Final Solutions?

That's Not What We Meant to Doby Steven M. GillonW. W. Norton. 288p $25.95

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane

In proving foresight may be vain;


The best-laid schemes o’ mice and men

Gang aft a-gley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain

For promis’d joy.

Robert Burns, To a Mouse, 1786

Robert Burns’s reflections have entered the language as a proverbial shorthand expression for the futility of grand human schemes in the face of the cosmic order. A contemporary American conservative narrative regarding political change reflects a similar line of reasoning. According to this familiar story, a genuine concern for social justice has led liberal policymakers repeatedly to design and implement vast experiments in social engineering. The reformers’ zeal is a modern manifestation of classical hubris, and their programs founder when swamped by the unforeseen byproducts of their initiatives.

At first glance, Steven Gillon’s That’s Not What We Meant to Do: Reform and Its Unintended Consequences in Twentieth-Century America would seem to fit comfortably into this genre. In its pages Gillon, Dean of the University of Oklahoma Honors College whose previous works include Politics and Vision: The ADA and American Liberalism 1947-1985, provides studies of five significant cases in which ambitious reform efforts produced consequences far removed from the intentions of the policy’s authors. And all five cases (A.F.D.C., the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, the emergence of affirmative action from civil rights legislation, immigration policy reform and campaign finance reform) have been portrayed by politicians and social commentators as unintended consequences of liberal reformers’ zeal to solve social problems with political machinery.

Now Robert Burns, whose sympathies for the American and even French revolutions were pronounced, was not a blanket critic of ambitious social action; his message was more subtle. Likewise, Gillon’s account of these cases is a good deal more complex than the conservative narrative would suggest.

American conservatives, after all, do not simply conservethey seek radical change. In an America where federal government activity has become a large part of modern life (in 1994, almost half of all American households received a federal entitlement check, Gillon reports), demands for rapid devolution of political programs to the state and local level or for privatizing major public services are themselves radical social experiments. As Gillon notes, the Reagan-era deregulation of the savings and loan industry was no liberal initiative, but it had disastrous unintended consequences aplenty.

Gillon’s case studies reveal a generally unacknowledged conservative participation in creating the policy disasters so often censured by the right. The deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill provides a good example. This story is usually related as a simple account of civil liberties gone haywire. A series of court decisions preoccupied with free expression gave the mentally ill the right to refuse medical treatment and confinement to hospitals. As a result, substantial numbers of the seriously mentally ill rejected treatment and instead swelled a population of deranged street people.

This account is not wrong, but it lacks the larger context that Gillon provides. It was the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, not court cases in the 1970’s, that spearheaded deinstitutionalization as policy. Advocates of outpatient mental health artfully tailored their arguments to appeal to both liberals and conservatives: Liberals would see an end to warehousing the mentally ill in bleak state institutions, and conservatives were promised more cost-efficient and community-based treatment. However, a steady series of conservative-inspired budget cuts ensured that only a frail shadow of the proposed network of Community Mental Health Centers was ever constructed. Patients leaving the state hospitals found few good treatment options. As Gillon concludes, the deinstitutionalization experiment was a uniquely American tragedy, the result of a culture that combined liberal efforts to expand personal liberty and a conservative crusade to limit government spending and power.

The case also highlights Gillon’s second, and more fundamental, addition to the familiar tale. At the heart of the problem of unintended consequences in the United States is a paradox: Americans look to Washington for solutions to complex problems, but they are reluctant to give government the power it needs to address most issues. Americans, fearing concentrated political power, have created and maintained a political system featuring separated powers and resisting the unified leadership necessary for coherent political reformsyet they demand reform all the same.

In many ways Gillon’s case studies are less accounts of tragic consequences of man’s hubris than of the awful broth of too many cooks. The community mental health effort failed when liberal and conservative alterations created a mental health treatment system combining the worst elements of both perspectives. The Kennedy-Johnson attempt to renovate an immigration system that used discriminatory quotas based on national origin created an unexpected demographic revolution when a powerful Ohio House member made family reunification instead of work skills and qualifications the system’s first priority. And the tangle of compromises that have marked every attempt at campaign finance reform have arguably increased the power of the special interests they were intended to curb; they certainly haven’t noticeably reduced the importance of money in American politics.

The beauty of the conservative narrative regarding unintended consequences is its clarity and simplicity: grand social experiments come to a bad end. A touch of humility regarding humanity’s capacity to transform the world is certainly a valuable insight. But Gillon does not want to suspend efforts to use government as a positive force for social change. Yet he also seems to appreciate (in a way many reformers do not) how the same checks and balances that have obstructed rational political reforms in America have also protected us from the more dangerous utopian experiments that have engulfed other societies. That’s Not What We Meant To Do provides good questions but few answers.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Senator Kamala D. Harris, Democrat of California, positions herself as an underdog, a savvy “top cop” and, most of all, Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter.

Brandon SanchezJanuary 18, 2019

The fascinating premise of Mary Gordon’s lovely little book On Thomas Merton is that, except for his extensive correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton was without literary peers who could perceptively judge, critique and improve his writing.

Ron HansenJanuary 18, 2019
Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019