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.