Motives vs. results

by Russ Roberts on July 6, 2012

in Hubris and humility

A fan of liberty writes me of her struggle of being surrounded by people with a different world-view–people who make her feel that in defending liberty, she is greedy, selfish, and uncaring. I wrote a novel on this issue–here’s a shorter answer…

Are you greedy, selfish, and uncaring? A little. We all are. Even people who oppose liberty. But I don’t think self-interest explains your view of the proper role of government intervention.

But it’s not surprising that you worry about your motives. In our daily interactions, motives are nearly everything. I want friends and family that care about me and whose motives count me in, alongside their own concerns.

So we pay a lot of attention to motives because they’re important. But the motives of strangers are much less important. For starters, by definition, it is hard to know strangers as well as my friends and family. So their motives will be much harder to read. But there is a much worse problem which is that by definition, strangers don’t have much information or knowledge of my needs, desires, and dreams. They can’t. They’re strangers. It’s hard enough for my friends and family to know me well. But strangers can’t know me well. So even with the best of motives, they may not be able to help me. In fact, they may end up hurting me despite their motives. We know that we sometimes hurt our friends and family even with the best of motives because of our imperfect knowledge of who they are.

This suggests a humility for intervening in the lives of strangers. Those on the other side of the spectrum of government intervention often lack this humility. They claim to know what is best for others–what they should eat, how they should behave in the bedroom, whether they purchase health insurance, and what is the best use of other people’s money. When these plans go awry, when they cause harm to those they would help, they fall back on their motives–after all, they meant well.

But when dealing with strangers, with people outside our circle of friends and family, results trump motives. Or at least they do for me. For you see, I too, have good motives. I just believe, perhaps naively, that sometimes, it is better to leave things alone than to intervene. Not always. Sometimes. We know that is true in public policy just as it is true in parenting where the motives are very powerful. Sometimes good parenting means letting children make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. Sometimes it means letting children come to grips with responsibility.

So we teach our children to drive and let them take the car. We know it’s dangerous but we accept the risk. We do so not because we do not care about our children. It’s just the opposite. We accept the risk because we care about them. We respect them. We want them to leave the nest and learn to fly on their own.

So my opposition to a minimum wage or government schools or agricultural price supports or bank bailouts or mandatory health insurance or mandatory retirement contributions or mandatory eating habits doesn’t come from my selfishness or greed. Rather it comes from respect for my fellow human beings and a belief (not a faith) that leaving people free to choose what is best for themselves usually works out better than strangers making decisions for them.

The other day a friend of mine was defending a regulation related to smoking. I hate smoking. I’ve never smoked in my life. But I think people should be free to smoke if they want and I believe that private establishments–restaurants and apartment buildings and businesses–should be free to allow people to smoke on their premises. My friend doesn’t. He’s a great guy and knows as I do, that smoking has some very damaging health consequences. He feels very self-righteous about his quest to regulate smoking even more throughly than we currently do. Part of that self-righteousness comes from his motives. He knows they are pure and they are. He is a fine person. I respect him. He also happens to be overweight. I wonder how he would feel if I explained to him that I have been doing a lot of reading lately on diet and health and that I thought he should eat fewer carbohydrates and spend more time at the gym? I do wish he were thinner. I think it would be good for him. But I would never want to force him to change his habits and even more than that, my respect for him would keep me from even making the suggestion. I think he knows he’s overweight.

He’s not a close friend. He’s a casual friend. With a very close friend or a sibling, I might say something about the virtues of diet and exercise. But a stranger? I can’t imagine going up to a stranger on the street and lecturing him about his weight. Forcing a stranger to do something about his weight is even harder to imagine. But I don’t think my motives are the issue. It’s a question of respect and imperfect knowledge.

One of the points I make in The Invisible Heart is that those of us who want smaller government because we think it will make the world a better place are the allies, whether we like it or not, of purely selfish people who want smaller government in order to avoid taxes and who have no intention of giving to charity. That should give us pause. At the same time, those who care so much about others that they would run their lives for them are allied with those who would run the lives of others because of less attractive motives–for power and profit.

So don’t lose any sleep over your motives. And don’t let others who are no better than you are, convince you that there is something wrong with you because you don’t want to use the power of the state to try to improve the lives of others. Their strategy has a very mixed track record. They are always saying this time will be different. But it is unlikely to be different because of the knowledge problem and because the other side centralizes power. And centralized power doesn’t attract nice people. Just the opposite.

Both sides want to make the world a better place. We just disagree on how to get there.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments

comments

Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email

Previous post:

Next post: