Your Good Intentions Are Worthless If Your Ideas Hurt People

Your Good Intentions Are Worthless If Your Ideas Hurt People

One of the consequences of having abandoned teaching history is the widespread belief that good intentions equate to good results. But many well-intended ideas throughout history have ended in disaster when put into practice.
David Weinberger
By

Perhaps no idea was more well-intended than communism, which dominated much of the world throughout the 20th century, and survives today in North Korea and China. Despite its professed noble aim, it has in fact destroyed economies worldwide and taken the lives of more than 100 million people, many more than the six million Jews Adolf Hitler murdered during the Holocaust. Still, leading intellectuals and academics throughout the 20th century and even today have been seduced by this evil ideology.

Take distinguished intellectual George Bernard Shaw, who could hardly contain his enthusiasm: “We cannot afford to give ourselves moral airs when our most enterprising neighbor [the Soviet Union] humanely and judiciously liquidates a handful of exploiters and speculators to make the world safe for honest men.”

Bertrand Russell likewise professed his Marxist faith: “I believe that Communism is necessary to the world, and I believe that the heroism of Russia has fired men’s hopes.” He added that “Bolshevism deserves the gratitude and admiration of all the progressive part of mankind.” If that weren’t enough, New York Times columnist Walter Duranty was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his sycophantic yearnings for Joseph Stalin and communism.

Why were these elites willing to turn a blind eye to communist evil? Put simply, they judged communism by its intentions rather than its results. Here is how political activist and progressive hero Saul Alinsky explained it: “Back in the Thirties, the Communists did a h-ll of a lot of good work. Anybody who tells you he was active in progressive causes in those days and never worked with the Reds [Communists] is a goddamn liar. Their platform stood for all the right things” (emphasis mine). In other words, progressives would hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil because of communism’s purportedly righteous aim.

‘Taking Action’ Isn’t Always Noble

This commitment to an idea’s intention explains why enthusiasm for communism persists in university classrooms today, where self-avowed Marxist professors outnumber self-avowed conservative ones. When academics pay no price for the consequences of their ideas, they can afford to spout theories that may sound kind and inflate their self-regard but in fact wreak havoc in the real world.

Furthermore, judging an idea by its motives is not unique to followers of communism, which is merely the most horrific example. Many well-intended ideas today hurt the lives of those they are meant to help, yet receive widespread approval from politicians and members of our intelligentsia who value words rather than deeds.

One example is the pervasive belief that government ought to “take action” to alleviate economic downturns, when in fact taking action has prolonged recessions and exacerbated their pain. During the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried “taking action” for nearly a decade through massive surges in government spending and federal programs, and yet unemployment never dipped below 14 percent (as shown in the chart).

After eight years of futility, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. finally admitted: “We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. … We have never made good on our promises. … I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started. … And an enormous debt to boot!”

Contrast FDR’s “take action” strategy during the Great Depression with the “hands off” strategy during the economic crash of 1920. Although the initial contractions were comparable in severity, federal spending was slashed aggressively in the early ’20s, from $6.3 to $3.2 billion, and tax rates were cut dramatically. Instead of a decade-long depression, the recession ended and the economy recovered in less than two years. But when words are more important than deeds, it is no wonder that “take action” has prevailed over “hands off.”

Taking Responsibility For Things They Didn’t Do

The same lesson applies to the so-called war on poverty. Politicians today repeatedly profess a need to transfer ever-larger amounts of money from one group of people to another to mitigate poverty. But while the appeal may be noble, the actual results have been otherwise.

From 1950 until 1965, before government declared its “war on poverty,” the poverty rate was virtually cut in half. Afterward, despite more than $22 trillion in anti-poverty transfers, the poverty rate flatlined.

Here again is a lesson in the folly of falling for lofty words instead of scrutinizing real-world consequences. The war on poverty has been a wonderful euphemism for self-aggrandizing politicians seeking votes, but the real war against poverty was being won before the federal government declared it, and only after spending tens of trillions of taxpayer dollars did progress slow to a halt.

These lessons ought to give us pause when assessing movements offering grandiose visions, including movements like “democratic socialism,” which, according to the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) website, promises to “radically transform” government and the economy in the name of social justice. Sweeping transformations, no matter how well-intended, have a long history of leaving victims in their wake. If we choose to continue to ignore that history, we do so at our own peril.

David formerly worked at a public policy institution and is currently a freelance writer. In his free time he enjoys working out, reading nerdy subjects, cheering on Roger Federer, and playing "would you rather." Email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @DWeinberger03.

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