Thursday, December 15, 2011

America's Core: Liberty, or Compromise?

In a NJ Star-ledger column earlier this year, John Farmer Jr. lamented the current state of American politics, which he says threatens the survival of our republic because of its "factional dysfunction". His column referred specifically to the debt ceiling battles of Summer 2011. But the wider issue he points to is of crucial importance. He quoted the Founding Fathers extensively, forgetting the philosophical context within which those words were uttered.

I left an extensive rebuttal in the comments section. Before reading it, however, I urge first the reading of Farmer's column in its entirety, which in this case is better than my usual method of using selected quotes. Here is my correspondence:

August 07, 2011 at 2:06PM

The cult of compromise is killing America. By “cult”, I mean the view that compromise is the only absolute; that nothing is above compromise. Some things, however, must never be compromised. America is disintegrating because it has compromised away its core moral principles – individual rights and limited, rights-protecting government. These compromises have led directly to Madison’s “mortal disease” – “The emergence of factions… united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community’ ”. The “interests of the community” were understood to be based upon universal respect for the rights of each individual citizen to his own life and property, and the liberty to pursue his own goals, values, and happiness without interference from his fellow citizens, including those acting in the capacity of government officials.

Farmer Jr. misinterprets the Founding Fathers. They understood that a workable field of political compromise is only possible when the power of political factions are limited by an uncompromising national adherence to the core principles of liberty as outlined in this country’s philosophical blueprint, the Declaration of Independence. They sought to place the violation of individual rights outside of the scope of governmental action; i.e., of the power of any electoral majority or influential minority group. When everyone’s individual rights are protected, the interests of some are not a threat to others, because no one has the power to force their will on others through government coercion. Government has no power to dispense economic favors by forcibly seizing, redistributing, or regulating private property. It is constitutionally forbidden to do so. Competing economic interests must deal with each other through voluntary cooperation and persuasion, by mutually beneficial private contractual agreement rather than competing to pull the levers of government coercion. The government protects the rights of all against force and fraud, and is otherwise out of the equation. America was a constitutionally limited republic, not a gang rule, democratic republic.

That Farmer seems to believe that any compromise is possible between slavery and freedom is a result of the corrupting influence of his belief in the cult of compromise. But the resolution of the slavery problem would not have been possible under any conceivable compromise, because there can be no compromise on moral principles – between good and evil. The Civil War was a direct consequence, not of the failure to compromise, [but] precisely because of the compromises that allowed slavery at our Founding. Either a man is free, or he is not. The political choice was either/or, one extreme or the other. Slavery could not coexist with the Declaration of Independence. One or the other had to go. One can not imagine any compromise between the two. As I said, some things must never be compromised.

Today we have a different sort of political battle, but one that is rooted in the same absolutist moral conflict that defined the slave issue early in our nation. The regulatory, mixed economy welfare state has demolished the only real common good – respect for the rights of others. Today’s “cold civil war” of pressure groups is exactly the result of the breakdown of that respect, leading to “the ruins of public liberty”. Today’s political atmosphere is the realization of Washington’s fear: the “frightful despotism” of “the alternate domination of one faction over another” under the “the absolute power of an individual… chief of some prevailing faction.”

The only answer to today’s polarized political atmosphere is to reassert our Founding principles, and to reject the ideology of the supremacy of the state. There can be no compromise between the two, which means the welfare state can not coexist with the Declaration of Independence. The return of civility in the 21st century depends upon beginning the long process of unwinding the divisive welfare statism of the 20th century. Those who today uphold individual rights and limited government, and are willing to take a firm stand in defense of those principles, are following in the footsteps of Washington and Madison. They and the rest of America’s revolutionaries, it must be remembered, took up armed revolt against tyranny rather than compromise their core principles. No armed revolt is necessary or desirable today, of course. But the same spirit of uncompromising loyalty to the same principles, in the face of an encroaching “frightful despotism”, is exactly what is needed to save the Founders’ achievement.

As a followup, I responded to another correspondent calling himself RememberHistory, who had this to say:

August 07, 2011 at 1:17PM

...I have grown tired of the political theater and hope that a centrist backlash will eventually develop. It took us years to get into this mess, and it will take years to extricate ourselves but ONLY if we have the political courage to see it through.

