Thursday, March 5, 2015

Values and Principles: Which is Which in Politics?

Diogenes swinging a lamp
'Can't we find an honest person
anywhere in politics?'
We have long been enamored by the public discussion of ardent activists on all sides of the political spectrum about what their driving 'principles' are and why a voter should vote for them to be their elected representative in any legislative body.

Typically, you will see a candidate 'promise' to do something and then get into office only to find out that they can't just snap their fingers and get it done as they 'promised' during the campaign.

Then, of course, their most ardent supporters call them a 'cop-out', a RINO, a liar, a cheat and a nincompoop.

No wonder so many people don't want to run for public office! Who wants to be called a 'nincompoop'?*

We have long thought that part of this problem was an incomplete knowledge and understanding of how our US Constitution works. It is a magnificently drawn document, one with enough checks and balances in it to frustrate even the most charismatic politician. It defends the rights of the minority party and does its darndest to make sure no one person becomes a tyrant and tries to runs America solely as he/she sees fit. It also guarantees that no political faction or party dominates for too long in our elective democratic republic.

We have come to learn that this confusion among candidates and their supporters may also have a lot to do with our collective lack of understanding of the differences between 'principles' and 'values' as a politician pursues his/her political 'goals' while in office.

What is the difference between political 'principles' and 'values' you say? They seem to be so much the same thing, don't they?

We recently had the chance to listen to a great lecture about these differences by Professor Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, Chair of the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) joint degree program between The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University.

If you ever thought philosophy was a dry, dead discipline, you need to go to one of Dr. Sayre-McCord's lectures and listen for awhile. He is quite entertaining and in this case, very enlightening about a question we have been pondering for a long, long time.

Here's one list of American political 'values' that may encompass most of the generally accepted political values we hold true in our society:

LIBERTY
EQUALITY
INDIVIDUALISM
THE RULE OF LAW

Many of these core values, much like the iconic rugged American cowboy of yesteryear, may be more of a dream nowadays than actual fact. Yet, they do encompass the promise of the American Dream as well as any we have seen lately.

Principles tend to be of a higher order of generally observed and accepted virtues, don't they? As in the following:

HONESTY
INTEGRITY
RESPECT
KINDNESS

Political values tend to be of a nature that lends themselves to some sort of balancing between two competing values. For example, we all say we want 'freedom' in America. Are we willing to trade off a little freedom, however, to have a homeland security department that protects us from another 9/11 attack? Haven't we all given up a little 'freedom' to be frisked every time we get on a plane lately?

How about 'individualism', that rugged can-do spirit most of us say we want? Are you really willing to go it completely alone in this world without any access to government-funded Social Security and Medicare which is accessible to every senior citizen regardless of financial situation or annual income? Warren Buffett and Bill Gates might say they are willing to not partake of either federal assistance program but hundreds of millions of other Americans of more modest means probably won't.

Political 'values' tend to be 'trade-able', don't they? It is a matter of negotiation and compromise to see how far one value gets degraded at the increase of another political value. Less liberty for more equality, as in 'more taxes for the rich to provide more benefits for the poor or elderly' to name one recurring example in Washington forever it seems.

'Political Principles' don't seem to be negotiable. They seem to be sacrosanct, inviolable, extant forever.

'Honesty' is one of them. One thing is for certain in politics: Lying to anyone, whether it be an ally, your opponent, a lobbying group or your constituents, is a straight ticket to irrelevance in the public arena.

Sure there are individual cases where people can forgive a politician. Bill Clinton is a prime example. But they are few and far between.

During Dr. Sayre-McCord's talk the other day, it dawned on us that perhaps we need to separate political 'values and principles' from political 'goals and pledges' as a first step to cleaning up our current political debate. The sooner the better in our opinion.

We have been conflating them all together into some sort of meaningless gruel whereby our values are indistinguishable from over-arching principles which are undecipherable from political pledges and goals nowadays. That near about makes it impossible to figure out who's on first, what's on second and I don't know if we will ever get to third base or steal home again until we do.

We have recently been struck by the number of elected politicians who have started to decline signing pledges because they have come to realize how hamstrung they have become in office. They just can't get any deals or compromises done with hundreds of pledges hanging on them on each and every issue.

They might as well phone it in since a trained chimpanzee can be taught to vote yes or no on any issue if you give it enough peanuts or something as a treat each time they vote 'the right way', yes?

