“What Works” Versus “What Sounds Good”

     Thomas Sowell has many pithy sayings to his credit, but the one that resonates most powerfully with our current maladies is this one:

     The more I study the history of intellectuals, the more they seem like a wrecking crew, dismantling civilization bit by bit — replacing what works with what sounds good.

     Indeed. Worse yet, oftentimes “what sounds good” would sound just BLEEP!ing terrible if the facts were in evidence. The suppression of inconvenient facts is crucial to the promotion of naïve, ignorant, and often deliberately destructive courses of action.

     John Stossel presents a typical case:

     In this season of giving, I’ll donate to the Doe Fund, a charity that helps drug abusers and ex-cons find purpose in life through work.
     Doe’s approach doesn’t include many handouts. It’s mostly about encouraging people to work.
     It does.
     Most Doe Fund workers don’t go back to jail.
     I’ll also donate to Student Sponsor Partners, a nonprofit that gives scholarships to kids from low-income families so they can escape bad public schools. SSP sends them to Catholic schools.
     I’m not Catholic, but I donate because government-run schools are often so bad that Catholic schools do better at half the cost. Thanks to SSP, thousands of kids escape poverty.
     Yet some on the left say giving time and money to charity is a mistake. Their trust in government leads them to think that government programs are much better at lifting people out of poverty.
     “Charity can distract from permanent solutions,” claims an article in the Harvard Political Review. “Time, effort and funding that are funneled into charitable acts could be redirected to actual solutions spearheaded by the government, which has the resources to implement concrete change.”

     Please read it all. Stossel is most circumstantial in his refutation of the Harvard canard. But note: Harvard’s “government…has the resources to implement concrete change” certainly sounds good, and in several ways at that:

  1. “Concrete change” is used to imply improvement.
  2. “Resources” invite the reader to infer that government has more wherewithal than private charity, and is therefore more likely to be effective.
  3. And of course, if private persons and organizations would simply stop soliciting us for funds and let government handle America’s “social needs,” we could all kick back. No more sense of responsibility!

     Hard data has established incontrovertibly that not only doesn’t government charity “implement concrete change” of a constructive kind, but that it creates an entitlement culture: one, moreover, that persists through several generations. That’s the effect of handing out checks without continuing supervision of the condition and behavior of the recipients, which is what a government charity bureaucracy does.

     Also, government’s “resources” consist of tax revenues: monies collected from private citizens and institutions under the threat of punishment. Because a government charity bureaucracy spends others’ money to provide benefits to others, it has no natural incentive to be either efficient or effective. The incentives just aren’t there…but the incentive to grow the bureaucracy is in place and functioning. Any intelligent reader can see where that will lead — and has led.

     Finally, that diminution of private responsibility is a very bad thing, far worse than any words of mine could possibly make it. Hearken to Albert Jay Nock:

     Heretofore in this country sudden crises of misfortune have been met by a mobilization of social power. In fact — except for certain institutional enterprises like the home for the aged, the lunatic asylum, city hospital, and county poorhouse — destitution, unemployment, “depression,” and similar ills, have been no concern of the State, but have been relieved by the application of social power. Under Mr. Roosevelt, however, the State assumed this function, publicly announcing the doctrine, brand new in our history, that the State owes its citizens a living.

     Students of politics, of course, saw in this merely an astute proposal for a prodigious enhancement of State power; merely what, as long ago as 1794, James Madison called “the old trick of turning every contingency into a resource for accumulating force in the government”; and the passage of time has proved that they were right. The effect of this upon the balance between State power and social power is clear, and also its effect of a general indoctrination with the idea that an exercise of social power upon such matters is no longer called for.

     It is largely in this way that the progressive conversion of social power into State power becomes acceptable and gets itself accepted. When the Johnstown flood occurred, social power was immediately mobilized and applied with intelligence and vigor. Its abundance, measured by money alone, was so great that when everything was finally put in order, something like a million dollars remained.

     If such a catastrophe happened now, not only is social power perhaps too depleted for the like exercise, but the general instinct would be to let the State see to it. Not only has social power atrophied to that extent, but the disposition to exercise it in that particular direction has atrophied with it. If the State has made such matters its business, and has confiscated the social power necessary to deal with them, why, let it deal with them.

     We can get some kind of rough measure of this general atrophy by our own disposition when approached by a beggar. Two years ago we might have been moved to give him something; today we are moved to refer him to the State’s relief agency. The State has said to society, “You are either not exercising enough power to meet the emergency, or are exercising it in what I think is an incompetent way, so I shall confiscate your power, and exercise it to suit myself.” Hence when a beggar asks us for a quarter, our instinct is to say that the State has already confiscated our quarter for his benefit, and he should go to the State about it.

     Shout it from the rooftops: We need no longer look after one another. The State will do it for us. What follows the inculcation of that attitude?

  • Social atomization;
  • Antagonism between districts;
  • Antagonism between generations;
  • Antagonism between economic strata;
  • Massive increases in government size, power, and forcible exactions.

     And, of course, the metastatic expansion of a parasite class: welfare bureaucrats, those who sell goods and services to them, and the beneficiaries to whom they cater. That parasite class will naturally prefer its own interests to those of “outsiders:” i.e., private, self-supporting citizens. (Cf. Robert Michels’ “Iron Law of Oligarchy.”) History records no exceptions.

     But it certainly sounded good, didn’t it?


     One final observation before I turn to other responsibilities: The Harvard Political Review is associated with Harvard’s “John F. Kennedy School of Government,” which has trained aspirants to positions within government since 1936. If it is not yet clear that such an institution will favor the expansion of government power, involvements, and revenues over time, I can’t imagine how to make it clearer. For the Kennedy School is one more in yet another category of parasites: a one-step-removed ally to those who wish to have the State supreme over all things. It will always argue for the primacy of the State, the expansion of its role, and an excess of “tolerance” for the negative consequences thereof.

     But it has a lovely façade of “intellectualism” about it, doesn’t it? And with that we return to the Thomas Sowell quote at the beginning of this tirade.


  1. How might we train the general public to develop the necessary insights and not become too cynical?

    When reading such as today’s screed, it is helpful to keep in mind that nearly every item advanced by the Prog Movement has been accompanied by deleterious aspects from what the naïve expected from the label. Kind of like a genie who always granted wishes that would be followed by very bitter aftermaths. The “hero” of the story would try to word his wishes anticipating such an outcome, but he’d always lose.

    For instance, the promise of concrete change:

    [a nasty] one, moreover, that persists through several generations.

    Lasting several generations seems a pretty much concrete change, does it not?

    I simply wished to emphasize the necessity of keeping this single aspect — their doublethink — in mind as we continue our defense against the Progs’ war on all whom they deem worth less than dirt.

    • Brian_E on December 30, 2023 at 11:50 AM

      “Charity can distract from permanent solutions,” claims an article in the Harvard Political Review. “Time, effort and funding that are funneled into charitable acts could be redirected to actual solutions spearheaded by the government, which has the resources to implement concrete change.”

    In the above quote snippet – the use of the word ‘Charity’ implies that non-governmental assistance consists of only hand-outs, not a hand to help someone up.  Contrariwise, the ‘actual solutions’ provided by government rarely implement the promised ‘concrete change’ – as that would obviate the further need of the program providing the ‘assistance’! (we can’t have that now, can we???).   …and don’t get me started on the implicit assumption that ‘government’ has the (apparently nearly unlimited) resources to implement these changes.  Such assumptions are based on ignoring just where those funds originate – the taxpayer!

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