that gathering shoes or blankets for Haiti is not "good." However, the minimum wage, in particular, has such a high profile as a program in which the damage to poor people is not "unanticipated" but is rather predicted year in and year out, that I can only believe that some people have crossed a line in which they either really are insincerely using "helping the poor" as a cover for some other political agenda, or they deliberately shut out any discussion about the bad effects of the minimum wage because they don't want to be overwhelmed by the cognitive dissonance. At some point you expect people to engage in the discussion.