Principles For Good Government

By Ronald L. Trowbridge

Ronald L. TrowbridgeAppointed by President Ronald Reagan, Ronald L. Trowbridge was director of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the United States Information Agency, directing the Fulbright Program. His position required U. S. Senate confirmation. Later he became chief of staff for U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, publishing a book on the Chief Justice. He holds a Ph. D. in English from the University of Michigan, where he taught for several years. He became a tenured full professor at Eastern Michigan University and later a Vice President and editor of Imprimis for 14 years at Hillsdale College. He was editor of the Michigan Academician, the journal of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters. He founded the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which among other pursuits focused on higher education. From 2006-12, he was an adjunct professor of English at Lone Star College. From May 2013 to December 2018, he served on the Board of Trustees at the Lone Star College System. He is presently Senior Research Scholar at the Nexus Research and Policy Center. He is a member of the Mont Pelerin Society. He has published in the past six years some 75 articles.

The essay that follows is a statement of principles for governments — principles that are universal, just as relevant in Italy as in the United States or any country, for that matter. Three of the authors quoted in my essay were British.

It is a cruel irony: people try to do good and do bad. Goodness turns to badness. It relates primarily to power. The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

I turn to the masters for insights. The famed poet T. S. Eliot (who moved from the United States to England) observed: “Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm — but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” Several people these days come to mind.

In a related vein, C. S. Lewis (British) saw the paradox of good becoming bad. His is a long quotation but worth every word:

“My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”

A popular paradox: throughout history many have protested that, if asked, they would not visit the President in the White House. Are these bad people? Lord Acton (British) gives us the answer; in a letter to a bishop, Acton wrote: “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power… Great men are almost always bad men [especially] when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

I can think of presidents whose offices I would not have visited, if asked. Because I seek to defend the office, I wouldn’t honor some holders.

The famous economist Milton Friedman made a similar observation about the badness of good people: “I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office.”

My greatest disillusionment in working at a high administrative level in the Reagan administration was the power too many of my colleagues sought.  I hired many individuals recommended by the White House only to find that with the exception of only two appointments, the rest wanted more funding, more staff, more power. When I pointed out their hypocrisy, their response was that “now that our side is in power, we need more money and staff to do it our way.” The irony is that they would widen the conduits for later political administrators.

A perceptive conservative once observed, “A lot of our folks go to Washington, D. C. thinking it a cesspool, but when they get there they find it a hot tub.”

Another goodness that is bad is the refrain these days for free college tuition. Jackson Toby, professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers University, argued, “Since marginal students know while they are still in high school that they will be admitted and get financial aid at some college, they lack incentive to try to learn as much as they could in high school.”  Free tuition would help create academic indolence.

When goodness is bad, all that glitters is not gold.

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