Monday, October 13, 2008

A Deer in the Headlights

Over the past few weeks I have witnessed two seemingly disconnected events that have proved interesting. A comment by philosopher Harry Binswanger on HBL helped me identify what I was witnessing.

On a forum I frequent, someone raised the issue of illegal aliens. I pointed out that such discussions seldom include any mention of the legitimacy of our immigration laws. The response that I received was basically, "It's the law and we must obey it." I then pointed out that it was once illegal to harbor escaped slaves, but according to the argument posed we would be obligated to obey the law. I stated that the same principle was involved.

I was told that my response was irrelevant, that we weren't discussing slavery. At first I thought I was dealing with intellectual dishonesty. I thought that those opposing me were reacting emotionally, simply didn't like my position, and therefore refused to consider or discuss any other opinion.

(I should add that the disagreement did not bother me, but rather the method of argumentation. My argument was simply dismissed as irrelevant with no attempt to address the point I made.)

Then I read an opinion piece in the Chronicle and left a comment. A few days later I returned to see what other comments had been left. I discuss those comments in A Fool and His Rights Are Soon Parted.

I had a similar reaction-- these people are simply being intellectually dishonest. My position upsets them because it isn't consistent with their desires. But this explanation did not seem sufficient. There seemed to be something more fundamental that explained this attitude. I then recalled Dr. Binswanger's comment that, due to progressive education, most Americans cannot think in principles.

From the Ayn Rand Lexicon:

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.

When someone states that we should not question the validity of a law, but simply obey it, he is stating a principle (whether he realizes it or not). His statement is general in nature, and thus applies to all laws. When I responded on the forum mentioned above, I simply applied that principle to another concrete situation. In other words, if the principle is true in regard to immigration, then it should be true in regard to all laws.

But my opponents saw no applicability. They were discussing a single, concrete law, and they could not comprehend how their statements could have any bearing on another concrete law. Each is to be considered in isolation, without any reference to or consideration of anything else. In other words, one's statements on Issue A have no bearing on one's views on Issue B.

The same thing occurred in regard to the comments regarding the Chronicle article. The comments completely ignored the property rights issue involved. In the minds of the readers, property rights had nothing to do with the issue. All kinds of other issues were raised-- the home owners were fools, the law is the law, we don't need the Kennedy's in Texas, tax payers shouldn't have to pay to rebuild, etc.

If principles are our only means of setting long-range goals and evaluating specific situations, what does this imply of those who cannot think in principles? How does someone deal with the multitude of events, ideas, and choices that confront each of us every day? How can one project the consequences of a particular choice?

In short, such a person can't. He can only act on the expediency of the moment, hoping that somehow his choice will work out. President Bush captured the essence of this when explaining his position on the economic crisis.

I'm sure there are some of my friends out there that are saying, "I thought this guy was a market guy, what happened to him?" My first instinct was to let the market work, until I realized, while being briefed by the experts, how significant this problem became.

In other words, when it came time to make a crucial decision, one that will impact every American, the President consulted "experts" and abandoned principles. His guide became the expediency recommended by "experts" rather than the truth. Or, as Gus van Horn puts it,

Abandon your "convictions" when in trouble. Do what seems expedient at the moment. Determining whether your convictions were wrong and, if so, in what way, is a waste of time. Never mind the fact that doing so would quickly reveal that you are about to make essentially the same mistake all over again!

This is nothing but pure Pragmatism-- the belief that reality is malleable to our wishes, that truth is "what works". And how are we to determine "what works"? We act quickly and decisively, and then see what results. We throw $700 billion at the problem, repeat over and over that everything will be fine, cut interest rates, and purchase equity in banks. And then we will cross our fingers. If that doesn't work, we'll just cross that bridge when we get to it.

Having abandoned principles our "leaders" can't identify the cause of the current economic mess. Unable to identify the cause, they enact more of the same. Like a deer caught in the headlights, they know that they must act but do not have the means to project the long-term consequences of their choices.

This same attitude is evident in the myriad land use regulations popping up around Houston, such as the Ashby High Rise. The home owners in the area seek to use government coercion to stop that project, while simultaneously objecting to the potential use of government coercion to seize their homes. They cannot see that the two issues have a common principle. They cannot see that the argument they use against the Ashby High Rise can later be used against them.

When a deer is caught in the headlights he has but a moment to react. The wrong action means his destruction. Individuals who abandon principles face the same consequences.

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