Issues & Insights

No ‘I Didn’t Mean To,’ But It Wouldn’t Be Enough Anyway

When you make a choice that unintentionally harms someone, you apologize, often starting with “I didn’t mean to.” That is because, in personal relationships, intent is central. If I intended to embarrass you, sacrifice your interests to mine, etc., it says something adverse about our relationship. In such cases, “I didn’t mean to” is often a necessary step to make things right, and when accompanied by taking steps to avoid such missteps in the future, can go a long way to mend things.

Since Joe Biden took office, there have been numerous cases of harm to Americans, from our Afghanistan follies to driving small owners of rental property to the brink with unconstitutional eviction stays. But I have not heard such an “I didn’t mean to” from his administration, which says something adverse about his relationship with citizens. Yet even if I had, adverse consequences from political policies and decisions are not excusable simply because they are claimed to be unintended.

Politicians promise to “do the right thing,” not just intend well. As public policy economists often say, “good intentions are not enough.” Yet our alleged public servants frequently demonstrate incomplete or inept consideration of policies’ that can harm millions they claim to represent. “I didn’t mean to” is then a far short of acceptable excuse.

While apologizing is central to restoring personal relationships, the Biden administration is demonstrating that our “public servants” respond to unintended negative consequences differently than we do in our private lives. They point fingers at everyone else to deny their responsibility. They smear others, blame the other party, hold scapegoating hearings, etc. “I didn’t mean to” is seldom part of the process, crowded out by their focus on asserting “It’s not my fault; its theirs.”

Government also has no resources it does not confiscate from people. As a result, acquiring the resources to offer unpaid-for benefits to some inherently harms others whose pockets must be picked. When such adverse consequences for others are necessarily implied, lack of intent to harm those forced to foot the bill is meaningless. Increased government spending must be financed by taxes, borrowing, inflation and/or default. Politicians can deny their intent to cause any specific one of them (e.g., taxes), but only by necessarily imposing another (e.g., deficits). 

Further, supposedly unintended effects are actually often intended. For example, a supposedly unintended consequence of Social Security and Medicare has been making the elderly more dependent on government. There have been similar effects of social welfare programs on others, from Obamacare to expanding food stamps to extending or expanding unemployment benefits. Why? For those seeking political power, increased dependence is often the surest path to their electoral success. As H.L. Mencken put it, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

Sometimes, a policy’s unintended adverse effects occur, but its intended positive effects do not. For instance, farm price supports, intended to benefit farmers, actually benefit owners of agricultural properties (a very different group) at the time the policy is enacted, whose prices capitalize the subsidies. Yet consumers still face higher food prices as a result.

Sometimes, politicians choose intentional ignorance to enable them to “innocently” overlook predictable adverse consequences. However, when the relevant analytical tools and empirical consequences have long been known (e.g., the effects of minimum wages), only the determination to turn a blind eye can make them unanticipated. But sought-out ignorance is not excusable as being unintended.

Further, politicians promise to advance the general welfare. However, legislation or regulation premised on what they are ignorant of cannot obey Hippocrates’ oath to “first do no harm.” And when they still falsely assert that they offer real solutions anyway, such harm is indefensible.

For politicians to live up to their promises and oaths of office requires honest, good-faith efforts to understand what is entailed. Yet they continually impose “unintended” but highly predictable harm. They overlook adverse effects by choosing intentional ignorance. They claim to provide solutions when their ignorance makes that impossible. Rather than admitting responsibility, they not only misdirect blame, but intimidate their chosen scapegoats (who they are also supposed to be representing) into acquiescence. Adverse effects also often occur without the advertised benefits.

In addition, the unintended adverse consequences of government “solutions” undermine the premier example of unintended positive consequences in society – the “invisible hand” of market mechanisms that arise from self-ownership and freedom. Since such dealings must be voluntary, our interests are jointly advanced through each of us employing our resources in ways that must benefit others, because they can say “no” to our offers. But government coercion, which is far harder to say “no” to because it removes the individual veto-power protection voluntary arrangements provide, undermines markets’ unintended positive consequences for everyone. The resulting dissatisfactions are also used to justify further counterproductive government interventions along Friedrich Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom.”      

Americans haven’t heard many “I didn’t mean to” apologies that seem necessary in the face of very adverse consequences for us. Such mea culpa admissions are becoming vanishingly rare in politics, as those responsible turn even more unwilling to accept responsibility for adverse consequences. However, in the absence of any credible indication of reining in or stopping rather than expanding such harms, even such apologies would not be enough. 

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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