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Friday, April 10, 2015

#52-Progressives Have Good Intentions, So What Else is Required?

The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) has been proud to partner with Young America’s Foundation (YAF) to produce “Clichés of Progressivism,” a series of insightful commentaries covering topics of free enterprise, income inequality, and limited government. This is the final installment in the series.

The table of contents with links to all previous chapters appears here. Watch for the announcement later this spring of the hard copy edition, to be distributed at schools and campuses across the country and abroad.

A new Friday series, “Real Heroes,” begins on later this month.

By Lawrence W. Reed

Is it too much to ask of government that it do a small job right before it takes on a much bigger one?

If you’re wearing the sight-proof blindfolds that most progressives wear, the answer is probably “YES.”

Progressives advocate for a welfare state and sell it not so much on its track record (that would be embarrassing) but more for its good intentions. “We want to help people!” they exclaim. Definitions of the welfare state abound, and often depend on one’s perspective. Here’s my own brutally candid assessment:

Since people are not decent and compassionate enough to assist their deserving fellows in distress, we must expect them to somehow elect politicians who are more decent and compassionate than they are. Those politicians will then take money from them under threat of imprisonment, launder it through an expensive bureaucracy, and spend what’s left not to actually solve the problem but to manage it into perpetuity for endless dependency, demagoguery and political gain. And then the advocates of the welfare state will pat themselves on the back and salve their guilty consciences. They will compliment themselves for possessing a monopoly on compassion and ignore the destructive results of their handiwork, except to condemn as “heartless” those with the audacity to point them out.

Take the federal Department of Veterans Affairs (please!). Its website says its primary job is to provide “patient care and federal benefits to veterans and their dependents.” It manages more than a thousand hospitals, nursing facilities and health clinics. Horror stories emanating from this socialized medicine sampler are numerous and legendary. They include long waiting lists, staff shortages, death rates that would be unacceptable anywhere else in the country and care so shoddy that many veterans prefer to pay for private alternatives. But that doesn’t stop progressives from plowing full steam ahead for even more government in health care.

Writing in the February 25, 2014 Washington Examiner, Mark Flatten provided the latest shocking revelation: To cover up its massive backlog of orders for medical services, the VA simply cancelled tens of thousands of scheduled exams and appointments. Voila! Get rid of the patients and you get rid of the embarrassing backlogs. Imagine the huge outcry if a private provider behaved this way. Would anyone in his right mind say, “Give that outfit some more patients and money!”?

But don’t expect any scandal coming out of the VA to give pause to the progressive apologists for ever more government in health care. Being a progressive means never having to say you’re sorry. Good intentions trump everything else. Apparently, the one thing progressives share with almost everyone else is a very high level of expectations for the private sector and a very low one for the public sector.

This raises a much more fundamental question about the progressive, big government folks: what’s up with their thought process? It’s so riddled with inconsistencies, non-sequiturs and dubious notions that the rest of us are often left scratching our heads in disbelief. Faulty, illogical or contradictory premises just might be the reason they often come to the wrong conclusions.

Over the years, I’ve observed quite a few attributes of the progressive thought process that are, to be polite, rather questionable. Here’s a short list:

       1.  They spend more time promoting dependency than they do encouraging self-reliance.

       2.  Deceptions (for example, Barack Obama’s “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan”) don’t rankle most of them because they believe their ends justify almost any means.

       3.  They think intentions matter far more than actual results.

       4.  They lump people into groups and assign them fictitious rights.

       5.  They learn little or nothing from history or economics.

       6.  They think emotions, slogans and bumper-stickers trump reason and logic.

       7.  Compassion is their favorite word even as they put a gun to your head.

       8.  They respect property if it’s theirs, but not if it’s yours.

       9.  They’d rather shut you up than engage you in serious debate.

     10.  Individuals are never among the minorities they say they support.

     11.  When the first conservative or libertarian faculty member is hired at their university, they think it’s a hostile takeover.

     12.  They think a welfare check is an entitlement, but a paycheck isn’t.

     13.  When their policies flop, they assume no responsibility and demand more of the same.

     14.  They’re always busy reforming you even if their own lives are dysfunctional.

     15.  They claim to know the future (e.g., which industry to subsidize) while showing no evidence they even understand the past.

     16.  They dislike business less because they have sound arguments against it and more because they have no idea how to start or run one themselves.

     17.  They criticize people and companies for not paying more in taxes than they are legally required to, yet never make any “donations” to government themselves beyond their own legal tax liability.

     18.  They are angry most of the time, have no sense of humor, find victims under every bed, and can’t even tell a joke that’s reasonably funny.

     19.  They’ve perfected the fine art of the double-standard, exempting their own from the very actions they criticize in others.

     20.  They appeal to the worst in us by emphasizing racial divisions, pitting class against class, and buying votes with other people’s money.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu advised, “Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.” Perhaps so, but it sure seems that the more you know about government-worshiping progressives, the harder it is to actually figure them out.

When it comes to the good intentions that progressives insist they possess, I’m willing to grant that most of them do indeed possess them. But it’s preposterous to assume that those who oppose their proposals do not have good intentions. Moreover, it’s wise to remember, as the old saying admonishes, that “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

Good intentions are not enough. Nowhere near enough, in fact. Other things matter too, such as reason, logic, moral principles, evidence, outcomes, history and experience, reality and facts.

(Editor’s Note: A shorter version of this essay was first published under a different title at


         One thing progressives share with almost everyone else is a very high level of expectations for the private sector and a very low one for the public sector

         Good intentions are, by themselves, nowhere near enough

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  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is