We are at war at the moment - among ourselves. A sense of balance and compromise needs to be restored in order to throw off this state of emotional hand-wringing. Moderate Republicans and Democrats need to stand up together and push both extremes to the political sidelines. The first step is to starve the beast that feeds this ranting: end ALL PACs, right and left, and encourage politicians to think about the national good instead of themselves or their favorite donors. Encourage reasonableness with your voices and votes....THAT'S what made this country great, not vilification or demonization!

Here's my response:

August 07, 2011 at 5:53PM

End all PACs: Is that your answer, RememberHistory? PAC stands for “Political Action Committee”, which is a peaceable assembly of private citizens to speak out and engage in the political process, a fundamental unalienable right sanctioned by the First Amendment.

The two extremes represent the primary battle that needs to be settled. One side upholds the supremacy of the autonomous individual and his liberty, the other the supremacy of the predatory, collectivist state; the worldview of the Founders vs the worldview that has dominated human history. The clash of these two extremes underpins every issue confronting this nation. “Moderation” between the two ideological extremes doesn’t represent “reasonableness”. It represents cowardice. Those who don’t acknowledge the fundamental choice we face, and take a stand, are feeding the growth of the predatory state by default.

“We are at war … among ourselves”, all right (See my comments below [a reference to my original commentary]). This will continue until we recognize the two extremes, and then choose the Founders’ ideals of live-and-let-live liberty. Trashing the First Amendment to silence those willing to take a stand is a horrifying “solution”.

RememberHistory, apparently forgetting history, came back with this:

August 07, 2011 at 9:21PM

I did read your comments, and carefully too, I might add. Being a student of history, I began to theorize the eventual outcome of your "pitched battle" analogy. Since the Framers also took infinite pains to protect the rights of the minority, it would appear your philosophy might hit a metaphysical snag IF you do indeed hold those principles as sacred as you claim.

Our country, our institutions, and our heritage are a result of gleaning the best from opposing sides...we didn't become great because we all shared the same philosophies, religions, and cultures, but because despite differences, we made them work together as best as humanly possible. Reading your comments brought to mind images of citizens marching in blissful lockstep towards an ill-defined Utopian goal.

To say that compromise is cowardice defies logic, reason, and all the intangibles that have made our country great. Legislation on both sides of the political spectrum have been passed and implemented because reasonable people have understood that success can be achieved in many ways, not just one.

And as far as PACs go, their purpose is no longer to advocate - but to purchase, which means the ones with the most money win, regardless of validity. If that's the kind of political, economic, and social Darwinism you espouse, then there is a philosophical chasm between us.

I don't know what he read, because I answered most of what he said in my original monologue. He either didn't read my commentary, or ignored what I said. Either way, he's less than honest. Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to come back to this forum to respond directly to his/her comments. But a few more words need to be said here.

Leaving aside his somewhat confusing verbiage, think of what RememberHistory is actually saying here. If you are confronted by an armed thug who puts a gun to your head and demands your wallet, you are obligated, under the principle of "gleaning the best from opposing sides", to consider the thug's forcible claim to your money as equally valid to your belief that he has none. After all, both you and the thug value your money. Yes, you worked for the money and he didn't, but you both need the money and since "success can be achieved in many ways," you should not engage in any "pitched battle" such as defending yourself or seeking police assistance. That would be "Utopian". We must understand that a gun and an honest day's work are mere "differences" which should be "made [to] work together as best as humanly possible." You must, on RememberHistory's premises, be "reasonable" and "moderate" by, say, seeking a middle ground whereby you get to perhaps keep your wallet and enough for cab fare home, while agreeing to let the thug have the rest of the contents. To refuse to compromise in this manner, according to RememberHistory, "defies logic, reason, and all the intangibles that have made our country great."

In fact, moral compromise is the worst form of cowardice. To stand on principle is tough, but courageous, practical, logical, and reasonable. It is, in fact, a necessity of life. The easiest thing in the world to do is to cave in to moral degeneracy. In essence, this analogy captures the "philosophical chasm between us." What made this country great was that no one could impose his "philosophies, religions, and cultures" on others by legislative force. In short, based upon the Founders' Declaratory and constitutional principles, the government was forbidden to act as an armed thug. This removed force as a valid method of human association, clearing the way for legislative compromises. It is only on the basis of the commonly held principle of respect for, and refrain from violating, the rights of others - live and let live, or laissez-faire - that makes civility possible. When the armed thug gets elevated to a status of political legitimacy, no civility is possible among people. The opposite - the "cold civil war" of the mixed economy - is all that's possible.

