Government take heed: Some goals are best achieved indirectly – The Daily Telegram

In his book, "Obliquity," John Kay argues that goals are often best achieved indirectly. He is probably on to something.

Directly pursuing happiness, for example, inevitably produces frustration. Hedonists whose chief pursuit is pleasure are often miserable people.

As British philosopher John Stuart Mill noted in his autobiography:

"Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness: on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, or on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming at something else, they find happiness by the way."

Seeking happiness directly is terrible strategy for individuals seeking a good personal life. And governmental goals, too, can sometimes best be pursued indirectly.

Imagine government seeks to prevent people from discarding empty bottles along the highways. It could threaten to fine people who litter. But fines won't work when there is little danger of being caught. There is no way to observe the millions of times people throw bottles out of their cars in widely dispersed places.

Some states therefore take an indirect approach. They threaten fines, not against a large number of hard-to-catch litterbugs, but against stores selling bottled or canned drinks without collecting small refundable deposits. Policing a few stores, whose proprietors have little interest in resisting the law, makes enforcement manageable. And the refundable deposits give motorists an incentive not to litter throwing away money! while encouraging gleaners to pick up and redeem bottles that do get thrown out.

Governments trying to get people to wear anti-COVID masks have a similar option. Instead of directly threatening to fine maskless individuals, government can threaten to fine or close establishments that do not require masks for employees and customers. Of course government must impose severe sanctions for maskless customers who refuse to leave or who threaten employees enforcing such rules.

Likewise, there are two different ways a government can try to improve the economic welfare of people of color. It can adopt measures focusing directly on that goal. Or it can approach that goal indirectly with programs benefiting the whole population but that will be particularly helpful to people who are disadvantaged.

Paying cash reparations to descendants of slaves would be a direct approach. But taxes to support reparations are unlikely to get political support, while figuring out which individuals are eligible for reparations would be an administrative nightmare.

The indirect approach is more promising politically: enacting programs that benefit everybody but are particularly beneficial to disadvantaged people. An existing example would be Social Security, which pays a higher percentage of average past earnings to lower income retirees.

A future Medicare For All would be a general program that is exceptionally beneficial to disadvantaged people. Everybody would benefit from insurance that remains in effect when a job is lost. Everyone would benefit from its administrative efficiency. Doctors would only need to deal with one insurance program instead employing costly staffs to cope with dozens of incompatible insurers. (Patients ultimately pay for those costly staffs, directly, through increased insurance costs and co-pays, or indirectly through reduced salaries enabling their employers to supply insurance.)

But people of color, whose average health is precarious and who are especially vulnerable to the current pandemic, would find Medicare For All particularly valuable. And better medical care, which would increase their average lifespans, would increase the total Social Security benefits received by the average minority person during his or her lifetime.

In politics, good intentions with which the road to hell is supposedly paved are welcome but never enough. What really counts is good results, and these cannot always be attained by pursuing them directly.

Paul F. deLespinasse is professor emeritus of political science and computer science at Adrian College. He can be reached at

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Government take heed: Some goals are best achieved indirectly - The Daily Telegram

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