Self-interest doesn’t have to match an altruistic goal.

A reader writes to Andrew Sullivan about capitalism and same-sex marriage (emphasis mine):

One of the most astonishing (and underreported) instances of this phenomenon is the defeat in committee of the marriage ban in the Indiana legislature. This past April a group of major corporations (Cummins Engine, Wellpoint, Dow AgroSciences, Eli Lilly, and Emmis Communications, etc.) lobbied against the measure and won.

While I’m not surprised at the lack of coverage, I think it’s important to note smaller victories like this in the civil rights movement. … But it’s also one of the few remaining conservative states remaining that did not write discrimination into its constitution. As a progressive Democrat with a strong populist streak, (as much as it may pain me to admit it) I really have to give credit to big business for doing the right thing on this one.

It’s a nice thought, but is that how it happened, big business doing the “right” thing? The story:

Eli Lilly and Co., Cummins, WellPoint, Emmis Communications and Dow AgroSciences spoke out against the amendment in the days leading up to Tuesday’s vote. All five companies argued that the amendment would send the message that Indiana was not inclusive and hurt their ability to attract top employees to the state.

The additional quotes in the article leave open an interpretation that these businesses behaved in a strictly altruistic manner, but that interpretation is strained. They acted in self-interest. Businesses, like individuals, will behave in a manner consistent with achieving what they desire. Eli Lilly wants to continue attracting talented employees, so it opposed a policy that could alienate some of those employees.

Partisans selectively remember that incentives matter. As Mr. Sullivan’s reader indicates, he normally doesn’t give credit to big business. I won’t presume to know exactly what the reader believes about big business, but I am willing to guess that it involves big business failing to act in a specific manner consistent with the reader’s beliefs. If a business values something else, it’s wrong.

Government incentives are then designed to accommodate inconsistent ideals. Big business should care about making their employees part of the middle class rather than paying them a fair wage based on merit, for example┬╣. When its incentives don’t match the goals of the government, surprise, a partisan concludes that the business does not respond as it “should”. The new expectation is that it’s evil because it ignores what’s “right”. The entire process is perverse and results in a ceaseless cycle of new incentives, often in the form of restrictions. But it remains the fault of the business, not the policy dictated by the government which is inconsistent with incentives.

The other side of the partisan spectrum acts in an identical manner. Those who believe individuals should not ingest certain substances or read certain material follow the same cycle of being so shocked anyone would defy what’s “right” that more legislation is necessary. The manner in which more legislation skews the incentive toward different evasion rather than compliance is ignored because the intention is what matters. They know how you should behave.

This is where libertarianism excels. There is a minimum expectation of civility, but beyond that, each person decides what’s best for his life. Libertarianism understands that incentives matter. Because it’s impossible to know what the incentive is for everyone, or anyone, libertarianism doesn’t direct anyone to a specific goal or outcome that she “should” pursue for herself. It will not push for the manipulative affect of government intervention on the individual.

┬╣ I’m assuming a specific belief here, but of a generic progressive partisan, not Mr. Sullivan’s reader. A fine distinction, I know, but my later example of a generic social conservative partisan is meant the same way.