• “To be rather than to seem” is a great guiding principle for effective public policy
  • Many policies started with good intentions don’t bring about the desired outcomes
  • Policymakers guided by being vs. seeming will want right outcomes and not be satisfied with failing policies that seemed compassionate when they were instituted

I’ve always been a fan of North Carolina’s state motto, Esse Quam Videri, which means To Be Rather Than to Seem. It’s a motto that favors the real, the true, the genuine over fakery, falsity, and phoniness. It’s a grounded, honest motto. Straight up, no nonsense.

The phrase originated from Roman lawyer and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero’s essay “De Amicitia” [“On Friendship”]. The North Carolina History Project explains the context. Cicero wrote, “Virtute enim ipsa non tam multi praediti esse quam videri volunt.” What that means is this:

Not nearly so many people want actually to be possessed of virtue as want to appear to be possessed of it.

Its history aside, North Carolina’s state motto provides a guiding principle for making effective policy. Imagine if our policymakers applied the principle of being rather than seeming to their policies.

George Leef called it a “crucial distinction” — distinguishing “between actually helping the poor and what politicians usually do, which is spending money or enacting laws that are supposed to make it look as if they’re helping the poor” (emphasis added). As he wrote:

Politicians have long known that it is appearances that matter in winning elections, so they often back laws and policies that look kindly and compassionate to superficial observers, even though they will be prove to be detrimental in the long run.

“Appearances” and “look kindly and compassionate” are what seem. Chasing those things instead of the right outcomes yields the “to be” in Leef’s quote: “they will prove to be detrimental.”

After all, laws can suffer unintended negative consequences, create perverse incentives, turn out to be based on faulty assumptions, or become obsolete. Policymakers who are only interested in appearances won’t notice those problems, or else they’ll think such regrettable outcomes offer another chance to appear caring.

Federal and state statutes are full of laws passed with good intentions that nonetheless fail to achieve their noble aims. If that’s not bad enough, they tend to make the problems worse, not better.

Henry Hazlitt’s one lesson of economics counsels leaders to consider a policy’s short- and long-term effects and their consequences not only on the intended beneficiaries but on everyone. Policymakers geared for being over seeming would ditch those failures and try something else — and often, the “something else” would be to let creative minds and enterprisers in the private sector find solutions that wouldn’t occur to people in government focused on things government could attempt.

Policymakers taking the easy way out of seeming, however, tend to dig in on the failed policies. Depending on the policy, they might make it more extensive, allocate more money for it, even outlaw private-sector attempts to address the problem the government plan was supposed to fix. They could point to the intent of the policy as proof of fixing the problem (to seem).

But unless the problem (a) actually shows improvement (b) as a result of the policy, their intentions to do good won’t matter.

Cicero reminds us that “not nearly so many people want actually to be possessed of virtue as want to appear to be possessed of it.” That’s an unfortunate tendency in the very immediate arena of politics. Michael Knox Beran’s review of William Voegeli’s The Pity Party highlighted this aspect:

A “defining characteristic” of this politics, Voegeli writes, “is a strong preference for political stances that demonstrate one’s heart is in the right place, combined with a relative indifference to whether the policies based on those stances, as actually implemented, do or even can achieve their intended results.”

In other words, the politics of kindness is another pretty flower in the modern epicure’s garden of earthly delights. Such a politics is agreeable to behold; its aroma is pleasant.

That it is also, in certain cases, toxic to those whom it is intended to help is beside the point, for its purpose is not to lift up the struggling poor man, but to soothe the conscience of the anxious rich man. It is the hypocritical engine of the higher narcissism.

The “War on Poverty” offers perhaps the starkest example of policy outcomes far removed from stated intents. In the nearly 60 years since Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson declared “War on Poverty” and his “Great Society” policies to wage it, the federal government has spent about $25 trillion (adjusted for inflation). What did all that spending produce? Not only did it not “substantially accelerate the poverty rate’s reduction,” as economist Vance Ginn explained, but worse, “the rate of decline slowed before essentially stalling. Why? Because these efforts failed to address the real drivers of poverty—in many instances, they became drivers of poverty themselves.”

Consider how many policies seem to help but don’t. Here are a few:

No doubt most policy interventions are made to better society, but starting with the best of intents cannot be enough. Policymakers need to watch where they’re going. There’s a reason it’s said that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Sometimes the first step on the public policy road to hell is getting government involved in the first place. The private sector, full of creative problem-solvers with dispersed knowledge and greater agility to test and either abandon, tweak, or enhance possible solutions, is already at work. Getting in their way with government policy takeovers, such as with the War on Poverty, can get society off the private sector’s winding road to success — and waste unfathomable amounts of money that could have been used to solve other problems, too.