Regarded by many as the Anglosphere’s greatest essayist, Joseph Epstein is also owed our gratitude for popularising the wonderful notion of the Good Intentions Paving Company. He does not claim to have created the phrase. This belongs to the wonderful novelist Saul Bellow, who once wrote a novel (Ravelstein) about one of the most consequential culture warriors of the late twentieth century, Allan Bloom.
Epstein first visited the Good Intentions Paving Company in 2013 in the Wall Street Journal, penning a piece on the then emerging ObamaCare universal health-care scheme, conceived (perhaps) with the great intention of bringing health cover to the Americans then excluded. The disastrous, unintended consequences of many government schemes and popular movements featured in Epstein’s WSJ article, “No Child Left Behind, the Iraq War, affirmative action, and the Russian Revolution”. One thing that all these things had in common – they all seemed like a good idea at the time, at least to many. Truly dangerous political ideas are those which are both ambitious and popular.
We could add some of our own ambitious policy disasters in the Australian context – the Ken Henry inspired “cash splash” of the Rudd years, the now notorious NBN, the NDIS, various “Gonskis”, pink batts, and so on. Bob Hawke, normally a cautious policy man and a centrist, made his emphatic claim to eliminate child poverty. Mercifully, he didn’t enact any (inevitably doomed) policies to attempt to achieve his lofty yet ludicrous ambition. Malcolm Fraser had his candidates for the Good Intentions Paving Company – the SBS and multiculturalism stand out. Some might even argue (almost heretically) that Sir Robert Menzies had his moments with the Good Intentions Paving Company. Think of the (admittedly tiny but nonetheless portentous) expansion of higher education and the Vietnam War.
Governments can be made to look very, very stupid when they decide to go big in what they see as the national interest. Mercifully, there are also candidate programs and causes which, luckily, don’t quite make it. Think “living wage”, or the various recent assaults targetting negative gearing. The creation of an Australian national broadcaster and its inevitable growth into a behemoth responsible for odious and widely recognised impacts all round, might be argued to be the standout candidate for the Australian subsidiary of the Good Intentions Paving Company .
Others, adopted to a greater or lesser degree by most governments of the world, are insidious while contentious, yet insufficiently understood to be unpopular. Here, there is no greater folly as the attempt by humans to change the climate. While this is the ultimate non-solution to a non-problem, we somehow have managed to embed this (arguably) well intended political push in polities across the globe, and in many downstream institutions as well.
I would place near universal, publicly funded, out-of-home child care in this category as well. What the late Sheila Kitzinger correctly described as the greatest ungrounded social experiment in history, this seemingly popular policy has been nothing less than an active agent in the destruction of the traditional family.
The other contemporary candidate for inclusion in the Good Intentions Paving Company is mass Third World migration to the West, the progress of which has been well described and lamented in many, perhaps most recently and pointedly by the excellent Douglas Murray in his book The Strange Death of Europe. Whether seen as an act of massive charity (see under “Merkel” and, alas, “Pope Francis”), massive dumbness or an insidious attempt by globalist-leaning governments to slay nationalism, mass migration clearly makes the grade. It slipped in under the radar, never featured prominently in election campaigns, and governments never had permission to do it. It just seemed to come up on the citizenry of the unfortunate countries now afflicted with troubled, nay alienated, unsettling and growing migrant minorities which in various ways make life extremely difficult for cowed native populations.
The absolute master slayer of Good Intentions Paving Company was the legendary Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. His focus especially concerned the folly of economic interventionism by the State, but his thinking can be applied to all forms of government folly.
As Hayek famously observed:
The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imaging they can design.
The target of Hayek’s analysis was, of course, socialism and the central planning on which it depends. His justly famous treatise The Road to Serfdom has become iconic in the annals of classical liberal and conservative thought. His core insight about central planning, one that made socialism both a freedom killer and also doomed to inevitable and costly failure was that it was impossible for any central planning agency to have all the information required to somehow align policy intent with all the myriad intentions, desires and actions of millions of dispersed citizens. Hence central planning, and indeed many ambitious government policies are doomed despite their good intentions.
As Ed Feser notes, in relation to Hayek’s justification for his liberalism and, in particular, his belief in limited government:
Hayek grounded his defense of capitalism in an anthropology that is just short of Augustinian in its pessimism. The deficiencies he attributed to human nature are both cognitive and moral. First, human knowledge is severely limited. According to Hayek, a mind can only ever understand what is less complex than it. Hence, no human mind can ever understand itself, much less the vast aggregate of human minds—each with its own unique and ever-evolving needs, and each with its own idiosyncratic body of information concerning local economic circumstances—that constitutes an economic system. This is the deep reason why socialism is impossible in principle, and always leads to chaos when attempted. The central planner simply cannot have all the information required to allocate resources or direct economic activity rationally.
To remedy this problem, the planner has to dictate, rather than learn, what individual economic actors need and how they will behave. For the only sure way to know what they want and what they will do is to decide for them what they should want and what they should do. And the more closely the economic planner wants outcomes to conform to his plan, the more thorough this dictatorial control will have to be. This is the sense in which Hayek thought socialism entails “serfdom.” He was saying that centrally planning large-scale economic outcomes requires large-scale control of economic behavior. Planners will have to increase control if they are intent on realizing their ambitions.
