Intentions vs. Incentives

Anyone who’s done a lot of internet debating (and, sadly, we see enough of that in the comments here at AR) knows the temptation to demonize your opponent as being either an idiot or a villain.  (Sometimes, if you’re felling creative, you can go for both).  I Googled around and found a very good explanation of the phenomena on a blog I’d never heard of.  Here’s an excerpt:

Democrats in Congress articulate it explicitly when, like Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich, they say, “It is very clear that the Republicans in the Senate want this economy to fail.” But Democrats and their progressive allies are falling prey to the “stupid and evil” fallacy, one that has unfortunately become dominant in American politics. While it is certainly true that sometimes politicians are stupid and/or evil and sometimes they vote against something they know is a good solution just because doing so will net them political gain, the sad fact is that the “stupid and evil” fallacy is often the first explanation partisans jump to, not the last. We would be better off granting our opponents the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not stupid or evil.

The “stupid and evil” fallacy looks like this:

X is a problem. Y is the solution to X. Therefore, anyone who rejects Y must either be stupid (because they don’t realize that Y is the solution to X) or evil (because they want X to continue and so don’t want to solve it by employing Y).

Of course, another reason for rejecting Y is not stupidity or evil (most people aren’t stupid and most people aren’t evil). Rather, it is possible–and, in fact, likely–that rejection of Y results from the belief that Y is not a solution–or, not a good solution–to X.

This is a fallacy that can crop up on all sides of the political spectrum, but it’s worth noting that one of the other top results to my search was a perfect example of someone falling for the fallacy hook, line and sinker.  And they’re liberal:

It’s the “stupid/evil” debate that continues to rage to explain conservative positions.  Regular readers know that I fall deep into the “evil” camp—I think conservatives, especially the leadership, know what they want and how to get it

I’ll let the first blogger (Aaron Ross Powell) have the last say on this line of discussion:

In other words, showing that Keynes was right and Hayek, say, was wrong (or the other way around) isn’t easy. It’s intellectually demanding work. What is easy is demonizing those who disagree with you and fixing their disagreement not in genuine differences of opinion on complex matters of economics but in personal failings of moral character. That is easy, but it accomplishes nothing and only makes the person doing it look like a fool.

The key thing to keep in mind about the stupid vs. evil fallacy is that it’s about intentions.  Just keep that in mind for the next few moments as I bounce over to the two news stories that got me started on this path to begin with.

The first story that caught my attention is about JournoList.  A while back Michael Calderone broke the JournoList story for Politico in a story called JournoList: Inside the echo chamber.   It’s a small (400 members), private listserv of liberal journalists.  JournoList is back in the news again because it played a role in the downfall of one Dave Weigel.  Weigel wrote for the Washington Post covering conservatives.  He was also a member of JournoList, and he expressed his true disdain for some of the folks he covered on that list.  The comments made it into the public, and he got canned.  In reaction to the controversy, JournoList go shut down.

Here’s Eric Alterman (another JounoList member) writing about the whole thing for The Nation:

The idea that anyone could spin a conspiracy of media control out of this group speaks as powerfully as anything I’ve ever seen to a “paranoid style in American politics” (if I might coin a phrase). In fact, nobody on the list ever cleared anything with anybody. Many of us could barely stand one another. People argued over everything, not always civilly. Not long ago, I received an e-mail from another member reading: “I’m starting to understand what conservatives don’t like about liberals!” I took issue only with the word “starting.”

