Are Principles Optional?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Years ago, I read the book, Is Reality Optional?, by Thomas Sowell. Yesterday, President Bush, who must own stock in the companies that sell merchandise that counts down the time remaining in his term, reminded me of it by saying one of the most nonsensical things I have ever heard a man utter:

I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system to make sure the economy doesn't collapse.
To someone who understands the nature of principles, and hence their practical value, the only context in which this can make any sense is the explanatory.

What do I mean? As human beings, we are distinct from other animals in possessing the faculty of reason. This faculty allows us to make superior use of sensory data than other animals because it allows us to conceptualize this material, and able to use it effectively henceforth, including seeing complex relationships between existents to form higher-level concepts.

For example, where a dog or cat will be able to respond to and use illumination from a flashlight, the sun, or a fire, only man is able to understand, in part through the concept of "light" what each of these has in common. Knowing about, "light", man can both try to find alternate sources, and form higher-level, related concepts, such as "day", and "time", as he does when he considers the fact that the sun, a major light source rises and sets with regularity. Without reference to the concept of "light", one would be unable to guide an effort to obtain more of it when needed, much less explain what all his knocking about was for.

Principles are simply the highest level of abstraction, as Ayn Rand once explained in her essay, "The Anatomy of Compromise":
A principle is "a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend." Thus a principle is an abstraction which subsumes a great number of concretes. It is only by means of principles that one can set one's long-range goals and evaluate the concrete alternatives of any given moment. It is only principles that enable a man to plan his future and to achieve it. [bold added]
What, then would "free market principles" be? On the one hand, they would be a conceptual understanding of what, exactly, a free market is in both the positive sense of knowing what it is (and thus seeing that it requires the protection of the individual's right to form and act upon his best judgment in the course of his daily life), as well as in the negative sense of knowing what it isn't (e.g., socialism, fascism, slavery, or feudalism) and thus what would endanger or destroy it.

To take a lower-level example, if I own a dog, and know the principles of animal care, I will avoid letting Fido slurp up antifreeze, no matter how thirsty he is, because I know that antifreeze is poison, even though Fido, having only instinct and a perceptual awareness of reality, does not. Even apparent violations of such principles, such as letting a stranger wound Fido with a knife, are seen not to be such when we consider that the stranger is a veterinarian and he is conducting surgery. We are still, in that case, applying the principles of proper animal care, even though "don't cut Fido with a knife" would ordinarily apply.

Now, let's consider what Bush said. First of all, we do not live under capitalism, but in an economy that mixes free market elements with elements of state control. There is no "free market" to save. One can only move our (inherently unstable) economy towards having more or less freedom, whether one be actively doing so or attempting to muddle through the latest crisis caused by the statist elements of the economy. So Bush has just admitted that he does not even know what a "free market" even is. (Hint: If it is a "system" at all, it is self-organizing beyond the government apparatus necessary to protect individual rights.)

Bush does, apparently, realize on some level that he has been acting as a statist, for he finds himself having to excuse his administration's behavior over the past few months. (Actually, he should apologize for his whole term.) Although he does not really know what a "free market system" is, even he knows that what he has been doing entails government intrusion into the economy.

He knows that, but apparently does not realize that such government intrusions as such make the market less free and, therefore, less able to recover, because the individuals who make up the free economy are constrained by government regulation or rendered less effective because government distortions in the economy are making them badly-informed actors. In short, Bush is compounding the government's violation of individual rights for the expressed purpose of "saving" capitalism, and the implied purpose of protecting our individual rights!

This is different than, say, a pro-capitalist President who inherited the mess we now have, finding some temporary or one-time form of government intervention necessary to avert a financial disaster, and explaining that he does so only reluctantly, and that he will, in the meantime, continue to work to increase our freedom in any other way he can.

But then, a pro-capitalist would know what capitalism is, what it requires (full government protection of individual rights), and why statism and anarchy are inferior, and dangerous to the survival of the people he is sworn to protect. He would know these things because he would rely upon free market principles when thinking about the economy. And he would know that if he doesn't rely on such principles -- if he "abandons" -- them, he will have no way to decide what action is best for the discharge of his office.

