Saipan — Perhaps the most terrifying phrase in the English language is “good intentions.” Politics and governance are all about “good intentions.” Hence, the godawful mess that typifies politics and governance.
Based on the history of lawmaking through all these years and all over the world, “we may infer…that the chances are many against the truth of our [legislation’s] anticipations.”
That’s from the British philosopher Herbert Spencer, from an essay he wrote in 1884. He also noted that “the mischiefs wrought by uninstructed law-making, enormous in their amount as compared with those caused by uninstructed medical treatment, are conspicuous to all who do but glance over its history.”
But not a lot of us “glance over” history — unless it’s a short Tweet or a TikTok video. And many of us are also afflicted with selective amnesia. Hence, every election year is a year of delusions, and governing usually involves pigheaded attempts to implement the delusions favored by the electorate.
“Every day the world over, good intentions cover up a multitude of sins,” wrote Lawrence W. Reed of the Foundation for Economic Education. “A visitor from another planet could hardly fail to notice that humans seem to care more about motives than results, and when results achieve the opposite of the intended effect, we’re rarely as quick to reverse course as we were to embark on the wrong path in the first place. This is not to recommend bad intentions, but rather, to recognize that good ones can be even worse, depending on outcomes.”
Reed said among the latest victims of the government’s good intentions are the foxes of Great Britain, one of the world’s oldest democracies whose elected officials, moreover, are undoubtedly among the best and the brightest on God’s green planet.
Reed cited Britain’s the Daily Telegraph’s recent report about the “catastrophic decline” in fox populations since the 2004 passage of a ban on hunting them. The ban was supposed to “protect” the foxes. Its well-intentioned proponents “would not have expected their efforts to protect foxes to result in this catastrophic decline.”
Reed noted that before passing it, the British Parliament spent 700 hours debating the measure. “That was more time than it deliberated over the invasion of Iraq the year before. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair went along with it but in his autobiography six years later, he revealed that the Hunting Act of 2004 was ‘one of the domestic legislative measures I most regret.’ On a vacation in Italy a few years after its passage, he ran into a lady hunter who persuaded him that the ban was a mistake: ‘She took me calmly and persuasively through what they (the fox hunts) did, the jobs that were dependent on it, the social contribution of keeping the hunt and the social consequence of banning it and did it with an effect that completely convinced me.’ Nearly 20 years since the ban took effect, and 13 years since Blair saw the light, the ban is exacting a terrible toll on the fox population.”
So what went wrong? The debates on fox hunting were driven overwhelmingly by politics. That is, by what was popular. So many laws exist primarily because most voters support them, and not because they’re the right thing to do. For most politicians, in any case, “the right thing” to do is what can win them an election.
As for Britain’s ban on fox hunts, Reed said in the U.S., “we’ve seen a similar effect from the Endangered Species Act of 1973. It’s called ‘shoot, shovel and shut up’ because of the law’s perverse incentives.”
Here’s Reed’s advice: Before “you embrace a course of action, no matter how emotionally convinced you are of its inherent virtue, it’s almost always a greater virtue to set your passionate intentions aside for a moment and consider what the results might be. Facts can be inconvenient and humbling too, but they trump intentions every time.”
To reinforce his point, he mentioned the following wise observations:
• “Without wisdom, all the good intentions in the world amount to nothing. Intending to do good without having wisdom is like intending to fly an airplane with no knowledge of airplanes or the laws of aerodynamics. Good intentions without wisdom lead to either nothing or to actual evil.” ― Dennis Prager
• “And good intentions? These scared him the most: people with good intentions tended not to question themselves. And people who didn't question themselves, in the scientific world and beyond, were the ones to watch out for.” ― Shanthi Sekaran
• “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.” ― C. S. Lewis
Zaldy Dandan is editor of the NMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety. His fourth book, “If He Isn’t Insane Then He Should Be: Stories & Poems from Saipan,” is available on amazon.com/.