So that’s Alterman making fun of anyone who thought JournoList was a big conspiracy.  He has a point.  I know liberals.  Before they all got mesmerized by Obama trying to get them to go in any one direction was like herding cats.  But is a conspiracy really the issue here, or is Alterman completely missing the point?  Here’s his next paragraph (with some emphasis added):

Personally, the list offered me the opportunity to simultaneously sharpen my ideas, improve my expertise, locate knowledgeable sources and bullshit about baseball. The cost was occasional aggravation and a lot of lost time. (If I had a Proustian masterpiece inside me somewhere, J-List is to blame for its continued nonexistence.) As a collective we held people’s feet to the fire, encouraged excellence, bemoaned administration wimpiness and took numerous opportunities to remind New Republic editors and authors that they work for a reactionary racist lunatic. This casual cross-pollination of information, ideas and anxieties can only have had a salutary effect on the quality of American liberalism, high-minded journalism and public policy–oriented scholarship.

In other words, Alterman is saying, we couldn’t have possibly done anything sinister because we had no sinister intentions.  There you have it: the opposite side of the evil/stupid fallacy.  On one side of the coin we have the belief that “If the consequences are bad, the intentions must have been bad,” and on the other side of the coin we have the belief that “If the intentions were not bad, then the consequences couldn’t have been bad.”  This myopic fascination with intention is a hallmark of liberal thinking, and both beliefs are flatly wrong.

You don’t need some mystic cabal with secret handshakes to get the results of a conspiracy.  Just take a bunch of like-minded folk, have them all talk to each other and make fun of outliers and–Presto!–instant consensus.

That’s the real problem with JournoList.  It wasn’t that anyone was trying to have a conspiracy.  It was that you ended up with Groupthink anyway.  Alterman would disagree.  He’d say that they disagreed and fought all the time.  I’m sure they did, but the natural consequence of bickering a lot over x, y and z is that over time everyone comes to understand implicitly that a, b and c are things that you just don’t question.  I don’t think that most of the folks on JournoList wanted to get some progressive Groupthink spread throughout the upper echelons of the MSM, but it doens’t very well matter what they wanted, does it?  The environment was conducive, and that’s what happened.

The other big story that illustrates a similar concept is the DailyKos/R2K fiasco.  Patrick Ruffini has been covering the story for The Next Right (here and here), and his points about the conspiracy-without-a-conspiracy between the Daily Kos and R2K mirror my comments about JournoList.  From the first post:

A lot of folks are trying to point to the root causes of this seeming debacle…R2K was around prior to Daily Kos, and my vague recollection is that there was nothing out of line about its polling prior to its Kos contract. I could be wrong, but their polls seemed to play it up the middle. When an R2K poll came out in a previous election year, I didn’t automatically assume a Democratic skew like I would a CBS/New York Times poll or a Newsweek poll. Yet the moment they signed up with Kos, all their results seemed to skew towards Obama and Congressional Democrats, starting with their 2008 Presidential tracking poll. Their 2010 polling was if anything worse, skewing several points toward Democratic Senate candidates, though their numbers in primaries seemed right, at least until the end when they disintegrated upon close contact with actual results.

At some point when I raised this previously, it was mentioned that R2K was simply assuming a turnout model closer to Obama 2008. If so, who would be pushing them to do that? R2K? Or Kos?

Did Markos tell R2K to produce fraudulent polls showing Democrats up? Clearly not. Could R2K have simply been too eager to please their client, producing skewed results and making stuff up to boot? That seems more likely.

What Ruffini is saying, and he’s absolutely right, is that it doesn’t matter that Kos almost certainly didn’t intend to pay for fake polling.  And, for their part, R2K almost certainly didn’t intend to do fake polling.  But they were in arrangement that led to very warped incentives.  R2K had an incentive to give lots of polling very cheaply to the DailyKos, especially if Kos liked the poll numbers.  And Kos, for his part, had an incentive to keep throwing up positive-looking polls on his website.  Once again: you get an unintended trainwreck because everyone paid too much attention to intentions and not enough to incentives.

Ruffini revisits the idea of warped incentives in his second post:

Remember now that Research 2000 never claimed to be a robo-polling outfit. They claimed they did live interviews. And most polls are of likely voters, not registered voters. More screening means more cost. As far as what R2K claimed was its methodology, we’re pretty much talking the Cadillac in terms of what the polls should cost.

