Posts Tagged ‘First Principles’


First Principles – The Road Ahead

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

Over in the comments section discussing the First Principle of limited charity, Patrick offers an observation which is entirely relevant and insightful.  What Patrick points out is that I “seem to be relying on your ideal government governing an ideal people.”  The easy answer to this charge is that it is certainly true; I have spent this series discussing the principles which I feel belong at the foundation of post-Bush conservatism, which necessarily requires me to expound a world which does not currently exist.  Each of the First Principles, however, draw strength from the practicality of the system they would produce and the liberty that would be secured.

The challenge for conservatives in bringing about any of the principles I have elaborated is the need to change the incentive system which has developed in the realm of politics.  It is a well known axiom that people will do what they are rewarded for doing; a fact which has been verified by years of study and experience in the realms of psychology, economics, business, politics, and elsewhere.  Conservatives have allowed themselves to fall into the trap of using an incentive system which is fundamentally misaligned with nearly every foundation of conservatism.  Small government, personal responsibility, charitable acts, fiscal responsibility, and freedom in general have all suffered.

Perhaps nowhere is the incentive system more fundamentally misaligned than with respect to small government.  Americans of nearly any political stripe evaluate political leaders on the basis of which laws their politicians work to pass.  To phrase that differently, Americans, including most conservatives, reward politicians for passing laws.  If ever there was a greater impediment to small government, it is hard to imagine.  Every new law which does not repeal an old law is an expansion of government.  Even laws which at first appear to restrict (rather than remove) previous laws are really expansionary in nature as the addition of restrictions implies adding government authority to evaluate and enforce those restrictions.  As a coercive force, every new law, every expansion of government, eliminates choices and restricts liberty.  Yet, we as a society cheer for our politicians when they enact some new law in order to make us “more” free.

What conservatives have forgotten, and liberals have never understood, is that most bad ideas do not need to be prohibited by law.  They are, after all, bad ideas.  Assuming that people are held personally responsible for their actions, very few bad decisions will ultimately pay off, and people will generally learn to avoid making them in the future.  The zealous enforcement of property rights will generally act to deter externalities by transferring much of the social cost of bad decisions directly back onto the decision maker.  Further, because the socialized cost of a bad decision can often be extensive, individuals affected have an incentive in the form of a first-mover advantage to enforce their rights quickly, before others who are harmed drain the decision maker’s bank account and leave late comers with nothing.  Because the effects of bad decisions compound with time, an incentive to catch problems sooner will reduce the ultimate costs.

While strong property rights would reduce or eliminate the supposed need for the regulatory state, not all bad ideas have a strong connection to economics.  Social issues, in particular, tend to resist being converted into a matter of dollars and cents.  Even liberals claim to agree that the government has no right to legislate a moral agenda, which immediately puts nearly every social issue beyond the authority of law.  Filling the gap are social organizations (churches, youth groups, athletic clubs, etc.) which are perfectly capable of promoting an agenda and winning or losing converts in the marketplace of ideas.  If laws were truly capable of changing people’s opinions, prohibition would never have happened after the enactment of the 18th Amendment and America’s prisons would not be filled with people arrested for drug crimes.  However, as nearly every minority group can attest, there is a significant social cost associated with being outside the mainstream; but as civil rights activists know, the definition of mainstream can change with a sufficiently good argument made consistently over time.

Social organizations also have other roles beyond promoting their social ideas to society.  They are also centers of charity.  Social organizations can only exist when members have built up a certain level of interdependence.  Once entangled, people have a natural tendency to help their friends.  The organizations themselves have a further incentive to help their members because people who are having trouble with life have a tendency to withdraw from non-essential activities, citing a lack of time, resources, or both.  An organization which helps its members is more likely to keep its members.  At the same time, very few groups are willing to prop up a defective member forever.

I once debated with a friend of mine about the propriety of the assumption in economics that capitalist greed can be leveraged as a force for good.  My answer at the time was weaker than it should have been, and we quickly moved on to discussing the difficulty economics has at addressing non-economic values like the good feeling that comes from helping a fellow man.  The real answer to his charge is that law is no different; it merely adds extreme artificial costs to any decision disfavored by the government and assumes that most people will follow along.  There is nothing magical about the First Principles, save for the recognition that people can take care of their own, and that force can never be freedom.



First Principles – Limited Charity

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

It is hard to imagine any difference more pervasive between conservatives and liberals than each group’s view of charity in America.  Despite the often useless commentary, it is apparent to anyone willing to see the viewpoint of the other side that both groups believe strongly in helping the less fortunate.  For too many years, however, the conservative view of charity has been maligned in politics to the point where it would be easy for the unobservant to question whether conservatives are charitable at all.  While the answer is obvious — we are — conservative charity is nuanced and easy to misunderstand.  A vocal commitment to limited charity, however, is essential to the progress of the conservative movement.