In the name of compromise, RememberHistory accepts force as a valid philosophy that must be accommodated, and then accuses me of "espousing" "political, economic, and social Darwinism"! The "Darwinism" of the PACS is exactly what one would expect in a mixed economy. A mixed economy is a direct result of the very uncompromising defense of compromise espoused by the likes of RememberHistory and Farmer Jr. It is they and their ilk who have sold out American principles to political thuggery on the alter of compromise. What other consequence can one expect when every group's political activism becomes a threat to every other group's economic interests? When government acquires the power to violate rights, it becomes a magnet for pressure groups seeking to gain control of the rights-violating powers in order to "purchase" governmental favors extracted from others. The competition for power is then on, as the number of political pressure groups expands exponentially.

The failure to grasp that moral compromises makes practical compromises impossible is RememberHistory's (and many many other's) own monumental blind spot. As Philosopher Ayn Rand has observed:

A compromise is an adjustment of conflicting claims by mutual concessions. This means that both parties to a compromise have some valid claim and some value to offer each other. And this means that both parties agree upon some fundamental principle which serves as a base for their deal.

I added my emphasis. When legislative action increasingly means the sacrifice of the interests, rights, and property of some people to the advantage of others, the entire basis for civil discourse and "working together" is obliterated. When force replaces values, the basis for compromise evaporates. How do you deal with an adversary who chooses a gun over a rational argument? Do "reasonable people" succumb to the gun? For too long, alleged defenders of liberty have conceded the premise that the armed thug has a moral claim to the nation's wallet - bit by legislative bit - in the face of statists' demands for "compromise". The result: America has moved from mostly free to the precipice of totalitarian fascist socialism, in less than a century. As Ayn Rand has discovered:

In any compromise between good [freedom] and evil [statism], it is only evil that can profit. In that transfusion of blood which drains the good to feed the evil, the compromiser is the transmitting rubber tube . . .

When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute, when loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it’s picked up by scoundrels—and you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good and a self-righteously uncompromising evil.

She is referring, of course, to fundamental political and moral principles. The Founders sought to create a republic under which the government is strictly a protector of individual rights, thus cutting off from any group or individual the path to despotic power. They did indeed seek to construct a balanced system whereby "Legislation on both sides of the political spectrum [could be] passed and implemented [by] reasonable people [who] understood that success can be achieved," but only on the premise that the rights and sovereignty of the individual remains outside of the scope of political compromise. Re-read the Founders' quotes in Farmer's article from the actual viewpoint of America's Founding ideals, and you will see the fundamental flaw in his entire theme.

Does this mean that, in today's context, defenders of liberty must demand all-or-nothing legislative action that eliminates in one fell swoop rights-violating government interference? No, because statism is so entrenched today that it will take time to roll it back completely. What political compromise requires is for freedom fighters to boldly uphold their philosophy, and then fight for as much incremental movement toward greater and greater freedom as is possible in a given political context. Legislation must only be supported if it unequivocally restores some degree of individual rights, reduces government interference, and simultaneously lays the foundation for further legislation down the road for even greater freedom, and so on until full freedom is restored in a given field. For example, I put forth a plan for parental school choice based upon tax credits, which I believe does just what I said here. It is a political compromise that accepts some lingering statism based upon current political realities yet also advances toward the fundamental principle of full freedom and individual rights in education.

The key to political compromise: Never make ideological compromises by conceding any moral legitimacy to any degree of statism, even as you concede the necessity of accepting statist elements in the short term.

In searching for a solution to America's "Political dysfunction [and] factionalization [that] threaten our republic," Farmer Jr. need look no further than to the principles the great men he quotes stood for. The Founders did not set out to enshrine compromise as the ruling principle of the land, where everything is on the table and anything goes - including the ideals they fought for - so long as a political concensus could be reached. Rather, they set out to establish liberty, whereby every individual's unalienable rights to his/her own life and property are free from political interference, thus preventing the rise of predatory pressure groups, PACs, special interests, or what have you. It is liberty, not compromise, the the Founders revered. The Founders would never have approved of the cult of modern compromise, any more than they approved of any suggestion to compromise with the British Crown in 1776. They would have pledged - today - their "lives,... fortunes and ... sacred honor" to defend against any attempt to compromise away the political principles that created this nation. That kind of commitment, to properly understand Benjamin Franklin, is what it will take to keep our republic. Both the author of this article and RememberHistory should, well, remember history ... or perhaps learn it.

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