Politics of good intentions

By W. James Antle III
web posted April 3, 2000

An old friend of mine is like most Americans, in that he does not follow politics especially closely though he has no shortage of opinions on the subject. Someone remarked to him not too long ago that his juxtaposition of liberal and conservative positions on the major issues seems to indicate he is bereft of any overarching political philosophy.

More careful reflection led me to conclude this was incorrect. I adduced that while he lacked any conventional ideology, his politics were really quite consistent. He favored government enforcing that which he liked and thought was good, and felt government should prohibit that which he disliked and thought was bad. It was a simple politics of personal preference, totally arbitrary government justified by personality quirks.

For example, he had long been an animal lover and an admirer of nature, so he favored strenuous government action against perceived polluters and, somewhat amorphously, on behalf of the environment. He disliked the smell of cigarette smoke and knew it was unhealthy, so he supported restrictions on tobacco. He disapproved of the muscial and lyrical content of most heavy metal and rap music and thus favored censorship. Yet he liked plays and musicals and wished for the government to fund the arts. Upon completion of college, he concluded he was a homosexual and consequently believed the government should force people to hire homosexuals and that all social institutions, particularly marriage and the family, should be redefined to fit his preferences.

Goofy stuff, huh? Not really. Actually, it is pretty in synch with the politics of a great many Americans who consider themselves “moderate.” Not the particular policy stances, per se, but the same arbitrary way of reaching them: Simply by assuming government force should back up one’s personal fancies. If I like it and deem it important, government should fund it or mandate it. If I dislike it and regard it a menace, government should discourage or forbid it.

One reader I correspond with pointed out to me that most Americans will favor any proposed government activity that is promises some result they favor. They favor gun control because they would like to see fewer killings, they favor national health care because they want people who are sick to be taken care of and support more funding for education because they want children to be educated. The brilliant economist Thomas Sowell has said this focus on intentions and goals rather than results and processes preoccupies liberals, and its futility became apparent to him during his own journey from left to right. But unfortunately, this confusion is not confined to liberals.

The challenge for conservatives is to get the American people to focus on results rather than intentions and to pay attention to processes as well as goals. Evidence suggests that smaller class sizes do not always perform better than larger ones and 187 separate studies have shown no direct relationship between per pupil expenditure and educational performance. How then do we restructure the incentives in the education system for both students and teachers to perform? How do we introduce competition? How do we set standards? Research clearly demonstrates the efficacy of parental involvement in improving their children’s education- how then do we secure it? Have our intentions produced the kind of education we would like to have in this country? Has the process of providing and funding it been fair?

We all wish to see poverty eliminated, especially among children. But the expenditure of $5.4 trillion on poverty programs did little to alleviate poverty. Until welfare reform was passed in 1996, the percentage of Americans living in poverty was little changed from the beginning of the Great Society. Many of the programs devised as part of the War on Poverty with compassionate intentions produced destructive results, subsidizing family breakup and pathological behavior. Programs designed to help urban areas instead left them looking like the bombed-out remains of Belgrade after the NATO air strikes. Fatherless young men were abandoning school, work and family for gangs, crack and crime. Single-mother households metastasized rapidly.

Do compassionate intentions justify these disastrous results? Do these intentions, coupled with these results, justify the process of taking workers’ earnings by force and bestowing them upon the idle? Was it worthwhile to shunt aside the private charities who may not be as well-funded as a government bureaucracy, but are far better equipped to provide personalized care to people in need?

These are but two especially illustrative examples of programs that have worthy intentions, but have failed in their results and commit injustices in their administration. One could look further to Medicare, Social Security and the whole host of middle-class entitlements to see how they have involved unfair taxation and undermined the family. Conservatives need to make this case, and make the broader case as well: The freedom that enables Americans to have and pursue these preferences is inevitably jeapordized by centralized arbitrary government not bound by the rule of law, checks and balances or constitutional restraints.

Every reader of this column knows the most important things in their lives, and chances are none of them are the direct result of government. Therefore, just because government isn’t involved in something does not make it unimportant. Nor does government involvement always necessarily make things better than the free market or civil society could.

Karl Marx may not have gotten a whole lot right, but he was prophetic in this observation: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

W. James Antle III has worked for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail him at Jimantle@aol.com

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