Politicians' 'Principles'

by Don Boudreaux on May 15, 2009

in Politics

I wrote the following lines in a private letter to friends back in December when George W. Bush, then still president of the executive branch of the U.S. national government, announced that he was abandoning his free-market principles.  The truth of these lines, however, transcends time and political party.

The man who never cheats on his wife because no other woman will have
him is not particularly principled – but he proudly fancies himself
that way. So the first bimbo he sniffs who'll do him the honor will
prompt him to "abandon his principles" with as much alacrity as a
hungry dog will attack a ham. Such are the principles of our "leaders."

(P.S. One cannot abandon what one never possessed.)

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{ 28 comments }

Adam May 15, 2009 at 9:00 pm

People still write letters? The idea of writing a letter is as foreign to me as the idea of sending a telegram or a message in Morse Code. And I'm all of 30!

But… the point remains valid, nonetheless.

S Andrews May 15, 2009 at 9:11 pm

It must be made clear that it wasn't first time for George W Bush.

vidyohs May 15, 2009 at 9:36 pm

(P.S. One cannot abandon what one never possessed.)

Yet facades are essential to politics, sad but true.

vikingvista May 15, 2009 at 9:49 pm

That's why my wife married an ugly man.

Unit May 16, 2009 at 1:27 am

Like father, like son. People have to start reading politicians between the lips.

brotio May 16, 2009 at 1:31 am

I was expecting to see Yasafi comment (sincerely) that you're nothing but a GWB apologist.

While he might not be quite so stupid as to post it on this thread, I'm sure he'll write it again, the next time you criticize Emperor Obama.

Michael Smith May 16, 2009 at 7:40 am

Bush never had any "free market principles" — because Bush is a firm believer in the morality that holds that all men have a duty to sacrifice for the sake of the needy, with government on hand to enforce that duty if necessary.

Such a morality is what drives the relentelss expansion of the welfare state and the contraction (and eventual extinguishment) of our right to the pursuit of our own happiness, by means of our own honest effort.

Here, for example, are some quotes from Bush's first inaugural address:

“Where there is suffering, there is duty. Americans in need are not strangers, they are citizens, not problems, but priorities.” George Bush.

(Got that? The loafer who lives next door to you and won’t earn enough to pay his doctor bills is a “priority” that you will be forced to tend to, whether you like it or not — because your right to your own life and property are simply not a priority.)

“I ask you to seek a common good beyond your comfort….. I ask you to be citizens: building communities of service …..” George Bush

“Americans are generous and strong and decent, not because we believe in ourselves, but because we hold beliefs beyond ourselves.” George Bush

“Our duty is fulfilled in service to one another.” George Bush

The moral justification of a free market rests in the view that one’s life — and the fruits of one’s efforts — belong to the individual, who must be free to keep his property or engage in voluntary trade with others as he sees fit. If, instead, one holds the moral view that one has a duty — which government is there to enforce by means of taxes, rules, laws guns and jails — to surrender one’s property for the sake of the needy, then any “free market” advocacy will be mere lip service, to be abandoned as soon as the next moocher waves his sores in our faces and declares himself “in need”.

Bush is not alone in his dedication to this morality of forced sacrifice and duty. Even the sainted Ronald Reagan endorsed it — and thereby torpedoed any chance he had at his alleged goal of “reining in” government. In a speech to the nation just a few weeks after his election, Reagan said the following:

“We will continue to fulfill the obligations that spring from our national conscience. Those who, through no fault of their own, must depend on the rest of us — the poverty stricken, the disabled, the elderly, all those with true need — can rest assured that the social safety net of programs they depend on are exempt from any cuts.”

In that one statement, Reagan concedes the moral premise of the entire welfare/regulatory state. What’s more, he gives the welfare worshippers an invaluable gift with the notion of a “social safety net” — a concept that concedes and neatly summarizes the left’s view that capitalism is dangerous and risky, and that those that succeed are largely lucky while those who find themselves poor are merely the unlucky one’s who tripped and fell off capitalism’s high-wire act.

Capitalism and free markets cannot be defended until we find the courage to denounce the morality of sacrifice and duty — and declare, as did our founders, that all men possess the unalienable right to exist for their own sake, with each of us free to pursue our own happiness, by means of our own honest effort.

We must declare that one man's "need" does not entitle him to initiate the use of force to steal one penny of another man's money — or have the government do the stealing for him.

raja_r May 16, 2009 at 9:35 am

The man who never cheats on his wife because no other woman will have him is not particularly principled

"I don't believe in the chastity of impotent men"
- Nirad Choudhiri (on the "non-violence" principles of Indians wrt British occupation.)