But Bush is no pro-capitalist. He admitted as much yesterday, and furthermore, has confessed in word and deed that he just has some mild emotional attachment to some nearly meaningless conception of "free markets", which he regards as optional and, ultimately, unimportant. After all, if statism is so powerful (which it isn't) that it can "save" capitalism, why save it? Worse, he has also admitted that he sees no connection between principles and reality. To Bush, a principle is just something you pay lip service to when you want to look good to yourself or others.

This is not a concerned pet owner taking his beloved pet to the vet. This is a kid grabbing the nearest jug of antifreeze because he wants to feel good about "helping" the dog he should have watered first thing in the morning.

-- CAV


Burgess Laughlin said...

Gus, thank you for nailing President Bush on his pragmatism.

I have a question for anyone about part of Ayn Rand's definition of a "principle." She says, as you quoted:

A principle is "a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend." (Ayn Rand Lexicon, "Principle," 1st entry.)

1. If other truths depend on truth A, isn't A a fundamental, that is, isn't it the foundation for those truths? In other words, are not all principles fundamental, by definition?

2. What is an example of a primary truth on which other truths depend? In other words, what does "primary" mean that "fundamental" doesn't mean?

3. What is an example of a general truth? Does "general" imply that it is a truth that applies widely in a certain context but not always in that context? I thought principles are absolute, that is, they apply always within a specified context.

These questions have puzzled me for a long time. Perhaps if someone offers answers, they will be useful to others as well.

Gus Van Horn said...


You're welcome, and thank you for posing that question.

I will need time I may or may not get soon to try to answer it myself, so I have posted it for anyone else who might want to tackle it.

Some immediate thoughts, by question number follow. I'm shooting from the hip, so I welcome anyone who wishes to pounce on any errors.

(1) Consider the non-initiation of force principle. Much or all of politics depends on it, but is it fundamental? It certainly is not axiomatic. It is not anywhere near immediately derivable from sensory evidence, so it's a far cry from being "primary". It does appear to be fundamental to politics, but not to antecedent areas, like epistemology.

(2) "Man has consciousness" is a primary truth on which "Do not initiate force against others." ultimately depends. I suspect that primary might mean something like "immediacy to perceptual reality". See first entry under "axiomatic concepts, which states in part, "Axioms are usually considered to be propositions identifying a fundamental, self-evident truth. But explicit propositions as such are not primaries: they are made of concepts. The base of man’s knowledge—of all other concepts, all axioms, propositions and thought—consists of axiomatic concepts."

(3) "Men have two arms and two legs," would be a general truth on which others depend (e.g., "Shoes come in pairs." But this may be a wrong sense of "depend".), but it is not a principle.

"Individual specimens of Homo sapiens possess reason," is also generally true, but is equivalent to (or at least partially the basis of) "Man is the rational animal," which eventually leads to the non-initiation of force principle. That principle does indeed always apply, and even to exceptional examples of humans without rational faculties (e.g., the severely retarded) or fully developed ones (e.g., children), but read on....

Now, generally, it is a corollary of the non-initiation of force that one does not forcibly restrain someone else, unless a crime has been (or is about to be) committed. But this is only generally true, because in the case of children, the protection of the rights of others actually demands that they be forcibly prevented by responsible parties from doing certain things that would be crimes if done by responsible adults. This is not a violation of the non-initiation principle at all, but it shows how its precise application can be stated in general terms that do not always apply.

Hope that helps!

Back to data analysis, but I'll check in here from time to time....


Richard said...

I wish they would forget the "market" part. If the free market has failed, then freedom has failed. The lowly common people cannot be trusted to govern their own lives and decide what is in their best interest so we need the state to be our superior voice. Of course no politician or reporters would ever say such a thing as gleefully and coyly as they do when they speak of the free market.

Gus Van Horn said...

What annoys me about the reporting is how, ever since Greenspan, they throw around the phrase "unfettered free markets" like croutons -- and like we have ever had that or a powerful advocate of that.

Gus Van Horn said...

Mr. Kerschen,

I have quoted the substance of your comment and addressed it at some length here.

I have not posted it here in part due to the age of this post and the fact that it is too close to being an advertisement for my tastes.