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A Speculative Thought

The late Newton Minow’s daughter, Nell Minow, tweeted that an idea expressed recently by David Henderson and me in the Wall Street Journal is “idiotic.” I learned of Ms. Minow’s low opinion of my and David’s piece from David’s posting of our piece at EconLog.

My point here isn’t to defend my and David’s argument. You can read our piece in full – either here or here (or here) – to judge for yourself our argument’s merit or demerit.

I instead write here to make an observation about Ms. Minow’s suggestion that David and I expressed our “idiotic” idea because we allegedly are paid to do such things by Koch. (In the comments section at David’s EconLog post, Ms. Minow denies that she made any such accusation. But as you’ll see if you read her comment and then David’s response to it, her denial falls flat. Her suggestion is very real that David and I wrote what we wrote because we allegedly are Koch pawns, or are angling to be so.)

Accusations that those of us who today publicly support free markets do so only because we’re paid shills of rich oligarchs are commonplace. I’ve been targeted with this factually baseless accusation too many times to count, and I’m confident that the same is true for David. Nevertheless, these accusations have long been, for me, mystifying.

I understand that dismissing an argument by using ad hominem ‘reasoning’ is cheap and easy and perhaps also emotionally gratifying: “Oh, I think that Mr. A or Ms. B is paid by Charles Koch, so I don’t have to engage the substance of Mr. A’s or Ms. B’s arguments; I can confidently dismiss these arguments simply because of who (I think) Mr. A and Ms. B are.” What had long mystified me is not that lazy or uninformed people resort to making this particular ad hominem argument. What had long mystified me is that such a fallacious line of argument seems to work. Why, I wondered, do many people who encounter such an argument seem to nod their heads in agreement. Such an argument just seems on its face, to me, to be pathetically – indeed, almost comically – inadequate.

But in pondering Ms. Minow’s accusation that David and I are Koch shills, I think that I’ve uncovered at least a powerful clue as to why this ad hominem argument works as well as it does in many circles. I hypothesize that such an accusation has special resonance for those persons who believe that intentions are results. If you believe that there is a tight connection between intentions and results, then intentions loom in your mind very large. Individuals who you judge to have poor intentions are dangerous to society, while individuals whose actions have any hope of benefitting humanity are individuals whose intentions are pure, noble, and other-regarding.

Therefore, if Mr. C’s motives are believed to consist entirely of reaping for himself ever-greater riches at the expense of humankind, then anyone who is convinced that there’s a tight connection between intentions and results naturally, upon becoming convinced that Mr. A and Ms. B are paid shills for Mr. C., dismisses any arguments offered by Mr. A or Ms. B. Because Mr. A’s, B’s, and C’s intentions are (believed to be) bad, any arguments offered by these people must also be bad. There’s no need to evaluate these arguments’ coherence, logical structures, or conformity with available empirical evidence. We know that these argument are bad simply because we know that the intentions of the persons offering these arguments are bad.

To discredit the argument, all that must be done is to expose the arguer’s unsavory intentions – and such an exposure is achieved merely by alleging that the arguer is a spokesperson for an ill-intentioned individual or group.

Let me state my point a bit differently. For those of us who understand that intentions are not results – for those of us who understand that economic and social outcomes are largely the unintended results of unfathomably complex human interactions – the intentions (real or merely suspected) of someone loom far less significantly than intentions loom in the minds of those who believe that intentions are results.

Compared to people who believe that intentions are results, those of us who understand that intentions are not results are far less impressed with the motives – be these real or imagined – of someone making an argument. Badly intentioned people can make sound arguments, and well-intentioned people can make unsound arguments.

It’s no surprise that Ms. Minow advocates ESG investing, for ESG investing is premised on the notion that in order for corporations to better serve society, corporations must intend to better serve society. In the minds of ESG advocates, if corporations intend only to maximize shareholder value, then corporations either do not serve the larger public good at all, or serve the larger public good far less effectively than corporations would if they had as part of their intentions the furtherance of the larger public good.

That this premise of ESG investing is not only economically naïve, but unintentionally (!) harmful to the larger public good, is a reality that most readers of this blog will readily understand. Most readers of this blog, after all, understand that intentions are not results.