Matt Ridley | 19 Oct 2017
My Times column on how intentions are taken to matter more than what works:
The curse of modern politics is an epidemic of good intentions and bad outcomes. Policy after policy is chosen and voted on according to whether it means well, not whether it works. And the most frustrated politicians are those who keep trying to sell policies based on their efficacy, rather than their motives. It used to be possible to approach politics as a conversation between adults, and argue for unfashionable but effective medicine. In the 140-character world this is tricky (I speak from experience).
The fact that it was Milton Friedman who said “one of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programmes by their intentions rather than their results” rather proves the point. He was one of the most successful of all economists in getting results in terms of raising living standards, yet is widely despised today by both the left and centre as evil because he did not bother to do much virtue signalling.
The commentator James Bartholomew popularised the term “virtue signalling” for those who posture empathetically but emptily. “Je suis Charlie” (but I won’t show cartoons of the prophet), “Refugees welcome” (but not in my home) or “Ban fossil fuels” (let’s not talk about my private jet). You see it everywhere. The policies unveiled at the Conservative Party conference show that the party is aware of this and (alas) embracing it. On student fees, housing costs and energy bills, the Tories proposed symbolic changes that would do nothing to solve the underlying problem, indeed might make them worse in some cases, but which at least showed they cared. I doubt it worked. They ended up sounding like pale imitations of Labour, or doing political dad-dancing.
“Our election campaign portrayed us as a party devoid of values,” said Robert Halfon MP in June.
“The Labour Party now has circa 700,000 members that want nothing from the Labour Party but views and values they agree with,” lamented Ben Harris-Quinney of the Bow Group last week. I think that what politicians mean by “values” is “intentions”.
The forgiving of good intentions lies behind the double standard by which we judge totalitarians. Whereas fascists are rightly condemned in schools, newspapers and social media as evil, communists get a much easier ride, despite killing more people. “For all its flaws, the Communist revolution taught Chinese women to dream big,” read a New York Times headline last month.
“For all its flaws, Nazi Germany did help bring Volkswagen and BMW to the car-buying public,” replied one wag on Twitter.
Imagine anybody getting away with saying of Mussolini or Franco what John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn said of Fidel Castro or Hugo Chávez. The reason for this double standard is the apparently good intentions of communist dictators: unlike Nazis, communists were at least trying to make a workers’ paradise; they just got it wrong. Again and again and again.
Though Jeremy Corbyn is a leading exponent, elevating intentions over outcomes is not entirely a monopoly of the left. It is something that the coalition government kept trying, in emulation of Tony Blair. Hugging huskies and gay marriage were pursued mainly for the signal they sent, rather than for the result they achieved. (Student loans, to be fair, were the opposite.) Indeed, George Osborne’s constant talk of austerity, while increasing spending in real terms, was an example of the gap between intention and outcome, albeit less sugar-coated.
I can draw up a list as long as your arm of issues where the road to failure is paved with counterproductive benevolence. Gordon Brown’s 50p top tax rate brought in less tax from the richest. Banning foxhunting has led to the killing of more foxes. Opposition to badger culls made no ecological sense, for cattle, hedgehogs, people — or badger health. Mandating a percentage of GDP for foreign aid was a virtuous gesture that causes real inefficiency and corruption — and (unlike private philanthropy) also tended to transfer money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.
Or take organic farming, which has been shown repeatedly to produce trivial or zero health benefits, while any environmental benefits are grossly outweighed by the low yields that mean it requires taking more land from nature. Yet the BBC’s output on farming is dominated by coverage of the 2 per cent of farming that is organic, and is remorselessly obsequious. Why? Because organic farmers say they are trying to be nice to the planet.
My objection to wind farms is based on the outcome of the policy, whereas most people’s support is based largely on the intention. There they stand, 300ft tall, visibly advertising their virtue as signals of our commitment to devotion to Gaia. The fact that each one requires 150 tonnes of coal to make, that it needs fossil fuel back-up for when the wind is not blowing, that it is subsidised disproportionately by poor people and the rewards go disproportionately to rich people, and that its impact on emissions is so small as to be unmeasurable — none of these matter. It’s the thought that counts.
The Paris climate accord is one big virtue-signalling prayer, whose promises, if implemented, would make a difference in the temperature of the atmosphere in 2100 so small it is practically within the measuring error. But it’s the thought that counts. Donald Trump just does not care.
One politician who has always refused to play the intention game is Nigel Lawson. Rather than rest on the laurels of his political career, he has devoted his retirement to exposing the gap between rhetoric and reality in two great movements: European integration and climate change mitigation. In his book An Appeal to Reason, he pointed out that on the UN’s official forecasts, climate change, unchecked, would mean the average person will be 8.5 times as rich in 2100 as today, rather than 9.5 times if we stopped the warming. And to achieve this goal we are to punish the poor of today with painful policies? This isn’t “taking tough decisions”; this is prescribing chemotherapy for a cold.
Yet the truth is, Lord Lawson and I and others like us have so far largely lost the argument on climate change entirely on the grounds of intentions. Being against global warming is a way of saying you care about the future. Not being a headless chicken — however well argue your case — leads to accusations you do not care.