Let's take a look at just a few of them:
  • The Tax Pledge- Members who sign this pledge promise to never vote for higher taxes
  • The Social Security Protection Pledge- Members who sign this promise to never do anything to address any problem with Social Security other than when it is about to run out of money
  • Various Defense Pledges-Members who sign these pledges promise not to cut specific defense programs or the overall defense budget in absolute terms
  • Medicare and Medicaid Pledges-Members who sign these pledges promise to never do anything to change or reform either of the two largest medical care programs the world has ever known
  • Pro-Life Pledge-Members who sign this pledge promise to support pro-life positions
  • Pro-Choice Pledge-Members who sign this pledge promise to support pro-choice policies
These pledges are nothing more than a statement of their legislative goals and agendas. These pledges, in a somewhat simpleton way of boiling down very complicated issues to fit a bumper sticker, are really more of an indicator of where a candidate is likely to go once elected than an underlying value or principle, isn't it?

The problem comes because when the pledge is signed, it becomes a 'promise' to the voters, both those who supported the candidate and those who didn't. You can do many things in American politics except 'break a promise'. Because for some deeply inherent human reason, when you break a promise or a pledge, you become viewed as a liar and someone who can't be trusted. And with good reason.

We think there may be a way for candidates to clearly express their political and legislative goals by talking about what they would do once elected on any of these contentious issues named above. But they would have to stop signing these simple-minded pledges and focus instead on the values and principles they would hold high if elected to high public office.

Let's face the truth of the matter: Republicans who sign the Tax Pledge under the assumption that it would 'starve the beast' in Washington and deprive it of the revenues necessary to grow have been proven abjectly wrong. The government has still grown exponentially in the last 30 years and now we have a $18 trillion national debt to go along with it.

Know how to cut spending in Washington? Send people there who will CUT SPENDING IN WASHINGTON! Plain and simple.

Liberal Democrats (and Republicans) who sign any pledge 'not to touch SS/Medicare/Medicaid' to show seniors they are 'serious about protecting their entitlements!' are just as culpable as the Tax Pledge Republicans when it comes to not paying for what we are spending today and laying off that same $18 trillion national debt (soon to be $20 trillion, count on it) to our children and grandchildren.

SS/Medicare/Medicaid now make up well over 1/2 of the federal budget. When combined with defense spending and interest on the national debt, close to 80% of the federal budget is 'untouchable' if you have signed too many pledges not to do this, that or the other.

You ever wonder why nothing is getting done in Congress? Pledges are one main reason why.

Dr. Sayre-McCord got us thinking about what a candidate might sound like if he/she understood the difference between values and principles and stopped signing this simple pledges which some have described as 'going on autopilot' or worse, 'checking your brains at the door of Congress before you get sworn in'.

'If they had any to begin with...' we can hear many of you saying in a thought balloon over your head.

A conservative Republican running for Congress might say this:

'I am a small-government conservative (value) in the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. I fear the concentration of power (value) in a few hands in Washington and prefer to allow the state and local governments handle as many issues as possible away from Washington help and interference.

My goal is smaller government at the federal level. (legislative goal) I will do everything and anything in my power to achieve that legislative goal. I don't like taxes any more than you do. (legislative goal) 

However, if I was presented with a legislative package that would reduce spending by $10 trillion over the next decade through a series of reforms and cancellations of federal programs that do not work, and the package included a $1 tax hike on everyone in the country to make sure it would pass the Senate, I would vote for it. (principle=honesty/integrity)

To do otherwise would be short-sighted and small-minded at this point in time.

A liberal Democrat could say almost the same thing in a mirror image of this statement:

'I am a big-government advocate (value) in the legacy of Alexander Hamilton. I support the concentration of power (value) in Washington because we can concentrate resources and redistribute them across the nation to make this a more fair country for everyone to live.

My goal is more government at the federal level. (legislative goal) I will do everything and anything in my power to achieve that legislative goal. I don't like cutting entitlements any more than you do. (legislative goal) 

However, if I was presented with a legislative package that would reduce our national debt by $10 trillion over the next decade through a tax hike on everyone in the country, and it included a series of reforms in entitlements and cancellations of federal programs that do not work, I would vote for it. (principle=honesty/integrity)

To do otherwise would be short-sighted and small-minded at this point in time.'**

Both of these statements convey the differing visions of how our country can and should be run. They both stay away from signing away their flexibility before they even get to Washington. They both stay true to the 'values' of America while maintaining the highest 'principles' of honesty, integrity and respect. 

At least they would not be insulting the intelligence of the electorate by 'promising' to balance the budget 1) without raising taxes! or 2) without cutting spending!

That would be a good first start.

*One possible word derivation of nincompoop- Late 17th century: perhaps from the given name Nicholas or from Nicodemus (by association with the Pharisee of this name, and his naive questioning of Jesus Christ; compare with French nicodème 'simpleton').

**(Voting for a tax hike AND a cut in entitlements might be the ultimate suicide mission for anyone, including a liberal Democrat in the safest possible district but follow this for illustrative purposes right now. Although it is right out of John Maynard Keynes' General Theory: raise taxes and cut spending during expansions; cut taxes and raise spending during recessions)

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