Cheers May 16, 2009 at 9:39 am

Excellently spoken Michael.

Though I do appreciate Rand, I often find her theses haltingly and violently communicated. It was very succinct, and it allows the content, rather than the communication to offend those who would disagree.

Unfortunately, at this point, the argument usually descends into some sputtering about social contracts and communistic ideologies about needing to give back to a system that saw fit to give you more wealth than another.

Sam Grove May 16, 2009 at 11:47 am

Generally speaking, the principles held by politicians don't matter so much as the functioning of the system.

Everyone that expresses governing principles, do so with at least some thought that the policies they support are for the "general welfare", as they see it.

But it is not the venal corruption that will do us in, but rather, the systemic corruption of systematic power that lures the sincerely well intended into the trap.

The trap works like this"

The other side is evil and must be kept out of power, therefore, I must retain power, even if it means compromising a bit, because if the other side takes power, that will be worse than any compromise I must make to keep them out of power.

Bingo, the sincerely well intentioned politician is led from his/her original path to the "common good" into the morass of compromise.

Only if a politician is able to resist the trap will his policy positions matter a great deal.

dg lesvic May 16, 2009 at 1:18 pm

Michael Smith,

I hate ike the dickens to criticize you because you are a brillian writer and great contributor to these discussions. But in the end you wind up defeating your purpose. For your moral argument against redistribution is really an economic argument for it, whereas the economic is the strongest possible moral argument against it as well.

Anne Cleveland May 16, 2009 at 1:49 pm

A few days ago, I posted an article titled, "Principles and value judgements, the zero aggression, "principle" on my blog site-octogenariansblog.com

Discussions about principles is a very interesting subject. Thank you for pointing out President Bush!s reference to it
Anne Cleveland

vidyohs May 16, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Michael Smith,

Your post "Posted by: Michael Smith | May 16, 2009 7:40:09 AM" is elegantly stated, our thinking on the subject relects and you said exactly what I would say if I had your ability, and in my opinion it is God's own truth. Your comments were well thought out, well presented, and I support your conclusions and implied recommendations.

Of my own free will, I can help someone in need if it is my judgment that doing so is in my and his best interest.

Just don't try and force me, I'll dodge that any way I can.

Good post.

K Ackermann May 16, 2009 at 5:15 pm

We must declare that one man's "need" does not entitle him to initiate the use of force to steal one penny of another man's money — or have the government do the stealing for him.

Declare all you want, but will that stop one man from taking another's fruit?

Also, it is not in a person's economic interest to replant a tree when one is cut down, or to clean up a mess that was made in the course of trade.

It is not in my self-interest to publish discoveries. Should I own a cure for a disease and choose who gets to live and who gets to die?

The free market is a lazy term. You can see the problems that arise.

vikingvista May 16, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Bush's decision was a clear disaster with unintended consequences that have only begun and are already dismal.

BUT…

Criticism of his decision needs to be tempered by the FACT that our banking system is essentially a government enterprise, and he is chief executive of the government. It is a government enterprise in that it functions on a government currency monopoly, government reserve mandates, Federal Reserve backing, and FDIC insurance, not to mention a thousand banking-specific government regulations. Add to that the fact that the crisis was itself government-engineered.

If we had a free banking system the decision to let insolvent banks fail would been more obvious. Of course this would not have happened in the first place with a free banking system.

Government inaction was not an option because of the automatic government obligations, like FDIC, poised to go into effect in the absence of TARP 1. Although it is not clear to me that that would've necessarily been a worse outcome, it is also not clear that it would've been a better outcome.

The ideal solution entails reform of the monetary system and banking regulations. But it is unreasonable to think the latter could be accomplished within a year let alone a few weeks. And with the current cabal in Congress, it is probably best that it not be addressed at all.

HOWEVER, NOTHING can begin to justify any attempt to bail out any auto maker.

vidyohs May 16, 2009 at 5:33 pm

K A,

I think that here is more in the words "we must declare" than you are reacting to.

I interpret it as the same as "we must agree".

Then having agreed, I suggest it becomes a matter of principle for me to help you repel someone who is attempting to take what is yours, under the realization that if I stand idly by and do not help you defend you natural rights, then surely I will be next on the list of the thief.

My choice, to be sure, but a wise one none-the-less.

vidyohs May 16, 2009 at 5:35 pm

"I don't believe in the chastity of impotent men"
- Nirad Choudhiri (on the "non-violence" principles of Indians wrt British occupation.)
Posted by: raja_r | May 16, 2009 9:35:46 AM"

Hadn't read or heard that one before. 'tis good, thanks.

