November 27, 2020 Reading Time: 7 minutes

Turn the clock back two years. It is 2018 and Christmas is fast approaching. 

Of a sudden, Star Destroyers appear in our atmosphere. Darth Sidious and his legion Clone army descend, commandeering all governments. The Clone force takes over, directed by Sidious and moved by the Dark Side of the Force. The UFOs lately spotted, it turns out, were drones of Darth Sidious. He knew it was time.

His Palpatine days are behind him. No longer does he pay lip service to democracy. Now it’s all Sidious. To us, only disdain. No false front.

Free speech he allows. “Let them say what they will,” he sneers—a final remnant of a human origin. We are helpless before the overlord. He despises us, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. We earthlings all, together, hate Darth Sidious in return. He cares not for our bending the knee, and we have not done so. His tools have.

His designs are mysterious. We are his captives, on our home planet, now, he says, his dominion. 

He imposes restrictions on us, restrictions like those we know in these days of our actual world as lockdowns and mask mandates. But in the Sidious story there is no virus. He just imposes the restrictions. 

In the Sidious story, what consequences will be most conspicuous? The evil intent prompts us to look for evil consequences. Awareness of the evil consequences will be sought by all of us. We research and propagate awareness of those evil consequences, with the assistance of social media. Some appeal to Sidious for mercy or decency. But mainly we seek to make sense of the world, to help one another cope, and to commiserate in the dire consequences.

Intentions Heuristic

intend (v.)

c. 1300, entenden, “direct one’s attention to, pay attention, give heed,” from Old French entendre, intendre… 

We construct narratives, involving intentions, to understand the social world. We make up stories in which the observed events flow from people’s intentions. The intentions ascribed to actors serve as a heuristic that shapes our perception and understanding of what happens, indeed, that shape “the observed events.” Lockdowns and mandates are thought to have been adopted to save lives, so we focus on lives that might be saved by such measures.

In small simple social settings including the family, club, church, or shop, the decision maker is usually the one most motivated to ensure that her decisions will have the results intended, and consequently she is most motivated either to know herself what course of action will best serve her intentions or to search out and appoint an agent with such knowledge. 

In simple, nongovernmental settings it is natural to assume that a person achieves what she intends. If she fails to achieve what she intended, she may feel disappointment; if she comes to see that achieving it was much more costly than she had imagined, she may feel regret or self-reproach. In a small simple setting, she has incentives to pursue her intentions effectively.

It is unsurprising that the intentions heuristic would be extended to macro realms where simple assumptions about the connections between intent and consequence are no longer valid. A lack of validity applies particularly to realms in which such erroneous assumptions do not bite those who err. Correction depends on negative feedback being visited upon those who err. 

Our instincts dispose us – unless corrected and tempered – to think simplistically about the intentions heuristic, because we come from a place where it was true even for our most macro behavior. 

In the small primeval band, error was visited by negative feedback. The primeval band was like an extended family or an organization of 40 people. In such a simple society, intentions and results went together more. The leaders could indeed affect macro behavior. “Macro” was still very micro. Should the band work more (increase output)? Should it fortify its camp (invest in infrastructure)? Should it alter the distribution of work or of food? The patterns observed were in large measure the patterns that leadership had decided or at least ratified; macro patterns could be altered afresh by band consensus or leadership at the head of the band.

Our modern complexified world is quite a new world. And it calls for much more sophisticated storytelling. Yet many people overrate the prospect for a neat consilience between consequences and intentions. 

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a saying we associate with free-market economists like Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, or Walter Williams. It is harder to imagine John Dewey or John Kenneth Galbraith inveighing: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” 

On the flipside, many tend not to see or not to teach that mundane intentions can produce extensive benefits. Adam Smith emphasized that a trader may not particularly intend such benefits:

[H]e intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. 

