Prag­matic cau­tion to dis­ci­ples of prin­ci­ple

Tulsa World - - Opinion - BY REX J. ZEDALIS

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.”

Zedalis

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.

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