Esse Quam Videri. To be rather than to seem. That’s North Carolina’s state motto, and it’s a good one.

peer review protestIt means we prize being genuine, not fake; doing the job, not just acting the part; striving for the truth, not being satisfied with the pretense of knowing.

I have long argued that we apply that motto to statecraft, too. I think it’s especially important — given what’s at stake — to apply it to government policies that are intended to help the poor.

Here are four general principles for helping the poor with — and without — public policy:

1. Policies put forth to help the poor should actually work to help the poor.

It doesn’t matter whether helping the poor was the original intent or that failing to help or making things materially worse on net is a negative unintended consequence.

2. If those policies fail, they should be repealed.

Being vs. seeming even applies to intentions. Truly good intentions would not be satisfied with a one-time demonstration of their existence and show no interest beyond that. The results would ultimately matter most.

3. Practices and systems that help the poor should be encouraged.

Policy is a small part of the overall social equation. Private acts and social systems can be beneficial to the poor and mitigate harms. It doesn’t matter whether helping the poor is a deliberate intent or a positive unintended consequence.

The root of the study of economics is how people looking after their own interests somehow wind up serving other people’s interests, too — coordinating goods and services among themselves so that society grows and flourishes. The mystery of free enterprise is, it invariably happens in ways unachievable by central planners even with the greatest and purest of intentions.

4. Practices and systems that help the poor must certainly not be thwarted or discouraged.

Especially not by government policies trying to do at a public cost what people are effectively providing all on their own, or by purists who object to beneficial results happening despite a lack of identifiable good intentions.