There is a curious temptation to conflation of incompatible ends. I saw this most recently in my exchange with Orthosphere commenter Theodman about the optimal tonlieu. He objected – not unreasonably, and indeed in these latter days quite normally – to any restrictions on immigration, such as a tonlieu, because they discriminate against the poor. Which they do. And which does not mean we ought to be cruel to the poor. And which does mean we ought not to confuse immigration policy with social welfare policy.
I had a hard time getting him to see the difference between a good immigration policy and a good social welfare policy. To his credit – although not perhaps to that of my rhetoric – he did get it.
If your design objectives are not confused and are therefore compatible, you are likely to come up with a design that fortuitously ameliorates problems it did not at first intend to address, or even cognize. If on the other hand your design objectives are confused, and therefore probably to some extent in conflict, you are likely to come up with a design that doesn’t ameliorate even the problem that it was foremostly intended to solve. On the contrary, it is likely to worsen the problem it was intended to salve. What is more, it is likely to exacerbate or create other problems you had not considered; i.e., to have unintended negative consequences.
If you want a fork, you design a good fork. You don’t try to design a fork that works also as a spoon. That would ruin the fork, *and* the spoon. You design a good fork, and you design a good spoon. Two disparate (albeit, to be sure, not unrelated) projects.
This is all pretty well understood in design and engineering circles. But not in politics, or public policy. The result at the absurd limit is war goals that aim both to destroy and to build the enemy; or, likewise, monetary policy aimed at controlling inflation and generating full employment, whatever that is.
When ends are conflated, means are confused. Means are all men. When ends are conflated, men are confused about what exactly the hell they are supposed to be doing. The literature on war is littered with anecdotes of just such confusions. They lose skirmishes, battles, wars, nations, empires.
The literature on war is littered also with bitter soldierly cynicism, resentment, rage at rear echelon confusion and conflation. First, you destroy the enemy. Then, you take care of your men. Nothing else should really matter, in war; nothing else ever does; nothing else even registers. With the consequence that, once you have destroyed your enemy, you get your men the hell out of harm’s way. The rear echelon weenies are confused about that. Hundreds of men, thousands, are sacrificed to their confusions.
In no other project are the stakes so high as they are in war. But the stakes of every sort of project have the same form. Get the main job done. If you’ve done that, well then, you’ll have time enough to take care of the other stuff later. If you’ve done that, you will probably discover eventually that, in so doing, you solved a few other problems you had not even suspected were out there.
Bureaucracies are not of course intended to get the main job done. They do their best to perpetuate themselves, and thus their raisons d’etre. They do their best to maintain the problematic demand for their own services, and so of their sinecures. They do their best to avoid getting their main job done.
Whence the intellectual temptation to conflation of ends? I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with the pleasure of intellectual economy, which is to say, of parsimony; of the feeling that one has killed two or three birds with the same stone.
The thing is this: never in real life is it possible to kill three birds, or even two, with one stone. Not unless there is a whole huge flock of birds lying already stunned and still under the steady aim of your sling. It just doesn’t happen.
Birds are hard to kill, even one at a time. That’s how we ought to take them.