Another great opponent of gargantuan political projects was the British conservative giant Michael Oakeshott, who in his famed essays The Tower of Babel gave modern weight to the Biblical story of man’s (literally) towering ambitions to create utopia on earth.
Joseph Epstein has more recently visited the Good Intentions Paving Company, this time in an essay on the menace of political correctness, in The Claremont Review of Books. The very word ‘menace’ in the title suggests the sinister core of what is perhaps the most pervasive and destructive force of the post-modern, relativist world. Political correctness, the weapon of choice for enforcing the equally sinister ideology of multiculturalism. As Claremont Institute chief Ryan Williams points out, in an excellent clarifying piece on what the “multiculti” ideology really means, with insights as to how it is embedded in society:
We have decided to use the term “multiculturalism,” instead of “identity politics” or a similar term, because despite its limitations and current usage “multiculturalism” is more comprehensive. It is a new system of truth and justice that seeks to revolutionize and transform the American way. Identity politics is the coalitional strategy of multiculturalism and political correctness its enforcement arm.
Political correctness seen as an enforcement arm for a bigger game plan is a useful way of thinking about it. And identity politics is the political strategy.
For Epstein, PC started out as a “minor project” of the Good Intentions Paving Company. Stamping out casual racism by punishing the use of racial epithets, even the jocular, was surely a good thing in the tidying-up process of putting the evil of racism in the past. It was innocent, kooky, even a bit funny, the whole PC thing and the regulation of language.
But it has, for Epstein, headed over time to somewhere entirely different. Ryan Williams has little doubt of its nefarious uses now in enforcing multicultural ideology, with considerable brutality and at great cost to dissenters. Indeed, multiculturalism itself was at first regarded as a feel-good, well-meant expression of welcome to new migrants. Not to mention all that great international food! Of course, what we now have in Australia and other Western countries is malign multi-monoculturalism, with the strategy and the enforcement arm used to silence dissent on all sorts of related issues. Criticising the very policy is seen as racist. Or, as that pathetic little man, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, tried to argue the other week (against Trump, naturally), if not racist, then at least it is that other alleged evil – xenophobia!
Most contemporary free speech abuses are related in some way to political correctness and its upstream ideologies. Free speech, once a great cause of the Old Left, is now trumped by the need to promote victim interests. Free speech loses. Always.
Meanwhile, the ranks of those who get to be classed as “victims” massively multiplied, growing like a cancer. Victimology extended what initially only covered protecting and promoting the interests of migrant minorities and women, to now enforcing prohibitions against even “offending” those many, many groups in the protected species club. The PC weapon is now sharpened to hunt perceived offenders long departed for all their old sins. PC has undergone a truly hideous evolution. Lawfare abounds.
All this has arisen from a nice, well meant attempt to tidy up our offensive jokes and language. Looking back, were we stupid or what?
Governments, government agencies, qangos, corporations, the media, and (especially) universities all play the enforcement game, and along the way, they destroy livelihoods, careers, jobs, reputations, and more. What is much worse, perhaps, the weaponised PC implementation instills among the populace a fear and a sullenness of Orwellian 1984 proportions. That this has occurred entirely on the watch of freely elected and often “conservative” governments should alarm us all. (Epstein’s original piece pointed out, of course, that it isn’t only left-liberal regimes which are prey to the Good Intentions Paving Company).
Of course, to assume that all, or even many, governments, have good intentions when enacting Big Policy might be regarded as naïve. It might be said, against Epstein, that governments and other institutions-of-control decidedly do not always have “good intentions” when implementing policies that many later come to regard as disastrous. Indeed, those on the Burkean side of life see (at the time) pretty much all of the mess that is coming down the line when governments go Big and where social institutions set out to change behaviour through their policies.
But Epstein does have a big and valuable point, and he is correct. Many governments do want to do the right thing. They like to be liked for trying to help solve what they (and others, including voters) see as problems to be tackled through government action. They believe that various arms of government can help solve these problems. But as Epstein, and most assuredly Hayek point out, they are fools for trying, and we are fools for falling for it. That governments (especially on and of the Left) do not always have (as Quadrant readers would think of them) “good intentions” in no way diminishes the utility of the Epstein metaphor.
Ultimately, the PC movement can only survive, prosper and metasticise in a world that accepts philosophical relativism, and its siblings, those other members of the Good Intentions Paving Company – equality and diversity. That is where the fightback must commence. Until this worldview is taken on and, indeed, smashed to pieces, multiculturalism, identity politics and weaponised PC armies of “virtuecrats” will continue to run roughshod over a cowering populace.
Alas, the relativism of which we speak is practically a religion to the youth of the West. Given that just about every other young person now goes to university that is where we must give battle. So far, what might otherwise have been an expectation among Club Sensible members, that PC would eventually just come to be seen as soooo stupid and therefore be consigned to history’s receptacle, has decidedly not come to pass.
Leaving aside the whole PC conundrum and returning to the broader category of good intentions, let us leave the last word to Epstein:
The Good Intentions Paving Co. is unlikely ever to be put completely out of business, but one must do what one can to slow its progress. A good place to start may be when making a New Year’s resolution … vow to resist the firm’s newest projects and policies, however warm and fuzzy they might appear.
And thanks be to Saul Bellow! A sharp observer of human folly indeed.