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12/09/2003 Archived Entry: "Thinking about principles"

THINKING ABOUT PRINCIPLES. The recent debate about intellectual property has got me thinking about something related -- applying principles to real-world situations. Libertarians (me included, of course!) love principles. And certainly if you had to choose between living in a world run by principles and one run on pure pragmatism, the principled world would be both the nobler, and safer, choice.

Or would it?

Leaving aside the fact that some principles can be downright evil ("From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" comes to mind), principled idealists -- left, right, libertarian, religious, atheistic, or otherwise -- often get into a bad habit of thinking that the principle must supercede human reality. Where human needs conflict with the principle -- by golly, the real, living human beings should ram and jam themselves into the abstract principle. (IMHO, this is what's going on with folks who say that, because they can't think of a principled way to enforce creators' rights, then there ARE no creators rights, and ALL rights are invested in physical possession of objects like books and CDs. That said, I don't want to make this another rant about IP.)

As a principled idealist myself, I hate admitting it. But it's no great secret that the world's most destructive monsters have been idealists. The problem wasn't just that their ideals were warped (Hitler with his Aryan dreams, Pol Pot with his agrarian paradise). A big part of the problem is that they considered the ideal to be so perfect, so sacrosanct, so unassailable that anybody who got in the way of its implementation could be destroyed without the idealist feeling a flicker of conscience.

If a problem arises, well, it must simply be one of adjustment. Keep applying the principle, don't worry about having to break a lot of eggs, and eventually you'll have a delicious omlette. Except somehow, you just have to keep breaking and breaking and breaking ...

Do I believe libertarians would ever become mass murderers in the name of individual freedom? Nope. But I do believe many of us would ruthlessly roll over a lot of people rather than question the workability of our own ideals. Too many of us hold an icy determination that an ideal is correct even when others point out many ways in which rigid application of the ideal would harm innocent people.

In everyday reality, all kinds of decisions are -- and should be -- made more by compromise than by principle. My neighbor and I both have property rights. A principle. So we live side-by-side in agreement about where the boundary is between his land and mine. Fine, so far. But if my dogs bark or the noise from his party wafts up the hill, no absolute principle dictates how we deal with the situation. We may decide that I should keep the dogs in after 10:00 p.m. or that he have parties only once a month, but that those parties can be as loud as he likes. Compromises. If we can't agree, then some third party comes in (be that police or free-market arbitrators) and enforces some other compromise. My dogs must be silent from 11:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. because county ordinance XYZ says so. His parties must end at midnight because that's what the arbitrator gets us both to agree to. More compromises.

If this seems perfectly obvious, bear with me. We libertarians, in trying to work out how things ought to be in our ideal, anarcho-capitalist world, want to discover a principle to govern every circumstance, every decision that must be made. When we can't find a principle, we beat our heads against the wall. Or we invent a principle, declare it valid in all circumstances, and defend it with every bit of passion and logic we can concoct.

But even in some ultimate free-market system all kinds of compromises and purely pragmatic decisions will govern all kinds of activities, not only between individuals but on a very large scale. A cartel of private road operators will agree on common standards so that drivers won't have to memorize the rules of 100 different free-market freeways. Publishers may get together with distributors to shut out other publishers that don't respect ethical copyright standards. After a while, merely to keep the machinery of society cranking smoothly, all manner of rules will develop that look almost governmental -- and, to anybody seeking a capital-P Principle, appear quite arbitrary.

In the real world, principles certainly should underly systems, but they simply don't, and can't, rule every circumstance between human beings. Without compromise and pragmatism, we'd all be a bunch of robots -- and we'd all be crashing mindlessly into each other all the time because we'd never be able to agree on all the little everyday decisions that make it possible to live around and with each other.

Posted by Claire @ 04:11 PM CST

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