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Milton Friedman: Judge public policies by their results, not their intentions

According to Milton Friedman, one of the great economists of the 20th century, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results”. Just because something is called a ‘Jobs bill’ or an ‘Affordable Care Act’ does not mean that more jobs or affordable care will be the result. When assessing these policies, we should not look at the good intentions that produced and named them, but at their actual effects on jobs or the affordability of care.

In the column below, from Newsweek in October 1982, Friedman, list a number of examples of where government policies with a particular named aim, actually had the opposite consequences.

Laws That Do Harm

There is a sure-fire way to predict the consequences of a government social program adopted to achieve worthy ends. Find out what the well-meaning, public-interested persons who advocated its adoption expected it to accomplish. Then reverse those expectations. You will have an accurate prediction of actual results.

To illustrate on the broadest level, idealists from Marx to Lenin and the subsequent fellow
travelers claimed that communism would enhance both freedom and prosperity and lead to the “withering away of the state.” We all know the results in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China: misery, slavery and a more powerful and all-encompassing government than the world had ever seen.

Idealists, from Harold Laski to Jawaharlal Nehru, promised the suffering Indian masses that “democratic economic planning” would abolish famines, bring material prosperity, resolve age-old conflicts between the castes and eliminate inequality. The result has been continued deprivation for the masses, continued violence between the castes and widened inequality.

To come down to less sweeping cases rent control has been promoted for millenniums as a way to hold down rents and ensure more housing for the disadvantaged. Wherever it has been adopted, the actual result has been precisely the opposite for all but a few favored tenants. Rent control has encouraged the wasteful use of housing space and has discouraged the building of more housing units. As a result, rents actually paid—whether legally or under the table—by all tenants except those who do not move have skyrocketed. And even the tenants who do not move complain about not being able to.

Over two years ago, when the San Francisco supervisors were contemplating a form of rent control, I republished in a local paper a NEWSWEEK column of mine on rent control, prefacing it with the comment that only a “fool or a knave” could support rent control after examining the massive evidence on its effects. Needless to say, that did not prevent the majority of a board of supervisors, consisting of neither fools nor knaves, from enacting the ordinance I objected to. And the lessons of experience have not prevented the adoption of rent control in other cities—or the repetition of that same experience.

Urban renewal programs were urged to cure “urban blight” and improve the housing available to the poor. The result was a “Federal Bulldozer,” as Martin Anderson titled his searching examination of urban renewal. More dwelling units were torn down than were constructed. The new units constructed were mostly for middle- and upper-income classes. Urban blight was simply shifted and made worse by the still higher density created elsewhere by removing the poor from the “renewed” area.

In education, professionalization, integration, bilingualism, massive doses of federal assistance—all have been promoted to improve the quality of schooling and reduce racial tension and discrimination. The result was predictable: a drastic lowering of educational performance and an increase in actual segregation of races, at least in the North.

President Nixon introduced price controls on Aug. 15, 1971, to eliminate inflation, which at the time was running at about 4 to 5 percent per year. When controls ended in 1974, inflation soared into double digits.

The Interstate Commerce Commission was promoted in the 1880s and 1890s by the Ralph Naders of the day to discipline monopolistic railroads and benefit their customers. One group in today’s Nader conglomerate has published a devastating study of the ICC demonstrating that it strengthened the monopoly power of the railroads, and later of trucking. The users of transportation have had the dubious privilege of paying higher prices for poorer service.

Need I go on? I challenge my readers to name a government social program that has achieved the results promised by its well-meaning and public-interested proponents. I keep repeating “well-meaning and public-interested proponents” because they have generally been the dupes of others who had very clear self-interested motives and often did achieve the results that they intended—the railroads in the 1890s for example.

The amazing thing to me is the continued gullibility of intellectuals and the public. I wish someone would explain that to me. Is it simply because no one has given this widely documented generalization a catchy name—like … (suggestions welcome)?

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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