Too often people see only certain results, not the “unseen.” Like Frédéric Bastiat and Henry Hazlitt, A.V. Dicey wrote: “The beneficial effect of state intervention, especially in the form of legislation, is direct, immediate, and so to speak, visible while its evil effects are gradual and indirect and lying out of sight … Hence the majority of mankind must almost of necessity look with undue favor upon governmental intervention.” 

The chief determinant of what is seen is what is thought to have been intended, as Jeffrey Friedman explains. Ascribed intent makes certain results conspicuous. If we come to regard the government as “us” and well-intentioned—Us Taking Care of Us, as in the primeval band—the ascribed intent behind government restrictions will drive the popular narrative and perception of results. 

For example, the system of banning all new drugs until permitted by the FDA will be thought to protect people from unsafe and ineffective drugs. And so that is what is seen. The suppression of drug development and the delays, uncertainties, and high cost of drugs that are developed are unseen—or seen only dimly, after lanterns are brought to those consequences. 

Better Intentions Heuristic

Imagine that Darth Sidious assumed control of the FDA and did exactly what the FDA currently does. How, then, would the system be perceived? Obviously, Sidious is deliberately harming Americans by preventing lifesaving new drugs. The harms of banned-till-permitted would be obvious and decried. 

In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education published a report on the sorry consequences in the school system. In A Nation at Risk, the Commission wrote: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

If an unfriendly foreign power had imposed the current math proficiency rates in many of our public schools, we might view it as an act of war.

We all theorize about social life. To improve our theorizing, the aim is not to eradicate the intentions heuristic. We have no choice but to understand in terms of intentions. Rather, we have to refine our heuristics about intentions.

We are in the band no longer. We now live in enormous, complex, multifarious, often highly corrupted social systems, in which intentions do not map neatly to consequences. Governments do wayward things. Public opinion is often wayward, even systematically so. Experts are often in denial. We must reject the vision of the anointed.

In 1960 Ronald Coase published “The Problem of Social Cost.” The final two sentences read: “In devising and choosing between social arrangements we should have regard for the total effect. This, above all, is the change in approach which I am advocating.” 

Having regard for the total effect means having regard for all of the consequences, even those that are unintended, and when such regard is unpopular.

Consequences of Covid-19, of Frenzy, and of Restrictions

We are contending with a real virus. Our actual world differs from the story of Darth Sidious’s lockdown, in which there was no virus and no frenzy about a virus. 

Think of three nested (roughly) sets of consequences:

  1. The set of consequences that would flow from the virus in our world without frenzy and without restrictions (and school closures, etc.).
  2. The set of consequences that would flow from the virus and the frenzy, but without the restrictions.
  3. The set of consequences that are actually flowing today, from the virus, the frenzy, and the restrictions.

Although there are no absolute libertarians in foxholes, I am no friend of the restrictions and closures. I lament the frenzy, too. Correction is needed in policymaking and in frenzy-making. 

It may be hard to tease out the ill consequences of frenzy and restrictions, on top of the virus itself including due precaution. But surely a large portion, even a preponderance, of ill consequences can be attributed to frenzy and restriction. Some of those ill consequences are treated here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here

To ignore the ill consequences of frenzy and restrictions is to fall in line with the simplistic intentions heuristic. To do so is irresponsible. To be responsible, one must have regard for the total effect. Coase wrote: “[T]he total effect…in all spheres of life should be taken into account.” The consequences are social, psychological, moral, political, cultural, and spiritual.

Are you minding the ill consequences? Again, some are treated here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here

If you discourse publicly, show regard for those ill consequences before:

  • remaining silent about lockdowns, 
  • or, even more, being anti-anti-lockdown, 
  • or, more still, being pro-lockdown. 

Scrupling the ill consequences of frenzy and restrictions is the least we can expect from anyone who has ever maintained pretensions of giving some presumption to the freedom of association and other liberal principles.

Daniel B. Klein

Daniel B Klein

Daniel Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith, and author of Smithian Morals.

He is also associate fellow at the Ratio Institute (Stockholm), research fellow at the Independent Institute, and chief editor of Econ Journal Watch.

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