27 July 2009

The Absolutism of Principles

An article I read recently told an anecdote attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to G. Bernard Shaw. While at a dinner party one evening, Shaw asked the woman next to him if she would sleep with him for a hundred thousand pounds. She considered for a moment, then consented: “Yes!” Shaw continued, “Well then, how about for five pounds?” To this, she replied indignantly, “What kind of woman do you think I am?” “We’ve already established that,” said Shaw. “Now we’re merely haggling over the price.”

The anecdote is amusing, but more importantly it points to something crucially important: the absolutism of principles. Like a crack in a dike, a single breach of a principle is enough to collapse it. The tiniest compromise eventually becomes a gaping hole through which all the values that the principle once supported pour out.

Consider Barack Obama’s programs for “overhauling” American health care. In his press conference last week, the president promised millions of listeners that he would improve their health care and make only the very wealthiest Americans pay for it. I am not disheartened enough to think that nearly everybody would be taken in by this, but it is surely true that many Americans, probably millions of them, would vaguely (and some, enthusiastically) consider the president’s policy to be beneficial.

As the president himself urged his listeners to ask themselves the question, “What’s in this for me?” I am sure some Americans leaned forward a little, eagerly hoping to find out what they would receive. After all, isn’t it good to be healthy? And if the government can make other people (best of all, the greedy rich) pay for the health care that everyone else uses, doesn’t that benefit the common good? It’s a “win-win” situation; the majority gets the stuff that they want and they don’t have to pay for it.

The problem is that all Americans do pay for it - not with money, but with something more fundamental and precious: our freedom.

Americans who would applaud an explicit government policy of flaying the rich for the sake of a share of plunder do not value freedom anyway (though like any parasites, they need at least a modicum of freedom to exist in order to survive themselves). It is not to them that I direct this article; they are beyond reach.

But I believe many Americans sincerely do not understand what is at stake, and would not hold their liberty so lightly if they did. From politicians and the press, they hear the words “freedom” and “marketplace” and “efficiency” associated with the government’s actions, while individuals and corporations are characterized as “predatory,” “greedy,” and “wasteful.” They hear Mr. Obama assure them that it is the government that will “give you the security” of having health coverage while it it private companies that “force you to pay” for it “out of your own pocket.” And since they’ve been told for as long as they remember that selfishness is wrong, that private corporations are corrupt, and that something as complex as a modern economy cannot possibly operate properly unless it is managed by a cadre of “disinterested” geniuses such as may be found at the helm of the federal government, they nod assent to the president in a ill-founded trust that the “experts” must know what is best.

What those nods of assent grant to Barack Obama and Congress is permission - permission to direct the lives of all Americans as they see fit. (Whether or not they are well-intentioned is irrelevant; both parties now, Democrats and Republicans, are hell-bent on tightening the federal government’s grip on American citizens.)

How do politicians receive this permission from basically good people in a free country? It is simpler than it may seem. What the president and legislators know, and what most Americans do not know or evade, is that politicians need not ask citizens directly to surrender their lives and livelihoods. They would never get away with it. Instead, their approach is indirect. All they need to do is obtain the public’s assent to dispose of a relative handful of citizens.

This is particularly easy to do today for two reasons. First, the fact that America is a republic safeguarding the rights of every individual has been completely obscured and (through sheer repetition) supplanted by the false idea that America is a democracy that institutionalizes the “will of the majority.” The second thing that facilitates demagoguery is the ready availability of a group that is hated or resented. In other places and times, foreigners and Jews have served as suitable targets; in America today, it is businessmen that are the disposable minority. Mr. Obama rode into power fomenting this resentment with smooth eloquence, pitting “Main Street” against “Wall Street.” In his speech last week, after briefly pretending he didn’t know the exact details, the president reassured his listeners that only “families whose joint income is a million dollars” would have to “shoulder the burden” for his plan.

Once you have granted the president permission to dispose of millionaires, what stops him from disposing of anyone and everyone? Nothing. The only defense from enslavement is to stand on principle - the very principle that was cast away. Like the woman in the anecdote who gave away her honor for a hundred thousand pounds, the American public has, by giving Barack Obama the green light to throw the yoke upon a few millionaires, surrendered its moral ground. It has lost its ability to object to any conceivable command to serve. When the Obama administration raises taxes and inflates away the wealth of all working Americans (which it will), the Americans who nodded assent can blame no one but themselves. Surcharges? Tax increases? Rations? Waiting lists? Having established that individuals are expendable, all of this is “merely haggling over the price.”

If you want a thorough examination of the compromise of principles played out to its logical conclusion, I refer you to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In the novel, as the once free nation collapses by excruciating degrees into dictatorship and ruin, the hero identifies the reason. “In any compromise between food and poison,” he says, “it is only death that can win.”

Obviously, such compromises by the American public did not begin with the ascent of Barack Obama; the freedom established by the Founders has been whittled away steadily for more than a century. However, the last decade or so has been an ominous one, a period in which Americans ushered into office presidents and legislators that apparently feel unlimited in their power to prescribe and proscribe the activities of individuals. They think they have a democratic mandate to do so, and with good reason: Americans as a whole have given them permission in the manner I described above. For the love of our lives and liberty, we must withdraw that permission.



1. Transcript from “News Conference by the President, East Room, July 22, 2009,” Office of the Press Secretary, White House, 23 Jul 2009. Unless otherwise noted, quotes from the president were taken from this transcript. In two brief quotes, I applied italics for emphasis.


Doug Reich said...

Great post. Thanks!

pomponazzi said...

Very clear and to the point.three cheers!