The easiest way to describe limited charity is to begin with the saying about the man and the fish.  As the saying goes, “If you give a man a fish he will eat for a day, if you teach a man to fish he can eat for a lifetime.”  As a matter of principle, liberals and conservatives can readily agree that teaching is the better option for improving the starving man’s life.  Teaching, however, has implications which are not immediately obvious from the saying alone.  Limited charity distinguishes itself by the way in which it deals with those implications.

The thing to realize is that teaching a man to fish is a much harder job than simply giving him something to eat.  The charitable giver, a capable fisherman, has likely spent years practicing his skill and learning the tricks needed to catch whatever food he needs, probably with some surplus left over.  Teaching a man to fish is certainly not a one day project.  The man, however, is starving.  The fisherman will need to give the man a fish so that he doesn’t starve before learning how to catch his own.

To the uneducated man, this is now an incredible deal.  He is now learning how to fish and being fed by the generous fisherman.  To give the story its final twist; the first lesson the uneducated man is likely to learn is that it is far easier to eat the fish being given to him than it is to catch his own.  Thus, the uneducated man has a selfish incentive to avoid learning how to fish for as long as the fisherman sticks around.  It is in resolving this dilemma that the principle of limited charity distinguishes itself.

To proponents of limited charity, the resolution to the uneducated man’s free-riding is to remove his incentive to avoid learning.  More concretely, the fisherman must eventually walk away, even if it means that the uneducated man will die.  The fisherman, however, in taking on the act of charity, has also taken on certain responsibilities that conservatives today must recognize and live by as well.  The most important of these is the responsibility to tell the uneducated man exactly when his instruction will end.  The fisherman may choose to extend the end date if the uneducated man is genuinely trying to learn, but in no case should even the most genuine of effort be rewarded indefinitely.

Free-riders are ultimately dependents which bind the fisherman and themselves until neither is actually free.

For conservatives, the choices which must be made are strikingly straightforward.  A man who can fish is almost always more useful than a man who is dead.  Conservatives should never for an instant be content with allowing a man to die without ever having been given a chance.  However, leaving a man for dead is better than tying two men down and forever restricting the useful output of one to offset the uselessness of the other.  As a matter of mathematics, 2 > 1 > 0.5.  As a matter of principle, “Live free or die.”



First Principles – Personal Responsibility

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

Personal responsibility is one of the most fundamental principles of representative democracy.  It is characterized by the general belief that in the vast majority of situations, a person is responsible for their own decisions and, as such, must reap their own rewards and consequences.  Personal responsibility is the foundation of accountability and justice.

In modern America, accepting the blame when something goes wrong has become a strikingly costly proposition.  In business, situations which once might have been resolved with an apology and reparation are now routinely brought to the government for administrative or legal processing.  In the product liability context, almost any defect with a product — including defective users — can be cause for a class action lawsuit.  Companies which once used discriminatory employment practices continue to face the threat of lawsuits if any of their employees end up discovering that discrimination had once taken place.  Given that most companies are not in the business of creating dangerous products or intentionally discriminating against employees, most of these lawsuits are the result of accidents, oversights, or individuals acting against the company’s best interests.

The result for business is a perverse incentive to bury or disguise known faults in the hope that nobody will discover the problems beneath the surface.  The logic even for companies that get caught is disturbingly simple: Admit guilt now and be sued right away or deny guilt now and be sued later.  In the meantime, people get hurt and all of society pays the price.  Whistleblower laws, which seek to make it harder to shirk responsibility, do little to fix the broken incentive system because they are all stick with no carrot.  Worse still for believers in small government, whistleblower laws are a big government correction (more law) to a big government problem (lawsuits).

On the other side of the coin, individuals are just as eager to pass off responsibility as companies are to shirk it.  Nowhere is this better seen than in the criminal context where rapists and murderers try to pass off their crimes as the long term consequences of childhood abuse or other unfortunate things from their past.  Then there are the people suing the tobacco industry over their marketing of “Light” cigarettes because such cigarettes were not as healthy as they thought they were, apparently missing the fact that any health issues were entirely their own fault for smoking in the first place.  Presenting people who have made harmful decisions as victims does little except detract from justice and breed contempt from people who go through life without any reward for their attempt to live an upstanding life.

For conservatives, the road to promoting personal responsibility is bound to be long and hard.  Despite the cost, conservatives must stand up and practice what we preach.  We must be more upstanding, more forthright, and more honest than those who go through life shirking or shifting responsibility.  We must hold our own feet to the fire.  But at the same time, we must avoid the trap of acting as though we are better than those who do not hold our values.  It is our own fault if we act like jerks.

A nation where people admit their mistakes is a nation where reconciliation is possible.  Nobody comes out of court happy with the opposing party, while apologies can often be the first step on the road toward friendship and trust.  Companionship, not hostility, is the fabric from which a free and peaceful society is woven.



