To get right to the heart of the real difference between conservative
and liberal thinking, we must include intentions versus
consequences as one of the prime issues. The right (or, better yet,
classical liberalism) believes that social policy should be shaped
mainly by a consideration of consequences; the left believes it should
be shaped mainly by intentions. In fashioning social policy, these two
considerations are incompatible.
It's the Thought that Counts?
It is futile and dangerous to fashion social policies according to
intent rather than consequences. This has perhaps been the
leading epidemic of the left. They are not called "bleeding-heart
liberals" for nothing. They allow "compassion" and other subjective
factors, rather than demonstrable consequences, to shape social
policies. A good example is welfare for the poor and jobless. Many
liberals simply see this difficult human condition as a justification to
expand state powers. Others are genuinely compassionate. The problem
is that compassion is not a sufficient justification for social policy.
State welfare addles the economy and dehumanizes the recipients. The
consequences of liberal intentions injure the very people they are
calculated to help. On the other hand, while the impetus behind a free
market economy may not be provision for the poor and jobless, the free
market does an overwhelmingly better job at supplying for these
unfortunate individuals than state welfare does. In other words, the
consequences of the free market are much preferable to the
intentions of statist socialism.
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The same is true of gun control. Many liberals are simply hungry for
raw state power and see in this issue a means to grab more control for
the state elite. The objective of other liberals is much more
altruistic; they genuinely believe that gun control legislation will cut
down on violent crime. There is no solid evidence of this; though,
there is solid evidence that an armed citizenry deters violent
crime. The fact that most people who buy guns do not intend for the
wider society to benefit in the form of less frequent violent crime is
simply immaterial. Good consequences trump good intentions every time.
The "intentional fallacy" is not limited to the left. On the right,
it is seen in such policies as economic "protectionism." Conservative
protectionists mean well when they introduce policies designed to
guarantee the jobs of specific industries. It is the consequences of
those policies, not the intentions of their advocates, which are flawed.
Protectionism hurts people at home by raiding the wallets of the vast
majority of consumers in "protecting" the jobs of the vast minority of
employees. It harms overseas workers by banishing them to mere
subsistence living that can be remedied by jobs that produce exports for
the consumers of wealthier nations. In the debate between free traders
and protectionists, good intentions are not enough.
The Lust for Good Intentions
In today's sentimental climate, the liberals usually win the battle
for public opinion. Good intentions are considered more virtuous than
good consequences. Liberals appeal to compassion, while conservatives
appeal to consequences. In an age drenched in romanticism, compassion
wins almost every time. In his book, "The Roots of Romanticism," Isaiah
Berlin has observed that the preeminent characteristic which 19th
century romantics bequeathed to the modern world is the priority of
passionate belief. Actions themselves are much less important than the
fervor of belief that sets them into motion. In an age of relativism,
this problem is especially acute. After all, if nothing is right or
wrong, the only thing left to commend is passionate belief.
Years ago my father told me a story about a young child hit by an
automobile as he crossed the road in front of his house. Several
neighbors quickly rushed to the boy and noticed that he was alive and
breathing, but unconscious. One of the neighbors had some medical
knowledge and cautioned those around not to touch the child until
trained medical personnel arrived. It was possible, he said, that most
of the boy's skeletal system was intact; but if he were moved, some of
his nerves or his spinal cord could be irreparably damaged.
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From the boy's house came his mother passionately sobbing and
screaming, "My son, my son!" Before the neighbors had a chance to
intervene, she grabbed the boy and clutched him tightly to her bosom.
When the EMTs arrived, they discovered that the boy was paralyzed. On
further investigation they discovered it was the mother's embrace -- and
not the automobile's impact -- that had severed the spinal cord.
The lesson? "Son, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions."