Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Guarding Against the Dangers of Good Intentions

When lacking wisdom oneself, its often helpful to steal from quote wiser people. In this case, Daniel Webster said a few things in 1837 that are remarkable on point in the current debate about health care, among other things:
I believe the power of the executive has increased, is increasing, and ought now to be brought back within its ancient constitutional limits. I have nothing to do with the motives which have led to those acts, which I believe to have transcended the boundaries of the Constitution. Good motives may always be assumed, as bad motives may always be imputed. Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of power; but they cannot justify it, even if we were sure that they existed.

It is hardly too strong to say, that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intention, real or pretended. When bad intentions are boldly avowed, the people will promptly take care of themselves. On the other hand, they will always be asked why they should resist or question that exercise of power which is so fair in its object, so plausible and patriotic in appearance, and which has the public good alone confessedly in view? Human beings, we may be assured, will generally exercise power when they can get it; and they will exercise it most undoubtedly, in popular governments, under pretences of public safety or high public interest. It may be very possible that good intentions do really sometimes exist when constitutional restraints are disregarded.

There are men, in all ages, who mean to exercise power usefully; but who mean to exercise it. They mean to govern well; but they mean to govern. They promise to be kind masters; but they mean to be masters. They think there need be but little restraint upon themselves. Their notion of the public interest is apt to be quite closely connected with their own exercise of authority. They may not, indeed, always understand their own motives. The love of power may sink too deep in their own hearts even for their own scrutiny, and may pass with themselves for mere patriotism and benevolence. (From a speech in New York, March 15, 1837) (paragraphed for readability)
Hat tip: David Rodeback (my brother)

I'm becoming quite fond of Google Books, copyright issues notwithstanding.

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