‘Talking about principles has its place but not when discussing young people’s future.”
“... this is why libertarians will never make it big — too much abstract thinking!”
Comments like these have been repeatedly tossed my way after discussing President Trump’s DACA decision on the radio recently. Specifically, we were struggling with balancing a terrible (in my opinion, immoral) U.S. immigration policy with the critical principle of the “rule of law.” These comments are variants of something I have heard numerous times in my life from both left and right — principles are fine, but not when a real, urgent situation is on the line.
However, to me (and every libertarian I know), when urgent things are in your face, that is the most important time for principles — certainly not the least!
This idea that principles are only something for college classrooms or quiet conversations over bourbon is appalling. Our principles, weighed and well considered, are our guides under circumstances of imperfect knowledge (which is always), they are our protectors against poor reactions in the heat of the moment. Our principles are the very organizing structures we place on our thinking to help ensure rational, sedate, mature, wise decision making on the most difficult topics and in the most difficult environments.
No principle or rule is perfect, because our knowledge is imperfect and no situation perfectly matches the rule. This is why theory and evidence go hand in hand to form actionable beliefs. This is why no principle is without exceptions. This is why wisdom requires humility that acknowledges the extreme limits of our understanding.
But one form of courage is acting on our inevitable ignorance in the face of urgent need. Acting on the best principles we can form. Acting on the best match of the situational evidence to the applicable principles. Improvising where principles fail us.
When told that libertarians are too abstract, or too focused on principles, all I can do is ask, “Upon what are your actions based if not some sort of principles?”
To a libertarian, the DACA situation is difficult specifically because it represents a conflict between fundamental principles: “the rule of law” and “freedom of travel/movement.” This framing — versus the foundationless, principleless framing suggested by detractors — gives libertarians the best chance of forming a final decision that balances these critical values and generates coherent policy that maximizes the welfare of all involved.
This framing also helps libertarians avoid talking past one another, as they start by delving into the foundations of those with which they are speaking and debating. So often our disagreements aren’t even on what we are actually talking about. If you see the line of reasoning, we are often arguing with each other at point 57 when we diverged at point 3.
The libertarians I know want to get back to that earlier fundamental point, where we can have a substantive conversation, where everyone might learn something, where we might come out better for the time and effort.
Whether libertarians or not, this is why wise people of good intention so often start from principles and abstract ideas. It is because they have no interest in virtue signaling, they want to actually learn something and formulate policies that might help people. More often than not, this means slowing down and getting back to the root of things.
From that place, we all might be able to clear away the junk, find places of agreement and make progress toward something better.