Sam Grove May 16, 2009 at 5:37 pm

Also, it is not in a person's economic interest to replant a tree when one is cut down, or to clean up a mess that was made in the course of trade.

Unless you are in the business of growing and harvesting trees. Lumber companies do replenish their own land in this manner, as do growers of fruiting trees.

K Ackermann May 16, 2009 at 6:12 pm

I think that here is more in the words "we must declare" than you are reacting to.

I interpret it as the same as "we must agree".

Yes. One of the things I had difficulty with when I first found this site was a sort of dichotomy of forced freedom. It can throw people off.

I think it is OK to say that some common sense order naturally arises. If we call this order 'government', then government should exist entirely outside the free market.

I see all problems as stemming from where that is not upheld, but I also do not see all cases as being wrong.

Pollution, for example, is a problem, but its solution can step all over the free market.

K Ackermann May 16, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Lumber companies do replenish their own land in this manner…

Sam, here in Oregon there is a law stipulating replanting. However, there are many small, independent firms that will bid to log some piece of private property and they won't replant, knowing they won't get caught before they close the company down and start a different one.

The big outfits don't take that chance, but they are not nessessarily happy about replanting.

Since the state derives some revenue from the timber, I don't see why prisoners are not used for replanting. There would be no shortage of prison volunteers who want to get outside for a few days and replant trees.

vidyohs May 16, 2009 at 10:08 pm

"Yes. One of the things I had difficulty with when I first found this site was a sort of dichotomy of forced freedom. It can throw people off.
Posted by: K Ackermann | May 16, 2009 6:12:39 PM"

I gotta admit you went right over my head on this one. I never thought of the Cafe as demonstrating this. Thus I am in the dark.

Do you have an example or a specific instance that you can tell me about so I will see what you see?

indiana jim May 16, 2009 at 11:10 pm

It seems odd that anyone who knows that there are WAY more trees in the US currently than there were in, oh say, the early 1900s would be wailing: Who will speak for the trees? Maybe KA is unaware?Of course the fact that is reported widely by those using environmentalism as a wedge for socialism is that there are fewer forests. Well yes that is true, but there are way more trees.

Gil May 16, 2009 at 11:36 pm

Very interesting quote, raja_r! :)

Gil May 16, 2009 at 11:45 pm

Ouch, indy! K. Ackermann did point out that there were laws there forced people to replant trees. 'Forced'? If free market actors did not feel they had to replant trees but were forced by government . . . But, more trees, fewer forests – I heard that there's no 'natural forests' in Europe, all trees were chopped before Greenies were invented. Allegedly, Europe is covered with functional plantation trees and the odd decorative ones in parks and yards but then that could be a Greenie urban myth.

Sam Grove May 17, 2009 at 1:35 am

Sam, here in Oregon there is a law stipulating replanting.

But when lumber companies own the land that they harvest, they replant out of self interest.

SaulOhio May 17, 2009 at 5:24 am

Michael: Excellent post. You cannot fight for economic freedom without upholding the morality of individual rights.

dg lesvic: All of the econmic arguments will be ignored entirely by those who believe in altruism. At best the altruists will accept a mixed welfare state in which free markets do all the work, as a compromise to practicality. Michael pointed out how the conservative presidents who accepted the collectivist and altruist principles of the liberals failed to give us free markets.

Murali May 17, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Please, dont bring Rand into this.

While much can be criticised about the forced redistribution, Rand doesnt even go there.

Rand's spiel about altruism is utter BS. Mostly, because no one, even the caricatured altruist would accept her definition of altruism.

Question for all those Randroid egoists who fancy themselves as libertarians (Why shouldnt an egoist opportunistically violate rights whenever it benefits himeslf?)

Rand's pitiful excuse for a philosophy aside, Friedman, Hayek and Smith all advocated some form of social safety net or another.

What is pernicious is the leftist obsession with maximin, not a concern for human welfare.

As Prof Bodreaux has said in previous posts, as classical liberals, we rightfully ought to be concerned with the wellbeing of our fellow man.

With consequentialist liberals like Hayek and deontological liberals like Kant, or sentimaetalists like Smith, what need have we of pseudophilosophers like Rand. She does not deserve the time of day

(Of course this whole post was basically feeding that stupid beast which we are supposed to starve)

Ian Random May 19, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Comparing someone in elected office to an absolute standard is unfair. There is a lot of pressure to spend and expand government. For instance Obama compared to Bush so far, makes Bush look like a small government, free market radical. I think it was Nixon who passed affirmative action, a bad thing, but compared to quotas a lot less intrusive. The choices in politics are worse and worser. If you doubt how hard it is to not expand things, look at the strategic helium reserve story.

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