So, the question is did Kos really pay high five-figures, or low-six figures, for a single poll to drive eyeballs to one or two blog posts to prove Republicans are nuts? Huh?

I’m guessing no. I’m guessing R2K sold it to him for far less, say $10,000? And anyone with a rudimentary understanding of polling would have known you can’t do a poll like this for that amount of money. So the question now is what this says about what Kos should have known about this. Is he so rich he can drop 100K on a single poll to drive a single day’s news cycle — something not even the major networks would do? Is he simply gullible? Or was he negligent in not checking out what what I can only guess were R2K’s absurd price quotes compared to live operator pollsters?

He also points out that Kos wasn’t alone in falling for the R2K fraud.  A small Massachusetts grass-roots paid for one of their polls and got results showing that Brown was down by nearly double-digits when every other poll had him up substantially (and we saw how that turned out).

I used the word “incentives” once or twice in the previous paragraphs, and it’s probably a dead give-away that I’m an economist.  (In training to be one, anyway.)  Just as it’s a hallmark of liberalism to think that intentions are all that matters, it’s a hallmark of conservatives to know that’s utter tripe.  As Milton Friedman said: One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.

The same myopic obsession with intention that leads to pointless, foolish, and endless debates about whether conservatives are evil or stupid also leads liberals to consistently fail to spot obvious problems with their key policy initiatives.  Why does communism not work?  Because you eradicate all the incentives for people to work, and so they quit working, and then the economy collapses.  Why have I always been suspicious about anthropic global warming?  Because the entire field of climatology only exists as long as global warming is perceived to be a real threat that we can and should do something about it.  My liberal friends ridiculed my obsession with the incentives of the situation right up until ClimateGate.  Why is big government a bad idea even when it’s done in the name of benevolent social goals?  Because putting so much power in the hands of so few is a magnet for corruption and abuse.  It warps the incentives.

I’m not sure why it is that liberals are so obsessed with intention, although it’s fun to speculate.  I’m sure that for many of them its just naïve romanticism.  I believe that for many it’s a form of narcissism, because focusing on the intentions is a way of focusing inwards on the self, where as focussing on incentives requires looking outward at the world around you.  It’s also a lot easier to think about intentions than incentives.  (Trust me, I’m busy preparing for my first-year qualifying exams in economics, and sorting out incentives in mechanism design problems is not easy.  It would be a whole lot easier to just describe everyone’s intentions and call it a day.)  Finally, and most sinisterly, focussing on intentions is just a friendly way of saying that the ends justify the means.  It’s the perfect rationalization for ambition.

But, as fun as this speculation can be, it’s pointless.  That’s the whole point of my post.  Good intentions don’t guarantee good policy results.  Only a thorough understanding of the political and economic incentives can do that.



  1. Gail B. says:

    This reminded me of Representative Hank Johnson’s comment in his news eletter, where he said this:

    “I voted for H.R. 5618, Restoration of Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act, which passed the House this week. This emergency legislation would extend unemployment insurance benefits to millions of American families and hundreds of thousands of workers in Georgia.

    “But Senate Republicans continue to obstruct this legislation, turning their backs on Americans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Now we must wait for the Senate until after the July 4th break.”

    Wonder why he didn’t mention the Senate Democrats who opposed it? Well, we have to remember that Johnson is a Progressive.

  2. John Buyon says:

    not to sound coy by being like the people you described in your article.
    I do find the majority of american conservatives to be guided by both “evil” intent and producing evil result. I was more of a conservative after watching a couple of videos on Friedman and Sowell but when I came on conservative sites like this you see that, morally republicans seem to be more “evil” than democrats. I would be the first to admit that ideologically and intellectually conservatism is far more sound than liberal stances. ie. originalism vs living constitution
    laissez faire vs socialism. but the way that international conservatism has played out in the past 30 years since the fall of the USSR has made be doubt that conservatism is the answer.

