Principle and the Possible

by Bruce S. Thornton

Advancing a Free Society

The continuing stalemate over raising the debt ceiling is provoking a lot of voters into Mercutio’s “a pox on both your houses” response. “They’re acting like 6-year-olds pretty much on both sides,” one woman told the New York Times. “I think it’s stunning that they can’t just agree. I’m fed up with all of them,” another woman said. “I think both sides are wrong,” said one man, “and both sides need to look at themselves in the mirror.” At least according to these folks, the problem is a failure of political character: “Where are the people of integrity, the Washingtons and Lincolns,” a real-estate agent asked. “We need people who aren’t taking lobbyist money, who aren’t making decisions to get re-elected.”

These comments are pretty typical of how many of us view our various political problems — as the result of corrupt opportunists who sacrifice principle and the nation’s well-being to their hunger for money, power, or prestige. Though there’s a lot of truth to this view, our problems derive as much from the nature of democracy as they do from the venality or mediocrity of our politicians.

The glory of democracy is paradoxically the source of its weaknesses. Expanding political power to large numbers of people ensures their freedom and autonomy. But allowing more people into the political process also increases the number of interests and aims that need government power for their fulfillment. These interests, moreover, range from the idealistic and principled to the selfish and venal. Whatever their quality, by necessity they cannot all be reconciled to one another, and so their conflicts tend to be zero-sum: success at one will require the failure of another. This creates a fundamental reality of democracies that critics going back to Plato find distasteful: compromise of principle is usually required to get anything done.

But there’s another feature of democracy that makes this process even more problematic. Another glory of democracy is that it puts power in offices rather than in men, and subjects office-holders to accountability and term-limits, which requires politicians periodically to campaign for the citizens’ votes. This makes it harder for power to be concentrated and grow over time, thus lessening the possibility of abuse. But that same mechanism makes democracies bad at planning and executing long-term policies, as in the US, where we have elections every two years and thus a permanent re-election campaign. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote when our government was still young, “A democracy can only with great difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design, and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles. It cannot combine its measures with secrecy or await their consequences with patience.” Hence the frustration many voters experience when Washington can’t solve problems long identified.

Tocqueville touches on another feature of democracy that contributes to both its strength and weakness: the openness necessary both for the broad participation of the citizens in public debate and for monitoring politicians and holding them accountable. These days mass communication technologies and instant polling have intensified the pressure voters bring to bear on politicians. Cable news, talk radio, Internet punditry, and blogs, in addition to newspapers, magazines, and network television, monitor politicians minute by minute, creating endless feedback loops, most of them negative. This pressure on decision-making is enormous and constantly shifting, creating a two-year horizon that limits political behavior.

The conflict over raising the debt ceiling and constructing policies to rein in government spending and lower the debt is a textbook example of these weaknesses of democracies. Party one wants to raise taxes and continue government spending to achieve “social justice,” party two wants to pare back the size of government and balance the budget without raising taxes. Each side has powerful constituencies, armed with polls and pundits, who are monitoring votes and policies and threatening electoral accountability for betraying their interests, whether these are selfishly material or idealistically principled. Either way, the interests of the two parties are incompatible and cannot be achieved in all the purity that their adherents might wish. The solution ultimately will require compromise.

And let’s be clear: the point is not that both sides are partially right, or that both sides have a certain measure of good in their positions that can be extracted and combined into an ideal solution, as seems to be the idea of most people who call for compromise or endorse the President’s dubious “balanced approach.” Party two has a better argument, sounder principles, and more cogent empirical evidence, and over time its policies will be better for the country. But in the end, in a democracy that isn’t enough. It is the nature of democracy, not the failure of politicians to stick to their principles, which requires the sort of grubby horse-trading many of us find so objectionable.

So let’s not look to Mercutio for guidance, but to Bismarck, who first said that politics is the art of the possible. We need sound principles and principled politicians, but the system in which they work creates the limits to what can be done. Every successful democratic politician from Pericles to Ronald Reagan has understood that transient tactical retreats are often necessary to achieve a permanent strategic victory. Those on the right demanding purity of principle in the current crisis will win a Pyrrhic victory if come next November the party of tax and spend is still in the White House.

©2011 Bruce S. Thornton

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