First Principles – Small Government

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

For as long as I can remember, Republicans have been hailed as the party of small government.  When voting Republican, it has been generally safe to assume that the vote will go to somebody who wants to cut taxes, educe government spending, and ease the burdens of regulation.  In recent years, Democrats have made the argument — successfully, for it is true — that Republicans are not nearly so good at reducing the size of government as they claim to be.  The time has long past come for Republicans to return to this most central of pillars for all of modern conservatism.

The principles of small government are deeply rooted in the American tradition.  Back in the 1700s, America’s founders fought a war against the tyranny and oppression of a powerful yet distant monarch who exerted his influence needlessly and harmfully against the colonies.  In winning that war, the founders secured for themselves and their posterity a network of states under a strong but limited national government.  They recognized that distant leaders were somewhat immunized from the needs of the people and determined to not allow their nation to fall under the rule of yet another distant sovereign.

Today, the very liberties secured by the founders and reserved by them to the states and the people are used as tools for expanding the power of the national government.  The list of national powers, though still few and defined, has been read so expansively as to have become effectively unlimited.  To make matters worse, the people have been largely complacent in the national government’s radical expansion.  Debates over national policy are frequently made over whether or not the policy is good, with very few people bothering to inquire as to whether the national government even has the authority to implement the solutions they seek.  To make matters worse, when politicians do call some policy unconstitutional, it tends to be because they disagree with the policy as a policy matter with very little real concern for what the Constitution actually permits or requires.

America’s modern small government advocates remain in a state of disarray.  The most organized small government group are the Libertarians; a fact which is rather unfortunate for small government conservatives in general.  The trouble with Libertarians is that they undervalue the necessity of government to nearly the same degree as Democrats overvalue the virtue of government authority.  As a single cause movement, Libertarians are ill-prepared to deal with the fundamental issues which give rise to the need for government power in the first place.  Put briefly, Libertarians offer nothing to promote the order and security of American society other than the generalized assertion that the people themselves will figure out some non-governmental way.  Libertarians also fail to meaningfully distinguish between local and national governments.  The result is a group that looks mostly anarchist and not worth serious attention.

While Libertarians may be fairly accused of going too far, their guiding philosophy has all of the rigor and consistency which conservatives would be wise to adopt.  Conservatism as a whole is fully capable of filling the massive void left by the Libertarians in terms of how to go about organizing a society in the relative absence of government.  The remaining First Principles, personal responsibility and limited charity, provide the grounding for a complete picture of society which libertarianism alone lacks.  Conservatives are able to recognize that the local governments, which are most responsive to the people, are able to be entrusted with greater power than the distant and generally isolated national government.  Conservatives can also build the non-governmental organizations necessary to perform those tasks which are necessary for society but not right for government intervention on any level.

The entire journey begins by asking whether any proposed government action is rightfully within the government’s authority.  Politicians must be encouraged to honestly ask this question and to vote against any proposal which exceeds the government’s authority, even if they agree with the proposal as a matter of policy.  Politicians can be much more than simple law makers.  Using the same talents and abilities that give them office in the first place, politicians are well prepared to champions and advocates for causes throughout society.



First Principles

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

Going as far back as the primaries, I have been convinced that this election would give Republicans an opportunity to set the definition for the future of the party.  John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and even Rudi Guiliani stood out as serious contenders for the Republican ticket and each one offered something decidedly different in terms of the party’s future.  The party’s most notable also-ran, Ron Paul, was able to generate a lot of excitement because of his ideas on bringing about a major reformation of government.  In the end, it was the strength of the Republican Independents that brought out a victory for John McCain, much to the frustration of those seated further to the right.  With Obama having now won handily in the general election, and with the Democrats having extended their dominance of Congress, it seems apparent that the McCain Republican is unlikely to be the party’s future.  With the party still at a crossroads, I think it’s well past time for conservatives to take a step back and reflect on what it is we really stand for.

Looking back over the past election, I saw a number of things that seemed to attract a lot of attention.  Abortion, religion, healthcare, Bush, and more all brought out conservative ire at various points as the party faithful chafed at the thought of electing a man who is not a True Believer.  Meanwhile, the excitement over Sarah Palin was matched only by the excitement people had about Ron Paul.  On the other side of the aisle, Obama was able to portray himself as the helpful candidate, promising cheap healthcare and free money to a large chunk of the population.

Out of these admittedly unscientific observations, I’ve put together a short list of three guiding principles which I believe it is essential for the Republican Party to adopt.  These principles will not please everyone and following them will necessarily require that compromises be made on particular issues which are sure to alienate some of the conservative base.  At this point, though, the most important thing is that the ship needs to set sail in some direction again, rather than being bogged down by a thorny web of issues.

These three points are the direction we should choose:

  • Small government.
  • Personal responsibility.
  • Limited charity.

I plan to discuss each one, in turn, in the coming days.