Practical wisdom is always governed by principle
National politicians are resuming the battle over the budget with the Democrats feeling flush and Republicans licking their wounds. The controversy over ObamaCare nevertheless is not over and the question of whether to raise the national debt ceiling will be with us again in a few months. So now is a good time to do some hard thinking about how to deal with these contentious issues.
The most conservative Republicans pride themselves on their refusal to compromise their principles, and particularly not to be liberal Democrat “lite,” as they accuse so-called Establishment Republicans of being. That is praiseworthy but only if such a determination is combined with practical wisdom, which enjoins good citizens to do the most good in the circumstances.
But there are indications that these same politicians who pride themselves so much for their refusal to follow the liberal Democrats’ lead on public policy may be tempted to follow their political tactics. I mean the tendency to regard the means chosen to fight political evils or to advance the public good as good in themselves, whether or not it advances one’s cause.
It was unwise to imagine that public opinion could be aroused sufficiently to pressure Senate Democrats or President Obama to defund, suspend or otherwise derail Obama Care because, in our constitutional system of separation of powers, one body—namely, the House of Representatives—cannot by itself overrule the other two elective branches.
It is, on the other hand, very wise to call attention to the manifest deficiencies in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) so that, in the 2014 and 2016 elections, the voters draw the appropriate conclusion and vote out of office those who supported this legislative monstrosity and elect a Republican Senate and a Republican President.
From the beginning I sympathized with Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee in their effort to highlight the real evils of nationalized health care, a blunderbuss contraption that will make a mess of one-sixth of our commerce. But when their supporters practically demonized equally conservative Republicans for pointing out that their defunding tactic wouldn’t work, that reminded me not of demons that liberal Democrats conjured up but of left wingers who believe that their “commitment” alone justifies, whether in or out of power, their willful defiance of the law.
For it is the Left, not the Right, which has a long history of “civil disobedience” in the streets of laws its minions don’t like, and usurpation of legislative authority when holding the Presidency, as Barack Obama has done regarding illegal immigration, the environment and, most glaringly, the Affordable Care Act itself! Unions and large corporations have been granted, with no legal authority whatsoever, waivers from ObamaCare whereas millions of other Americans, including small businesses, are not so favored.
The nation needs practical wisdom instead. In its classical form, such wisdom is inseparable from moral virtue of the sort exemplified by our greatest statesmen. It means, as the Greek philosopher Aristotle explained, doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, with the right means and for the right reason.
Cleverness may get less scrupulous political leaders what they want, such as passage of the ACA on a straight Democrat-party vote with no Republican support whatever, but it cannot be deemed practical wisdom if it does not comport with the public good. In America, that means that all citizens should be free to make their own decisions about insuring themselves against massive medical costs.
Practical wisdom should not be confused with that nineteenth century philosophy known as pragmatism, which teaches that “whatever works” is the acceptable moral standard. Often, liberal Democrats will deny any ideological inclinations (unlike the besotted “ideological” Right) and take cover behind a pose of pragmatism. But it is literally impossible to make a choice that does not promote (or defeat) a purpose greater than the immediate one of getting your way.
Moral standards for evaluating human conduct exist whether or not anyone chooses to heed them or to take them seriously. As Abraham Lincoln remarked, there is a “moral economy of the universe” which not only teaches us how we should act but also exacts a price for failing to act rightly.
ObamaCare’s evils will return “to plague the inventor,” to quote Macbeth’s soliloquy as he contemplated murdering King Duncan. Democrats deserve defeat for killing private initiative. No less will evils plague the opponents of ObamaCare who fail to respect the constitutional order.
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Take Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org