Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Without Principles, "Restraints on Government Power" is a Hollow Phrase

Returning to the article On Boston Bombing Suspect, Obama Strikes Right Balance--which I covered in my post Boston Bombers: Part of a Vast Enemy Movement, in which I challenged to NJ Star-Ledger's position that the surviving bomber should be handled as a common criminal--the editors backed up their position with:

Holding [Dzhokhar] Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant is another matter. Yes, this was a crime of terror and its purpose was to kill people, not a conventional crime intended for profit. And yes, Tsarnaev might talk more freely without a lawyer present.But we lose something when we throw aside the hard-fought restraints on government power.

The editorial position of the Star-Ledger is decidedly pro regulation, pro welfare state. So, one wonders about their reference to "hard-fought restraints on government power"; restraints that the newspaper spends most of it energy trying to dismantle. One correspondent called the editors' on it:

Tuesday, April 23, 2013 12:01 PMmcovey36 wrote:It amazes me the hypocrisy of SLEB [Star-Ledger Editorial Board]! They want Govt restraint when it comes to someone whom [sic] kills and terrorizes the public but wants bigger Govt when it comes to forced healthcare, gun control and a host of other issues!

Tom Moran, a lead editor and (I suspect) the author of the editorial, seemed perplexed:

Tuesday, April 23, 2013 2:57 PMTom Moran/ The Star-Ledger wrote:So let me see if I have this straight: To avoid being a hypocrit, one must always be for bigger government, or always against it?
So anyone who supports gun control must also favor treating this guy as an enemy combatant? Isn't that just a tad simple-minded? Is it really that easy to sort these things out?

In fact, when you take principles seriously, it is "easy to sort these things out." It's not that specific issues can't be complex. They often are, and it can take some significant mental work to apply the principles. But proper principles will guide you to a consistent, non-contradictory integration of your positions, and enable you to avoid a lot of unnecessary, repetitive time and effort trying to sort out every concrete issue one at a time. 

I left this reply to Moran:

Tom, it’s a question of a government that protects individual rights vs. one that violates rights; rights being the freedom to act on one’s own judgment, so long as one’s actions don’t interfere with the same rights of others. It’s not the size of government, but its proper function. You can’t be for rights or against rights depending on what suits you in the moment. You’re either for rights or against them. What “restraints on government power” allows government to compel its citizens to purchase only government-approved health insurance policies? To speak of “restraints on government power” implies certain political principles. To ignore the relevant principles at work is an act of evasion that destroys credibility.

The beauty (and fearsomeness)  of principles is that they offer a yardstick by which others can judge you on myriad unrelated concrete issues, which is what happened here. That's why it's so hard to live by principles, and most people avoid them. If the editors are going to espouse principles, they should learn to live up to them, and apply them consistently. Otherwise, astute readers will bring those principles back to haunt them, and hold your feet to the fire.

Related Reading:

Why Should One Act on Principle by Leonard Peikoff

Philosophy: Who Needs It? by Ayn Rand

SLEB Principle

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