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Quotation of the Day…

… is from pages 175-176 of historian Arthur Ekirch’s important (if flawed in some, tho’ by no means all, of its economics) 1974 volume, Progressivism in America (link added):

Between the war with Spain and the first world war, a radical transformation took place in both American foreign and domestic policy.  Expansion abroad, like reform at home, became a means of rationalizing the economy.  As William Leuchtenburg has pointed out, Progressivism and imperialism flourished together, not as opposites, but as “expressions of the same philosophy of government, a tendency to judge any action not by the means employed but by the results achieved, a worship of definitive action for action’s sake . . . .”

A note: The naive mind, upon reading the above quotation, might ask ‘Isn’t it good to judge any action by the results achieved rather than by the means employed?’  The wise mind replies ‘No; not in matters of public policy.  Each government action unleashes a small set of more or less discernible consequences, both favorable and favorable.  But each government action also unleashes a much larger set of indiscernible consequences – also both favorable and unfavorable.  These indiscernible consequences ripple out over space and time in ways that are practically impossible to trace in detail and with confidence.  Each policy interacts over space and time with an ever-expanding complex of other social and economic forces, including other government policies, and thus helps to change society in ways that are impossible to detect in detail, and much less to quantify.

‘Therefore,’ continues the wise mind, ‘the best guides to public policy are the means and not the consequences.  If the means are ones that we consistently reject in our private lives because we recognize them, from long human experience, to be unjust and dangerous – such as using force to change the actions of non-aggressive persons who do not actually and individually agree to be subject under the circumstances to such force – a powerful presumption ought to operate against allowing the collection of people known as “the state” to use those means.  In matters of state action, we can assess the appropriateness of means far more reliably than we can assess the seen and unseen consequences.  This truth, of course, applies to both domestic and foreign policies.’


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