The problem with principles

I’m not a man of principles. That’s not to say that there aren’t things that I believe that are near universal, but it’s just that I don’t tend to view policy decisions and other things through the lens of principles. It seems we get ourselves into trouble when we do that, and I wonder if there’s some kind of a liberal/conservative divide on how we let principles guide us. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in the Trump era (which I hope won’t be a real era, but nevertheless feels like one already).

When I think of the democratic party, and the ideals that make me consider myself a democrat, it’s based on the idea that government can be a force of good. It’s based on the idea that government should do what it can to help the most people. In a very Spock-like manner, things are numbers games for me. If a policy will help ten thousand people, but hurt one, we should probably support that policy. That’s not a firm rule though. If the harm to the one is extreme, then it outweighs the benefit to the ten thousand. We might, for instance, be able to develop cures for diseases if we did invasive research on humans. But even if it were true that we could cure some common form of cancer by killing your grandmother, I still don’t think we should do that. I think we should look for another way.

But when I think of republicans, and I am aware that I’m likely heading into straw man territory here, I think of people whose are, in principle, opposed to government. When given the choice between private ownership of something and the government running it, they want private ownership, it seems even when there’s plenty of evidence that the government can run it better. In fact, talking to many republicans over the years, I think they reject the idea that the government can do anything better than a private company can. Republicans, in principle, dislike taxes. Republicans, in principle, are for traditional marriage and traditional family units, and defend traditional gender roles.

I can respect having principles. But here’s the problem. Many republicans now look like liars. They’ve been claiming these principled arguments about things for so long, but under Trump find themselves (likely without realizing it), going against their previously stated principles.

Maybe I’m wrong about what their principles are. Maybe that’s the straw man here, but I’m watching people who have a long history of things go completely against those things, all to maintain support for Trump.

Republicans have long been for free trade. A hallmark principle of republicans is that government intervention in commerce is bad. Libertarians take this to an extreme, and libertarian party platforms in the past were against antitrust actions by the government. (This language was not in the 2016 platform, after a debate within the party that’s summarized here.) Although republicans have supported government regulations on the extreme edges, they are generally opposed to hindrances to free markets. This was a common criticism of Obama. He was accused of picking winners and losers in industry, and held Solyndra up as the banner for why it shouldn’t be done. But now, under Trump, Republicans are supporting tariffs, and don’t seem to have any complaint when Trump talks about making things easier for coal companies. In fairness, there was some pushback from the Senate when President Trump made moves to save the Chinese company ZTE, but whether or not that sticks is still in the hands of the legislative process. Either way, it makes me wonder what happened to those principles, and why doesn’t that trouble them more.

“Build the Wall” is another thing that baffles me. For people who have claimed to be principally against government overreach, they sure seem to be pushing for a massive overreach of government. Who do they think owns a lot of the land where the wall is supposed be built? We’re talking about miles and miles (acres and acres) of private property. Of course there’s an eminent domain argument that it’s constitutional. This stems from the Fifth Amendment, which is more commonly raised in self incrimination, but has some other stuff tacked on at the end.

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence [sic] to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

We’ve had plenty of court cases over what “just compensation” means, but in the end, we decided that the government can take your home, if they pay you a fair price, and if they demonstrate that it’s in the public interest. Republicans have been very outspoken against this in the past, and that fits with their anti-government-overreach principles. But if it ever actually happens (and I doubt it will), the border wall that Trump describes would be a giant movement of private property into the hands of the government. It would crush property values that currently have scenic landscape views of the Rio Grande. There’s a private golf resort in Lajitas Texas that’s right on the border and plenty of private homes and land that all needs to be taken from the owners. I found one place, on Zillow that’s for sale right now for $1,950,000. It’s a beautiful log home on 2,560 acres in Lajitas, TX. In fact, I wonder if the high sales price is in anticipation of some eminent domain. Not a bad idea. Still, it puzzles me that so many Trump-Wall supporters haven’t thought this through.

This morning on FoxNews, a frequent guest was breaking down the SCOTUS decision about sales taxes and online purchases. I don’t feel very strongly about it, but my first thought is that I like the decision, and think that it helps bring back tax revenue that has been lost because of the move to online shopping. I trust the judgement of several Justices who voted against (Sotomayor and Kagan), but I also trust the judgement of Ginsberg, who voted with the majority. But, it sure sounds like some big government stuff to me. So I was a bit surprised when I found myself in an unusual position of agreeing with the FoxNews guy, who supported it because it levels the playing field between the big online guys like Amazon and the brick and mortar guys. He was clearly favoring a government intervention to restrict the free market…I thought that was against their principles.

It all makes me wonder what principles I claim, that I don’t live up to. What actions of a government would I support, in spite of some principled claim against those actions in the past? Do I just make it too easy for myself by not claiming principles, or is just better to avoid seeing things as black and white?


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