Pragmatic caution to disciples of principle
The debates surrounding NFL players and the national anthem, the Las Vegas shootings and guns, and, among some, the recent Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary, have Americans retreating to ideological silos. This raises the hold core principles have on life. Contrast, for a moment, Jefferson's statement that “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock,” with that of the master of political parody, Groucho Marx, who reportedly quipped, “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them ... well, I have others.” Are we to remain unmovable on principles, as Jefferson suggests? If so, what room exists when dealing with others who, because of culture, religion, or race see the world differently? Or are we, as some might argue Marx observes, always to put our principles, our ideology, up for negotiation? In that case, aren't we left rudderless in a world of ideas that prey on the uncommitted?
I'm ill-suited to answer such complicated philosophical questions. Nonetheless, it strikes me that whether we react by heading for an ideological silo when the NFL, Las Vegas or Vietnam is raised probably reveals whether our personality inclines more toward Jefferson's or Marx's view of principles.
Given the tribal character of today's politics, untold numbers of liberals and conservatives alike surely subscribe to basic principles as commanding of unswerving commitment. Disciples of that stripe need be repeatedly cautioned of two things.
First, virtually all of what the original architects of any ideological belief warned were dangers embedded in those very beliefs has been forgotten. Virtues are emphasized; risks ignored. In light of the human habit of “cherrypicking” what we like; we turn a blind eye to what's inconvenient.
Second, and more important, it is stunning how any absolutist commitment to principle can lead us astray from socially positive outcomes. Too firm a devotion to principle results in obliviousness to how it works out in the real world. Political psychologists might style this the “blind-spot of ideological anchoring.”
With respect to warned about dangers embedded in ideological beliefs, examples abound. Poking at devotees of small government, market-based solutions, for the moment, when did you last hear them, after waxing eloquent on the marketplace, remind us that the father of capitalism, Adam Smith, warned repeatedly of the need to guard against the market? Illustrative is his statement that laws proposed by business ought to be examined with great suspicion, for “such comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even oppress the public.”
And lest such reminders lead economic interventionists to believe gleefully John Maynard Keynes was no friend of free markets, it must equally be noted he professed no objection to “private self-interest … determin[ing] what … is produced … and how the value of the final product will be distributed.”
With respect to the obliviousness brought on by unalterable devotion to principle, one need only look around the globe at tragedies proceeding from the view that there's but one “true way” in matters of religion, ethnicity, or politics. Refusal to see the world through any lens other than our own risks the worst of outcomes.
And never should we be so arrogant as to believe American democracy inoculates us from such risks. While on an entirely lower order of magnitude than what exists in some overseas locations, just look around at budget situations of state governments whose guiding tax cut ideology promised to bring unparalleled prosperity, or at the unintended consequences of certain activist social programs thought guaranteed to offer a hand up.
Governance, as life, requires juggling inconsistencies and contradictions. Whether principles are divine word or starting point, we must heed the warnings their architects called to attention, and remain open to deviations that help us steer clear of the disasters that inflexible adherence present.
Rex J. Zedalis is in his 37th year as a law professor at the University of Tulsa, having served, during that time, as director of the Comparative & International Law Center, fellow in the Sustainable Energy & Resources Law program and Phyllis Hurley Frey Professor of Law.