  3. whats_up says:


    Perhaps you mean Senate Democrat as there was only one (excepting that Reid had to vote no as proscribed by Senate rules), by the way two Republicans voted for it. What proposal would you give to those who are unemployed and in dire need of assistance, what would you say to them?

  4. Anonymous says:

    4:44 just keep giving em money my grandson has to repay.

  5. Woof Woof Poof says:

    The dog in that photo, has he been hanging with Baracks’s best friend, Bill Ayers?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Robert said “since the fall of the USSR has made me(sp) doubt that conservatism is the answer.”

    It must not be then.

  7. Anonymous says:

    She talkin tea party being ‘crushed’ here?

  8. whats_up says:


    Liked the article. It works both ways. I find to many Conservatives calling their fellow Americans “evil” and the “enemy”. What is their crime you ask? Simply disagreeing with Conservatives, is this really the America that our Founding Fathers created, one in which everyone must think alike? Perhaps Conservatives would do well to check their own actions before going after others.

  9. JohnJ says:

    “What proposal would you give to those who are unemployed and in dire need of assistance, what would you say to them?”

    I would say that they have no right to forcibly take whatever they want from another person, even if they use the government to do it for them. Instead, they should ask for help. There are numerous charitable organizations that help people. There are not as many as there were before the government got involved, but there are still many.

    Assistance is charity, not an entitlement.

  10. Uncle Sam says:

    …….. United STATES of America

  11. HonestAmerican says:

    “He (Obama) is Mr. Mass Destruction. I mean he is a human destroyer. This guy has spent his way into oblivion and we don’t have a budget. He is surrounded by a bunch of complete incompetents, led by himself, and he’s spending like crazy, and we keep digging the hole bigger.”

  12. whats_up says:


    I appreciate that sentiment, I do. However history has shown us what happens when that system fails. During the Great Depression the private charities where so overwhelmed that they werent able to help everyone. The only body that had the resources to do so was the govt. That was the idea behind the saftey network idea. Are you really advocating going back to that kind of living, that if the private charities cant help you are just shit out of luck. I sure hope that it doesnt effect your family.

  13. Game over says:

    1:25, this nation is soon to be “shit out of luck”. What then, genius?

  14. Monica says:

    Great article, Robert.

    Whats_up is right about the “stupid/evil” fallacy going both ways. I think that’s true in almost every debate, not just overtly political ones. I know I do it, although since I *know* that I try to refrain. Anyway.

    You’re dead on about liberals seeming to care more about intentions than results. Similarly, I’ve noticed that a lot of my liberal friends are sweethearts and really nice people, but they sort of insist on crafting policy based on an idyllic world, rather than the one we are in. “War is not the answer.” Wouldn’t it be a relief if we never needed to go to war? “No human being is illegal.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we could afford to let in every single person who wanted to come here? “Every child a wanted child.” Wouldn’t it be great if women only got pregnant under circumstances in which they were supported and prepared?

    Yes. All of that would be wonderful. Now, back in reality…

  15. Dean says:

    I guess I must be a “mutant” because I sometimes support/espouse conservative views and actions and then I sometimes support/espouse liberal views and actions – does that make me sometimes stupid/evil and sometimes not? I am truly not stupid and/or evil because I try to listen and understand other folk’s point of view and then try to get them to do the same for my point of view. Barak Obama is probably the worst president of my lifetime – 66 years of it. The unfortunate part of it is that he really believes he is doing the right thing, though emerging evidence clearly shows he is wrong. He is a very intelligent man who is so sure he is right that he will go against his citizenry because his “intentions” are to help change his country for the better. We, the citizens , liked the country we had and didn’t feel it needed to be changed and we, the citizens, will be the ones to suffer the results of his good “intentions”. I never intended to lose control of my car but I hit an unseen oily spot, lost control and killed two people. The result ended up the same!

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