The Corner

The Case Against Principles

E.J. Dionne, in his column today, argues that conservatives are too focused on abstract ideas. He asserts (falsely, as it happens) that the right has offered no alternatives to Obamacare, and that in claiming the Republican House would propose to cut $100 billion from domestic discretionary Republicans pulled the number out of thin air, all in the service of some abstraction about small government.

 

Obviously political arguments have to be tied to concrete and particular problems and solutions, but politics also has to be grounded in principle. Sound statesmanship is an application of principle to practice and to circumstance. But Dionne is basically arguing, as liberals have increasingly argued in recent decades, for a politics devoid of principle. And that becomes especially evident when we consider his tellingly selective quotation from Edmund Burke at the opening of his column. Here’s how he opens:

 

Edmund Burke, one of history’s greatest conservatives, warned that abstractions are the enemy of responsible government.

 

“I never govern myself, no rational man ever did govern himself, by abstractions and universals,” Burke wrote. “A statesman differs from a professor in a university; the latter has only the general view of society; the former, the statesman, has a number of circumstances to combine with those general ideas.”

 

Alas for all of us and for American conservatism in particular, the new Republican majority that took control of the House on Wednesday is embarked on an experiment in government by abstractions. Many in its ranks pride themselves on being practical business people, but they behave as professors in thrall to a few thrilling ideas.

 

Now here is the actual Burke passage, from which Dionne has picked two portions. The passage is from a speech Burke delivered on May 11, 1792 regarding a petition to the House of Commons by a group of Unitarians asking for greater toleration of their views. The speech opens with this:

 

I never govern myself, no rational man ever did govern himself, by abstractions and universals. I do not put abstract ideas wholly out of any question, because I well know that under that name I should dismiss principles; and that without the guide and light of sound well-understood principles, all reasonings in politics, as in everything else, would be only a confused jumble of particular facts and details, without the means of drawing out any sort of theoretical or practical conclusion. A statesman differs from a professor in a university; the latter has only the general view of society; the former, the statesman, has a number of circumstances to combine with those general ideas, and to take into his consideration. Circumstances are infinite, are infinitely combined; are variable and transient; he, who does not take them into consideration is not erroneous, but stark mad–dat operam ut cum ratione insaniat [he labors to make his mind mad through his reason]–he is metaphysically mad. A statesman, never losing sight of principles, is to be guided by circumstances; and judging contrary to the exigencies of the moment he may ruin his Country for ever.

 

Burke is arguing, in other words, for a politics of principles applied to problems—of the abstract idea applied to the particular circumstance. To dismiss those ideas would be, as he says, to “dismiss principles” and so leave us with “a confused jumble of particular facts and details, without the means of drawing out any sort of theoretical or practical conclusion.” That certainly seems to be what Dionne is after.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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