How is this principled?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Froma Harrop, a typical modern pragmatist (scroll down) with leftist sensibilities, floored me this morning with her latest, a column in the Detroit News titled, "There's Something to Be Said for States' Rights." What floored me wasn't that a lefty would take a shine to that poorly-understood aspect of our federal system of government, but that she described a stand taken by Texas Governor (and presidential candidate) Rick Perry as, "principled."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry ... recently raised some conservative hackles by saying it was "fine" for New York to legalize gay marriage. But then he lowered some conservative hackles by characterizing abortion as a states' rights issue. Perry deems himself "pro-life," and we know that letting states ban abortion requires first overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized the procedure.


"You can't believe in the 10th Amendment for a few issues," Perry said, "and then, (for) something that doesn't suit you, say, 'We'd rather not have the states decide that.'" That principled statement is one drug war advocates should recall when federal agents invade the backyards of Californians growing medical marijuana consistent with their state laws.

Of course, such states' rights arguments have been used to defend such evils as legalized racial discrimination. And a patchwork of 50 different sets of laws on the same matter can cause headaches.
I have already discussed states' rights here, and won't belabor the point, but I will note that, unless it is understood within the context of a proper government protecting individual rights, the idea can easily lead to the establishment of fifty local tyrannies rather than one national tyranny. Harrop herself plainly realizes this on some level, given her brief allusion to a thing called Jim Crow.

Oh, and "headaches." (!)

And yet, Harrop goes ahead and calls Perry "principled." This is what I wish to focus on for the moment.

If a principle is, as Ayn Rand put it, "a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend," by means of which we become able to "set ... long-range goals and evaluate the concrete alternatives of any given moment," which principle is Perry following here? Harrop's mention of Jim Crow conveniently eliminates, "Government should protect individual rights," for us.

So, perhaps Harrop means something like, "To enjoy the benefits of rule of law, we must all obey the law, and the government must uniformly apply the law." This sounds plausible enough, until we recall Perry's eagerness to speak about secession: Unless one really is prepared to rebel against a tyranny, the way to apply this principle is to change the law by, say, provoking test cases, or introducing legislation in order to eliminate or change laws one disagrees with, or by civil disobedience, accepting one's unjust punishment as a means of demonstrating to others that a law is wrong. Certainly, saying, in effect as Perry does, that it's fine for some states to make marriage illegal for certain classes of people, or that some states can enslave women to fetuses, neither protects individual rights nor upholds rule by law (a necessary means of doing the former) at the federal level.

Insisting on a uniform application of a law, such as the tenth amendment, may well be what a principled man who supports properly limited government would do. However, it is clear to me that, whatever Rick Perry's motivations are for doing so, either they are not principled or if they are, the unspoken motivating principles are not ones I would agree with.

Sadly, Harrop doesn't mind this, being eager for the "our national politics" to get over the headache of, "a never-ending war between irreconcilable views" concerniing abortion. Is abortion murder or is forbidding it slavery? Harrop's "principled" stand is that this is no concern of our federal government.

Pragmatism is the rejection of principles on principle, and sidestepping life-and-death issues out of momentary convenience is an excellent example. I can't say the same for Perry (although his lip-service to the Constitution is probably expedient), but Froma Harrop shows her true pragmatic colors in this column. Conveniently, she feigns magnanimity and thoughtfulness by calling her opponent (and, by extension, herself) "principled."

-- CAV

P.S. Harrop's take on this is not the same as noticing that, as currently understood, states' rights accidentally protects the whole nation from being subjected to tyranny all at once.


Anonymous said...

I was at a lecture about a year ago where the speaker, whose name unfortunately escapes me, pointed out that the Obama administration was going to use the Raich case as the basis to defend Obama-care - much to the chagrin of National Review conservatives.

His lecture was on the degeneration of the constitution and he went through major rulings to illustrate how the SCOTUS has consistently undermined individual rights. His point on Raich was merely an aside on the issue.

I took notes but have apparently lost them in an intervening move. I just thought that it was a case of the chickens coming home to roost for the anti-drug conservatives who would like to support "states' rights" only when it accords with their worldview; individual rights be damned.

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...

It's too bad you lost the notes. Sounds like that was a very interesting lecture.

Anonymous said...


I talked with a friend who had attended the lecture with me and his memory is better than mine.

Randy Barnett was the lecturer and the lecture was an abstraction from his book, "Restoring the Lost Constitution: the Presumption of Liberty." I still haven't found my notes, but, when I have the money, I can expand on them significantly.

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for stopping by with the update!