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How Can You Laugh at a Time Like This?

Willy Chaplin - Bruce Madison

No. 46 - No. 167

The problem with principles.

June 1, 1998

In one of my early columns (Is libertarianism a faith?, June 5, 1995), I wrote about some of the contradictions between politics and religion. At that time, I was troubled by what I saw as the rabid true believer behavior of many self-styled libertarians, especially those in the Libertarian Party. The takeover of the party by the forces of Harry Browne (Capitalism as a pyramid racket...) went a long way toward moving the Libertarian away from religion and toward genuine politics.

Much of the trouble was caused by inadvisable use of the words "principle" and "principled" to describe libertarianism. To this day, however, the party insists on trumpeting what it calls its principles over the practical problem with dealing with the messy details of real-world politics. I believe this to be an arrogant, ill-thought-out and a downright stupid approach to politics.

The minute you bring up the notion of principles you leave most people behind. Those principles inscribed on the tablets for Moses by God Almighty were as close to hard doctrine as most people want to get (closer, actually, for although most would say they "believe" in the Ten Commandments, few know what they actually say and fewer still obey them). And rightly so, for the notion of principles; laws, dicta, universal truths, cannons, codes...whatever you call them...rightly belongs in the realm of faith and religion, not politics or even philosophy. These latter depend crucially on the Zeitgeist...the temper of the times...and upon technology, culture, economics...all the critical ingredients of that chaotic system called human society. To suggest otherwise tags one correctly as a dogmatist or religionist.

The problem with principles is that they are seen to be true without proof. That means, for example, that if you insist that it is a libertarian "principle" that all coercion is wrong...always...rather than simply that it is a good idea to minimize government coercion...then you are talking about a system of government which has NEVER, in the entire history of the world, existed! Furthermore, you leave yourself open to endlessly dealing with fringe issues...explaining, for example, why it IS OK to use coercion against terrorists and violent criminals...why putting sitting your child in the corner as punishment for a minor infraction is allowable...etc, etc.

Doesn't it make more sense to point to examples where government coercion appears to have failed or where its absence appears to have succeeded? Then at least, you are using concrete clues to a "better way" rather than a formula for utopia. I don't know about you, but I prefer persuasion to be firmly based in already existing reality rather than referring to pie-in-the-sky.

Using this as a guideline...indeed, transforming all of our so-called principles into guidelines...that is, pursuing ideas as algorithms or procedures that seem reasonable for now, but may have to be modified in the future...making this one simple change would go a long way in transforming libertarianism from a religious faith to a political movement. This is a hard idea to swallow for those among us who feel that it is essential to lay down hard and fast...universal...laws that will last forever. Many of those poor souls feel that it is the absence of such rules that is leading to all the problems of the modern world. As if! My advice to those types is to go and live in Afghanistan. Those guys know all about Universal Truth and God's Law!

Think for a moment what we libertarians are asking people to believe when we say that the War on Drugs should be abolished...immediately! "It's wrong, wrong, wrong!" we cry. "Besides, it's against our principles."

Rightly or wrongly, this conjures up images of dope-peddlers cruising the playgrounds of grade schools looking for little children...YOUR little children...to recruit to the ranks of the strung-out by sticking needles full of heroin in their arms. People already plagued by a surfeit of alcoholic bums lounging around on their sidewalks picture (but do not relish), dope fiends and crazed crack-addicts added to the mix. Your husband already sits around every Saturday watching the sports-du-jour and drinking beer. How much more intolerable he might become if he were smoking weed or dropping acid as well!

Nor is it enough to point out that there was a time, in the not too distant past, when all these substances were legal, and that society managed to deal with it then. In fact, many of these substances either didn't exist (like LSD) or knowledge of their properties wasn't widespread (like heroin or cocaine). No, today the genie is out of the bottle. Getting it back in is going to take a long time and a lot of hard work. Like you, I do not believe that government coercion is EVER going to work to do it. But, that means that you and I and a lot of other people are going to have to take some pretty scary steps...take a lot of communal risk...to inject some sanity back into society's relationship with mind altering substances. We owe it to ourselves and to others to come up with a workable plan for getting from here (prohibition) to there (freedom of choice). Meanwhile, we should stop prattling about principles.

Or take firearm ownership. Again, while you and I may feel that society would be a lot better off with a fully armed (and informed) citizenry, if for no other reason than protecting ourselves from present and future government craziness, that fact of the matter is that the U.S., where it is easier to obtain guns...any kind of guns...than anywhere else in the world, has far and away the most deaths by firearms in the industrialized world. Furthermore, it appears that countries...like England, say...have significantly reduced this problem by banning firearms in almost all forms. And, they appear to have done it without removing most freedoms from their populations. It is and will remain a difficult task to convince a majority of people that these two facts are unrelated. To state that it is a "matter of principle," begs the question for those who have experienced actual firearm death and injury among their family or personal circle of acquaintances. If nothing else, it is downright insulting!

Isn't it better to point to actually existing situations, such as Switzerland, where each and every household is required to stock firearms, as the counterexample you need to offset what appears to be true here? Isn't it better to try to figure out what makes the Swiss experience so different than ours?

Or take taxation...the subject that gets the blood of most libertarians boiling. I often read in libertarian publications that we would be ever so much better off if there were no taxes whatsoever. Let's see now. A hypothetical libertarian government is going to eliminate well over a TRILLION dollars (that's a MILLION MILLION) per year of spending over-night? In a year? In a decade? Get real! We would be exceedingly fortunate if we could cut this level in half in fifty years. I do not think, by pointing out the difficulties...the vested interests, the economic dislocations, the cultural disruptions...that I am being a Chicken-Little. If it were only the elite who were consuming all that governmental wealth, I suppose we could simply have a revolution, a la France in the late eighteenth century, line then up and chop off their heads. But, the truth is that millions of people...probably nearly everyone...benefits directly or indirectly from the fruits of taxation. To state that most of these benefits could be provided more cost-efficiently by private enterprise begs the question. Those who now take from the public till have every right to ask you to "Prove it!" before they remove their lips from the government teat.

And so it is with the principle of "he who governs best governs least." Since the U.S. is doing pretty well with the amount of personal freedom we already enjoy, it is reasonable to suppose that a little more freedom and a little less government wouldn't be a bad idea. Having achieved that, we can then move on to the next level. That is how politics has always worked and I suspect always will work. If libertarians, as a group, wish to help this process along, then we had better discard many of our core "beliefs" and begin to operate in the real world of intellectual competition, where "guidelines" rule.

So here we are. Back to persuasion and away from coercion. Just as you can not get rid of racism by being racist, you also can not rid society of coercion by being coercive. A good start would be to rid OURSELVES of our bullshit principles. Principles COMPEL. Guidelines GUIDE. A word to the wise...

Talk to you later...


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