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Good Intentions are Not Enough


In his new book The Choice , Bob Woodward reports on a meeting among President Clinton, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and several self-help gurus. During the meeting, Clinton was asked to list his best qualities. “I have a good heart,” replied the president. “I really do.” We don’t know whether Hillary Rodham Clinton was asked to describe her virtues, but she was apparently comforted by the gurus in her belief that her setbacks are purely the result of her being an assertive woman.

The President and the First Lady are illustrative cases of a Washington failing: the inability to distinguish thinking from wishful thinking.

Let’s start with Mr. Clinton. To paraphrase the Tina Turner hit of a few years ago, what’s heart got to do with it? It is nice to have good intentions. But are they a substitute for wisdom and intelligence? Can they take the place of an understanding of the logic of economic and social processes? Those processes will mock blind good intentions every time. Why? Because facts are facts; they can’t be wished away whenever they are inconvenient.

Despite the best of intentions, the minimum-wage law won’t lift the incomes of low-skilled workers. It will put them out of work. The best intentions won’t fix a welfare system rotted at its core. Nor will they make censorship of free speech on the Internet anything but censorship.

One is naturally suspicious of someone who waves aside objections to his proposals by saying, “I mean well.” It is well known where the road paved with good intentions leads.

We have no reason to doubt Mr. Clinton’s professions of good faith. But we might hope that someone so concerned with his intentions would apply reason and logic with a bit more rigor to determine whether his intentions will actually be transformed into reality. It’s a mark of maturity to be able to look beyond one’s own intentions. Mr. Clinton seems somewhat underdeveloped in that area of life.

As to Mrs. Clinton’s sense that only male chauvinism can account for her troubles, let’s get real. Does she seriously think that her mad plan to nationalize medical care would not have met the same fate had she stayed in the background and let her husband and Ira Magaziner carry the ball? Please, Mrs. Clinton. The good sense of the American people was offended by your plan to turn the medical industry into the post office. It had nothing to do with your sex. Your gurus may tell you that you are bearing the burden of 5,000 years of female oppression and that you are a victim of crucifixion. But if you believe that, you are fleeing reality and exceeding the speed limit to boot. This was not gender politics. It was bad politics. And bad economics. And bad everything else.

Mrs. Clinton has missed the whole point of the late 20th century. She is oblivious of the widespread and rational disillusionment with politics. The 20th century has been, till now, the century of government. It has been a crashing failure, not to mention the hundreds of millions killed for their own good. Nearly everywhere people are less eager to look to the state for salvation. When she proposed what can only be called the sovietization of medical care, most people’s response was, “Been there, done that.” Leave aside the arrogance of closed meetings and the patronizing attitude toward the benighted masses. What the American people were objecting to was her bid to have the state seize control of 14 percent of the American economy, which really means, of their lives.

It would be a tragedy for her to have gone through all that and to have learned nothing. Let her talk to Eleanor Roosevelt if she wishes, but she should stop looking for scapegoats for her failures. And she should stop the condescension. In Woodward’s book she is reported to have said, “You know, it’s amazing to me that people actually stop at stop signs, that they do feed their children.” She also likes to say, “There’s no such thing as other people’s children.” That’s chilling thought.

The century of government and politics is indeed coming to a close. Mr. and Mrs. Clinton are anachronisms. They plead that they are not understood. The truth, however, is that they are understood too well.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.