Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Americans Have an Unfortunate Tendency to Mistake Disagreements about Policy for Disagreements about Principles

The title is simply a paraphrase of a line in Gordon S. Wood's Empire of Liberty, which was a good book about the early republic.  He was mainly referring to a tendency that both the Federalists and Democrat-Republicans shared in lifting their disputes over policy matters into Constitutional disputes, even when the still living writers of that document were on both sides of the debate.

While this tendency has a long history in the US, it is a history marred by its emphasis in the periods of our greatest polarization and the damage this polarization did to our country in these times.

It's important to remember that it is very rare that anyone in our national dialogue is actually going outside of what at least some of the Constitution's writers believed was a reasonable interpretation.  Almost all disputes are about policy, not principle.  History also shows that human beings virtually never follow a line of thought to its ultimate conclusion, while sophists delight in this form of argumentation, actual human polities seem to adhere closer to Aristotle's Golden Mean.  Since policy is generally evolutionary, barring cases where an ideologue gains power, such as the Russian Revolution or Hitler (and universally these societies suffer disastrous collapses), societies are punished for tending towards any extreme interpretation and revert back to a more centrist policy (though sometimes this takes decades).

This post is just a reminder to be sceptical of any claims that a given policy is either necessary or contrary to political principle.  Americans have historically been suckers for appeal to political principle, absolutist interpretations, and slippery slope arguments.  We should be self-aware of this flaw in our political culture which I have no doubt will be exploited mercilessly by both parties as the Presidential campaign heats up.  Real political change has almost always been evolutionary in nature, barring the odd armed rebellion, so we should keep in mind what a partial, imperfectly executed policy would look like when assessing political claims.  The pure, absolute expression of starting political principles taken to their logical extreme bears greater resemblance to a child's fear of a monster under the bed than it does political action in the real world.

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