well, as long as your intentions are pure.

Back in college—meaning “a few years ago” for me—my English teacher was a pleasant older woman who was married to an Iranian national. I had many discussions with her on politics, education, and the general state of affairs in this country.

Once, we were talking about the different mindsets in the Middle East, and the American tendency to go into a place and expect the folks there to think like we do. She told me of a student from an Arab country she once had. One time he didn’t show up for an exam. When she later marked his grade down for the absence, he protested.

“You weren’t there, so I had to mark down your grade,” she told him.

“I was at the library and I was running late. I meant to come to class.”

“Well, you still weren’t there, so I really have no choice. You missed the exam.”

“But I meant to come,” he insisted, quite upset that the teacher wouldn’t change her decision.

When she later discussed the incident with her husband, he explained that it’s a cultural thing. He explained that in the student’s native culture, intent is as important as–and sometimes more important than–results. He missed the exam, but his intentions had been good, so to him, the teacher marking down his grade was profoundly unfair.

I find that this explanation helps me understand the ability of so many people to dismiss the negative effects of certain policy decisions. In some ways, they have adopted the same sort of mindset that intent trumps results. That’s how we end up with rising food prices because so much of the country’s farmers are now growing government-subsidized corn to turn into fuel ethanol, for example. The intent was to help the environment and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The results are the aforementioned rising global food prices because of all the crop acreage that is now re-purposed for fuel. (The net result for the environment has been negative in the end, because the agricultural runoff from the nitrogen fertilizers needed for all the corn has a bad impact on the Gulf of Mexico.)

That’s how we ended up with egregious systematic abuses of power like RICO and asset forfeiture excess–because the intent of the law was good (reducing or eliminating the negative effects of drugs on society), the people who voted that kind of stuff into place can hold fast to it because the actual results of the policy are not as important as its intent. Conversely, measures specifically designed to eliminate the negative results of the War on Drugs don’t stand a chance of success with the same crowd if the intent of the measure is perceived wrongly. (“You want to make cannabis legal to stop stuffing the jails with non-violent drug offenders? Are you insane? What kind of message does that send?”)

How many public policy measures have been kept in place even though they have achieved the opposite results of those desired because they were well-intended? The list is a long one, and it’s not limited to only liberal or only conservative hobby horses. Gun control, welfare, drug policy, defense policy, education, health care…it seems that too many politicians (and voters) of either party are more interested in doing what sounds right than what’s actually effective. The system is set up to favor the sound bite and the “common sense solution” because it gets more votes—and is more defensible in a campaign debate—than the ideas that are focused on producing results without giving a handy “perceived intent” adapter for the proponent.

That’s how voters can re-elect a guy accused of taking bribes or diddling interns—because his public policy efforts have the proper intent, his private transgressions are irrelevant. And that’s why they can dismiss the good results achieved by the Other Guy’s public policy efforts—because those policies don’t have the proper intent, their results are irrelevant.


13 thoughts on “well, as long as your intentions are pure.

  1. Jay G says:

    Time “reporter” Nina Burleigh: “I would be happy to give him [Clinton] a blow job just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.”

    Yep. Clinton using women like Kleenex was okay because he [kept] abortion legal. I’d like Nina to point out one damn thing Clinton did to that effect, but that would probably make her pointy head explode…

  2. I think that was a Chris Rock bit. But still, kinda base even for a Time reporter.

  3. […] that I’ve written an entirely-too-convoluted preamble, take a few minutes to read this thoughtful, measured essay on having the best of intentions, by Marko Kloos (“The Munchkin Wrangler“). His writing […]

  4. Fred2 says:

    “The road to hell is paced with good intentions. ”

    It explains about the middle east and where we find ourselves.

  5. alan says:

    And from the mouths of self serving politicians and fellow travelers, the “good intentions” are merely lip service to buy off the useful idiots.

    A politician has no good intentions.

  6. alan says:

    Heh. “Lip Service”

    What Monica gave Bill.

  7. Michael G. says:

    Also don’t forget Hanson’s Razor (http://bluntobject.wordpress.com/2011/02/26/hansons-razor/):

    “Irrational positions are rational singlaling devices.”

    (I.e. I know this law is going to do the exact opposite of what its stated intent is, but by supporting it, I’m giving off a signal that I want to help the “cause”.)

  8. What a crying-damned-shame it is that It’s The Thought That Counts has become the cornerstone of legislation.

    Also, Alan? “Lip Service.” HA!


  9. Homer says:

    So, Marko, what’s the solution? How do we establish that it’s the result that’s important, rather than the intent? While a certain (hopefully, small) percentage of the population probably has “intent is all powerfui” embedded in their psyche, I suspect we’re seeing, at least partially, the effect of esteem-based education. Correcting intent-seeking caused by a genetic condition will be almost certainly be impossible, but is it possible to rectify the defect among others with conditioning?

  10. […] like being around people who are like us.**  The trouble is that we are all very different from each other, which will make it difficult to get along, even if we wanted to, which fact our ‘global […]

  11. […] Marko’s place… [W]e ended up with egregious systematic abuses of power like RICO and asset forfeiture […]

  12. Chris C. says:

    Thomas Sowell has a book, “The Vision of the Anointed”, that explains in great detail the leftist/intellectual mindset that good intentions trump results. Those folks take policy positions because said position makes them feel better about themselves, and/or superior to those they wish to scorn. (i.e., people in “flyover country”, conservatives, libertarians, realists, engineers, anyone comfortable with math, etc.) Theirs is magical thinking: if they say the right words in the right way, good stuff happens. Of course, they seldom bother to check what the actual results are, and if those results are less than expected, or even the exact opposite, they either find some excuse or just ignore the real world situation.

  13. Phssthpok says:

    “But….I don’t understand why you’re so upset. I *MEANT* to give you a B+. I don’t know why it shows up as an ‘incomplete’….”

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