Friday, June 19, 2009

Principles vs. Pragmatism

I recently had a discussion with a few friends on a particular issue and found that we were all in agreement; but as we discussed our reasoning, it became clear that they were objecting for practical reasons - I tried to turn the conversation toward the principles involved, and argued that a principled response was absolutely vital.

I proposed that even if a particular measure would accomplish a useful purpose in a practical sense, it ought to be opposed if wrong in principle. Unfortunately, at least one of my friends totally missed the point - and continued agreeing with me, but pointed to pragmatism instead of principle for support.

To me, a principled consideration of any issue asks the question, "Is this measure right or wrong?" while a pragmatic approach puts more weight on the question, "Is this measure effective or ineffective?"

Certainly, sometimes the two approaches will lead to the same position on a given issue, but I think faulty reasoning ought to be corrected even when it leads to a sound conclusion.

Can someone be principled and pragmatic? Most certainly - but I would argue that one ought to be principled first. I'm not suggesting a reckless disregard for consequences, but rather that one should consider the rightness/wrongness of an action before considering its results.

For instance, as discussed previously, the so-called Patriot Act purports to protect American citizens and National Security by allowing the government unconstitutional authority to warrantlessly wiretap. Pragmatically, this may in fact yield the hoped-for results of detecting and capturing terrorists, making it in this light tolerable, if not favorable; principally, however, it is an trespass into the territory of individual liberty and privacy, making it repugnant and potentially repressive. (It matters not that those in government supporting such measures have the most noble intentions to restrain themselves, or to apply it only for a temporary distress - it matters that the government boldly reserves this power to itself, to be used at its own apparently arbitrary discretion - and as it's been said: "There's nothing so permanent as a temporary government measure.")

As such, I feel the danger of this kind of pragmatic approach is that it seems to rest on the Machiavellian proposal that "the ends justify the means". But I reject such a notion. Unjust measures never advance a just cause - ironically and tragically, they utterly defeat it. You cannot simultaneously defend and trample liberty! Instead, I agree with the Scriptural assertion that you cannot (and ought not to try to) "do evil that good may come".

Again, once an action is carefully weighed and determined to be right, it's only prudent to consider the best way to go about it to minimize its negative impact. But making the right choice always has consequences, and that is why virtue cannot travel far without courage.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Liberty & Constitutional Republicanism

At the outset, it would be fair to encapsulate my entire political philosophy in one word: liberty! I wholeheartedly believe that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, but further, that those powers are granted to government only as it necessary to preserve individual liberty.

Notice that, under the Constitution, the rights of the people are recognized (not granted), while governmental power is granted. That is to say, that individual rights pre-exist any government claim on, or exercise of, governmental power. This is clearly the claim that Jefferson made in the Declaration by reminding the King (and us) that rights are God-given and inseparable from us.

Thus, I believe there is a presumption of liberty underlying the Constitution, which favors the individual. This means that government has only the powers that are clearly and expressly spelled out in the Constitution, and the only way in which government can nobly differ from the Constitution is by restraining itself betimes from asserting even those powers which clearly are Constitutional. In short, just because government is granted power in the Constitution does not mean that it is always proper or beneficial to exercise it. But in no case is it proper for government to step over Constitutional bounds, even to effect popular or supposedly beneficial ends.

Essentially, I am a Constitutional Republican. By using the term "Constitutional" I intend to convey a) my respect for that great document's selective granting of limited power to government and otherwise unlimited guarantee of personal liberty (as per the Ninth Amendment), and b) my commitment to the rule of law - as has been said, we are nation of laws and not of men. And by "Republican", I am certainly not referring to the GOP, but rather I mean that I cherish our elected representative form of government, and mourn its degradation into Empire.

In recent years, I've become extremely uncomfortable wearing the name "Republican". When that party recklessly expanded entitlement programs, by which personal responsibilities (along with personal rights) are conceded to the government, the name "Republican" began to itch like the tag of a second-hand wool sweater on the back of my neck. But I totally had to find something else to wear when that party sought to ignore the Fourth Amendment by way of the misnamed Patriot Act, and disregard the separation of powers by acceding to the President the Congressional power to decide to go to war, and allowing the President to determine single-handedly that torture is acceptable, despite the fact that its "cruel and unusual" nature bars it as per the Eighth Amendment, and that, again, such a decision is not the President's prerogative, but clearly rests under Congress' perview (Article 1, Sec 8) to "make rules concerning captures on land and water". So even if irrepressible minds were to devise a form of torture that was not "cruel or unusual", the debate over using such a tactic must be had in the wide open chambers of Congress, not behind the closed doors of the White House.

So I can only comfortably refer to myself as a Constitutional Republican, and can only passionately pursue one political cause - liberty!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Republic - But Can We Keep It?

Benjamin Franklin famously responded to an anxious woman's question about the type of government the founders had just created by saying, "A republic, if you can keep it!" Franklin's statement obviously indicates how closely and carefully he felt this form of government must be guarded, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that he responded this way to a member of the general populace reveals where he believed the responsibility of its keeping lay.

Constitutional Republicanism is perhaps the best-devised form of government possible involving the flaws of mere humanity. Or perhaps, as Winston Churchill said of democracy - "(it is) the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."

However, even a cursory glance at the other great Republic of history indicates that a government of republican origins can totally be transformed into Empire. How can the roots of Republicanism yield the fruit of Empire? Whatever the reason, it appears that such a mutation is not only possible, but likely. Inevitable might be taking it too far, because even as the American Republic travels the same winding descent as its Roman predecessor, this patriot still hopes for a reversal, for a renewed understanding and respect for our founding principles.

As Rome the Republic was in its death throes and then rebirthed itself as Rome the Empire, it seems a lone voice sounded the alarm against the change - Cicero. As the title of this blog suggests, America's recent course towards Empire highlights the need for a Cicero of our own. But I am not so egotistical as to lay claim to his eloquence and wit, his unique gifts of rhetorical brilliance and political genius; rather, I share his sense of loss, and similarly cannot help but speak out.

In that light, I intend this blog to be a commentary on American culture, law, politics, business and perhaps even religion, from what might be called a Ciceronian perspective. That is, examining American actions against its founding principles, while hoping that perhaps readers of like (or respectfully dissenting) minds may find the blog interesting enough to post thoughtful responses (and provide the blog the articulate charm to make it worthy of its name).