“History will also give occasion to expatiate on the advantage of civil orders and constitutions, how men and their properties are protected by joining in societies and establishing government; their industry encouraged and rewarded, arts invented, and life made more comfortable: The advantages of liberty, mischiefs of licentiousness, benefits arising from good laws and a due execution of justice. Thus may the first principles of sound politics be fixed in the minds of youth.”
-- Benjamin Franklin, Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, 1749
Last night, the U.S. Senate passed a $1 trillion, ten-year farm bill by a vote of 68-32. The bill made for strange bedfellows—with Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), the heir to the seat once held by the Liberal Lion, Ted Kennedy, joining conservative Senators like Marco Rubio (R-FL) in voting against the bill, while Barbara Boxer (D-CA) joined the likes of John Thune (R-SD) in voting for the bill.
One of the more intriguing splits involved the two Democratic Senators from New York. Chuck Schumer, the Brooklyn-born senior Senator who still resides in Kings County, voted yea, while Kirsten Gillibrand, the Albany-born resident of Brunswick, New York, voted nay. What explains this divergence?
Simply put: I don’t know. It could be that the two Senators, weighing the balance between “modest” cuts to the federal Food Stamp program and reform to federal crop insurance, came to different conclusions about the merits of the bill. That laughter you hear is from political operatives, who would say, “Get real. This is about politics, pure and simple.” They’d argue that Gillibrand is an upstate Senator with possible national political aspirations seeking to boost favorability with urban audiences and shore up her “left flank,” while Schumer—safe in his status as one of the Senate’s top Democrats—could “afford” to join Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in supporting a large, bipartisan piece of legislation.
In pondering this question, I thought of Benjamin Franklin’s commentary on the “First Principles” of the American body politic and of Alexis de Tocqueville’s belief that America’s Democracy was grounded in “generative principles.”
If it seems to you like political leaders in America are often driven my principles far removed from those espoused by Franklin and Tocqueville, you’d be right. Indeed, far from summoning the high-minded ideals of popular sovereignty, equality of rights, and justice, many politicians’ first instinct when confronted with a problem or an idea is to ask: what’s in this for me? All too often, the first principle—if one exists at all—is whether an idea makes for good press, regardless of whether it is good policy; whether a problem can be addressed by a solution that pushes off the day of reckoning until another time.
This state of affairs should not surprise us—not when so many of our leaders view political office as an end onto itself rather than a means to an end (i.e. something to be preserved, rather than used).
We can do better than that—and it starts by demanding from candidates what their “first principles” are so that we know precisely what will determine their choice on the tough votes and how they will approach our nation’s most intractable problems.
I don’t think there is any one set of first principles that is inherently right for every individual. That said, my own philosophy includes the following:
· The first goal should always be to understand the scope of the problem presented—often it is more complicated than it appears at first glance.
· We should determine whether government can/should play a role in solving the problem. Over time, government has proven itself capable of doing some things very well (building collective infrastructure) and others not so much (acting as a venture capitalist).
· Assuming that the problem can be solved with some form of government intervention, we should strongly consider the simplest method that imposes the least onerous requirement on individual liberty. In other words, the solution should be narrowly tailored to fit the problem at hand.
· In balancing the costs and benefits of a particular policy (or even in identifying the scope of a problem), we must prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable.
· We should embrace an “active” government (in Alexander Hamilton’s parlance) that is willing to experiment with new ideas to solve old problems.
· Children deserve special protection. What does this mean? It means that the community, as parens patriae, has a duty to assist children in achieving an independence of spirit. This does not mean vast intervention in the parental realm, but it does mean that we acknowledge that certain behaviors are out of bounds for parents to impose on their children and that we, collectively, must intervene in those situations.
· We should assume that present sacrifice for future benefit is the appropriate path. The burden of proof should be on those who would take today and pay tomorrow, not the other way around.
This is just the start of my list. You may agree or disagree with some/all of these. What’s most important is we have first principles to guide our decision-making and that we demand a politics defined by service and sacrifice, not self-aggrandizement.