When a politician offers you something at other people’s expense, remember these words of the poet John Dryden: “Better to shun the bait than struggle in the snare.”

Dryden’s admonition would have saved us a lot of trouble if we had applied its insight consistently to our economic and political thinking. The failure to do so has produced one disaster after another.

When Lyndon Johnson inaugurated “Great Society” entitlement programs in the 1960s, wiser men and women warned that such programs would empower bureaucracies, waste vast sums of money, create generations of dependency and bankrupt the Treasury. Unfortunately, the country took the bait and now struggles in the snare.

When the Mackinac Center opposed the creation of the Michigan Economic Growth Authority in 1995, many politicians and business leaders looked down their noses and declared us dead wrong. State government needed to pick winners and losers, they said, so that the state’s economy would be competitive. Sixteen years of discriminatory favors, waste and scandal later, Gov. Snyder wisely tossed MEGA into the dumpster.

All this is proof of the value of core principles that are rooted in what’s right, not necessarily what’s popular at the moment. If you don’t have core principles, or if you chuck them because you can’t take the heat, you may pay an awful price down the road. Do the right thing now or you will inevitably regret your failure later. How many times does this have to be stated before its wisdom sinks in, especially in the minds of public figures we temporarily trust with the taxpayers’ purse?

Economist Thomas Sowell illustrated just how current this issue still is when he noted thusly:  “A recent poll showed that nearly half the American public believes that the government should redistribute wealth. That so many people are so willing to blithely put such an enormous, dangerous and arbitrary power in the hands of politicians—risking their own freedom, in hopes of getting what someone else has—is a painful sign of how far many citizens and voters fall short of what is needed to preserve a democratic republic.”

Knowing what the right thing is and possessing the mettle to do it are two distinct traits. They aren’t always present within the same person. It’s character that makes all the difference. If you don’t know what the right thing is, you lack knowledge that a book or a lecture may provide. If you know what the right thing is but can’t bring yourself to do it, then you’ve got a character problem that only a personal change of heart can fix.

In the end, Dryden’s advice is a call to character, don’t you think?

(Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education — www.fee.org — and president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.)