Purity Can Be a Potent Foe of Goodness

“Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim,” said George Santayana. Unfortunately, too many examples in public policy fit that definition. When fanaticism takes hold, purity becomes the yardstick. As a result, the opportunity for a good outcome can be lost.

Let’s consider a few examples.

Poisoning 10,000 People to Fight Alcoholism

Prohibition was born from good intentions to relieve the suffering that alcoholism brought to people and their families. That problem had grown exponentially with the industrial revolution. Alcohol was the “evil influence” behind a serious social problem. Prohibition was thus the obvious solution.

But it didn’t end well. People found ways to obtain alcohol, often from industrial sources. So to solve that problem, the government began poisoning industrial alcohol. It required the addition of methanol and other substances to make it unsafe for drinking. That clearly didn’t work. Approximately 10,000 people died from poisoning as a result.

Good intentions turned into an ideological pursuit of purity. Then it yielded a very bad outcome.

The Eugenics Movement

The North Carolina Eugenics Board ordered more than 7,000 sterilizations until it was quietly disbanded in 1974. Many of them were involuntary. But elites of that era pushed for it through the Human Betterment League. That league expressed the good intentions of a humanitarian effort:

North Carolina offers its citizens protection in the form of selective sterilization.

The job of parenthood is too much to expect of feebleminded men and women.

In retrospect, the pure pursuit of this program turned into a lot of suffering. It denied many women the human right to have children. Their personal stories are heartbreaking.

The Philadelphia Soda Tax Fight

Right now in Philadelphia, residents are in a pitched battle over the city’s tax on sweet soft drinks. Loaded with sugar or zero calories, it doesn’t matter. If it’s sweet, the tax applies, unless you’re buying it from a barista at Starbucks. That’s exempt.

This is the poorest big city in the country, but it’s financing pre-K education with a regressive tax. Polls suggest that 60 percent of the city’s residents hate it. Opinions divide sharply along racial lines. Blacks, Latinos, and people of mixed race express the strongest opposition. Only white voters have split views on the subject.

Mayor Kenney is the chief advocate. He says he knows people are angry about it. But he also says he can’t pay for universal pre-K education without it. Writing in Philadelphia Magazine, Ernest Owens sees it very differently:

The premise of the soda tax is illogical. For money to be raised to fund pre-K, community schools, and recreation centers, people have to buy soda and other sugary beverages – meaning we have to consume items that are killing us in order for the city to afford our children the opportunity and access to thrive.

The mayor and City Council have a moral obligation to protect everyone in this city. The soda tax, as it currently exists, further aggravates our growing divide – on one side the privileged who can benefit from pre-K programs and recreation centers without ever sipping on a can of soda again, and on the other the impoverished and people of color who fund them.

A Road Paved with Pure Intentions

Advocates of the tax are confident in their noble intentions. Mayor Kenney dismisses people who oppose the tax. He calls them dupes of an evil soda industry. But such ideological purity paves the road to poor outcomes – with the best of intentions.

Purity, photograph © Andrea / flickr

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March 22, 2019