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Counter-Productive Compassion

By Chris Brady

According to Ronald Reagan, some of the most dangerous words were, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”  Reagan in that one little quip summed up what plagues much of the United State’s current condition.

Author W. Cleon Skousen coined the term “Counter-Productive Compassion” to describe what I see displayed across nearly the entire landscape of national candidates for President.

Somewhere, somehow, the American populace got it into their head that “the government” is responsible for solving the people’s problems.

Even most of those on the “conservative” side barely represent a conservative platform.  It seems as though the citizenry has realized that they can vote “benefit providers” into office to serve their individual needs.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that we shouldn’t care for the poor.  It’s not that we shouldn’t provide cushion to displaced workers caught in industry shifts.  It’s not that we shouldn’t get involved in addressing a whole host of human needs across our country.  Of course we should.

To do less would be cold, uncaring, and the farthest thing from compassionate.  What I am suggesting is that we merely consider who the “we” is in these sentences.  Exactly who should care for the poor?  Exactly who should help the displaced worker? Our compassion is correct, our implementation is flawed.


Because, as Reagan indicated, governments are notoriously bad at executing (unless we are speaking of despotic governments, of course, in which case executions are some of their most efficient work).  Have you ever had to work with or inside of a bureaucracy?

If you have (and who among you hasn’t invested hours inside a DMV or Secretary of State’s Office?), you know exactly what I’m talking about.  And the U.S. government, although founded upon some of the soundest political theory and documents the world has ever produced, is the world’s largest bureaucracy.

Worse, it has a nagging little tendency to continue to grow.  With each new “program,” no matter how well intentioned, the pig just gets fatter and bigger and slower and less effective.  What began in compassion ends in a pile of paperwork and waste, with very little, if any, of the intended benefit actually finding its way to the proper recipient.

If that benefit does reach the right place, often times the compassion then breeds entitlement instead of its original purpose.  This is because most government programs, being so bureaucratic, are cold and impersonal, and therefore are not very caring, specific, or good at holding people accountable.

Instead of a hand up, which is what most well-intentioned compassionate people hope to enable the government to provide, it turns into a hand-out.

Let’s look at the principles involved, which I borrow from Benjamin Franklin:

  1. Compassion which gives a drunk the means to increase his drunkenness is counter-productive.
  2. Compassion which breeds debilitating dependency and weakness is counter-productive.
  3. Compassion which blunts the desire or necessity to work for a living is counter-productive.
  4. Compassion which smothers the instinct to strive and excel is counter-productive.

So we see that compassion impropery applied leads to bad results.  And we further see that the government is especially gifted at “improperly applying” its compassionate funds.

So if compassion is a dangerous weapon that must be yielded properly so it doesn’t backfire, and if government has continually demonstrated its inability to properly implement compassion, how then should it be handled?

The founding fathers had an answer for this, and it comes from a principle called “fixed responsibility.”  The principle works much the same as the structure of government they instituted at the birth of the United States, in which local governemnts controlled everything except what belonged to the states and national government.

In turn the states handled everything the local governments could not, and finally, the federal government handled only what was beyond the local and state governments.  “Fixed Responsibility,” according to Skousen, works like this:

“The first and foremost level of responsibility is with the individual himself; the second level is the family; then the church; next the community; finally the country, and, in disaster or emergency, the state.  Under no circumstances is the federal government to become involved in public welfare.

The Founders felt it would corrupt the government and also the poor.  No Constitutional authority exists for the federal government to participate in charity or welfare.  By excluding the national government from intervening in the local affairs of the people, the Founders felt they were protecting the unalienable rights of the people from abuse by an over-aggressive government.”

In relation to this, where do you think we are today? And how did we get there? Was it because politicians learned that they could get elected by promising benefits to special interest supporters, thereby “selling votes?”   Or was it because the government must handle these things because individuals, families, churches, and communities will not?

Is our counter-productive governmental compassion a result of power hungry politicians (the kind that can’t really solve the problem they crusade for because then they would be without their base of power)?  Or is it due the selfishness and indifference of individuals, families, and churches in our society?

What do you think?

Which candidates align in what positions in relation to these questions?


Chris Brady co-authored the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Business Weekly, USA Today, and Money Magazine best-seller Launching a Leadership Revolution.

He is also in the World’s Top 30 Leadership Gurus and among the Top 100 Authors to Follow on Twitter. He has spoken to audiences of thousands around the world about leadership, freedom, and success.

Mr. Brady contributes regularly to Networking Times magazine, and has been featured in special publications of Success and Success at Home. He also blogs regularly at Chris Brady.

He is an avid motorized adventurer, pilot, world traveler, humorist, community builder, soccer fan, and dad.

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