There’s an old saying: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
What this means is that good intentions can substitute for what actually is needed, which is good intentions translated into a workable goal with realistic methods.
If you get to the good intentions part, you might be tempted to stop there, and then do what is convenient to you and backward justify it by claiming it fulfills those intentions. At least, this is a normal human pattern.
Kevin D. Williamson wrote a piece with buried insight on this topic:
At some point, there will be a series of exchanges that can be summarized: “Republicans endorse x policy for Veterans Affairs, while Democrats endorse y policy.” People will have very strong feelings about x vs. y. They will feel so strongly, in fact, that they will forget that nobody endorsed the state of affairs at the VA that preceded x or y, that it was nobody’s policy for the organization to be mired in incompetency and indifference so cruel that it borders on the psychotic. (Gangrene deaths — 150 years after Middleton Goldsmith figured out how to treat gangrene in army hospitals, and our veterans are still dying from it.) It will not occur to very many of the people with a strong emotional stake in that debate that it does not matter whether we choose x or y if that is the beginning and end of the conversation. There is a prior conversation that must take precedence, one in which we answer a more fundamental question: How confident should we be that our policies will produce the desired outcomes?
When I started writing about conservatism — overturning years of inculcation and the biggest media machine in history shouting that I was going over to the Dark Side — I began with the concept that conservatism is fundamentally about consequences. That is, using history as our laboratory, we compare actions based on their outcomes. Then we decide what those outcomes are.
The rest was harder for me because it’s hard-wired into how I think: I like “the good, the beautiful and the true” and I have always believed in an ascent of quality as the goal for anything I encounter or administer. This is contrasted to people who search for quantity in the form of “new” (never are) methods. When one has a clear goal, starting with whatever exists and improving it by paying attention to consequences leads to an upward direction of quality, something I call ascendancy.
In order to see this however people need to first be aware of the possibility of something better existing, and of that happening not through pandering to the fears of the human individual with rules and subsidies, but through simply improving the experience. When people taste quality of experience, they tend to want more of it and less of the “new” methods casting about blindly in the hopes that one might someday work in reality.
Williamson points out that our policy stumbles around in the dark without considering consequences because it is based on perception of what flatters people and makes them feel good, not what works. We know how to make our various agencies work; we just ignore this for political reasons. The result is chaos, which is what you’d expect if you don’t strike toward a goal and assess your methods based on what has worked before.
We might ask our society, “What is our goal?”
The answer cannot be verbalized, but it is this: selling ourselves to people. Convincing them that we’re good guys. Doing things that sound good, look good and make warm feelings, thus engender votes, sell products or make us the star of the pub or social circle. Politicians do the same stuff everyday people do because the direction the West has gone has made flattery and warm fuzzies the primary goal.
The result is failed policies that also waste all of our time and money so that people are exhausted and stop caring about results. “Every man for himself!”
George F. Will shows us what happens when warm fuzzies take over from consequences:
For every adult man ages 20 to 64 who is between jobs and looking for work, more than three are neither working nor seeking work, a trend that began with the Great Society. And what Eberstadt calls “the earthquake that shook family structure in the era of expansive anti-poverty policies” has seen out-of-wedlock births increase from 7.7 percent in 1965 to more than 40 percent in 2012, including 72 percent of black babies.
LBJ’s starkly bifurcated legacy includes the triumphant Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 — and the tragic aftermath of much of his other works. Eberstadt asks: Is it “simply a coincidence” that male flight from work and family breakdown have coincided with Great Society policies, and that dependence on government is more widespread and perhaps more habitual than ever?
How could we have more poverty when we created huge anti-poverty programs? Answer: they were not based in reality, but what people think should be reality. In the simple view of the casual human glance, poverty is an absence of money so money should cure it. They don’t look to the laboratory of history and realize the causes of a lack of money. If they did, they would see why these programs don’t work.
For the last 70 years, the West has embarked on programs that try to make life less harsh on human individuals by granting those individuals fewer standards of oversight, more state money, and relaxed conditions of performance. The result has made them spiritually hollow, less effective and more likely to wallow in personal misery. History shows us this is usually the case when we try to address problems directly by replacing an absence of money with handouts.
As this pattern repeats again and again, more people are turning against the fundamental idea of the Enlightenment, which is the perfection of the individual. Like a handout, the perception of perfection gives people no reason to improve themselves. This in turn exacerbates the causes of poverty, criminality, family breakdown and social decay. And since we do not measure consequences, only “feelings,” we have insulated ourselves against noticing.