The Principle of Prioritizing Principles
“The mark of a great man is one who knows when to set aside the important things in order to accomplish the vital ones.” – Brandon Sanderson
We all have our own set of principles; the wish list of things we’d like to see happen if we could snap our fingers and remake the world in our own image. I do, you do, we all do, and each of those is different with maybe some commonalities here and there, and that’s fine. Each of us is free to pursue our own destiny as we see fit. That is the essence of liberty and what makes us individuals. However, problems begin to arise when our fates and fortunes become entangled with the fates and fortunes of others. This is what it means to live in a society, and is even truer of politics because, as Ayn Rand said: government is what we do together.
I’ve been saying for a while now – and it vexes me greatly that many people still don’t understand this – that the political system we’ve established and inherited is inherently and fundamentally flawed. Worse than flawed, it is completely broken and utterly worthless, probably by design. Unless and until we come together to fix it, we must change our behavior to reflect the environment in which we find ourselves in order to adapt and survive long enough to pass on our values.
Does that mean changing our core principles? No, but it does mean coming to grips with the reality that you can’t get everything that you want and so we’re going to have to instead put greater emphasis on getting what we need, or at least what we can’t do without.
As I write this, most of us can probably get by paying slightly higher gas taxes. None of us can survive nuclear war with Russia. Most of us can survive having to get a voter ID. None of us can survive a Supreme Court that guts the Constitution. I’m not sure why these types of choices aren’t obvious to more people, but it needs to be pointed out, because some people are just hellbent on committing political suicide. Letting these people sink the ship wouldn’t be such an issue if the rest of us weren’t all chained to the oarlocks with them.
Maybe if you heard it from The Rolling Stones, it would click better, I don’t know:
It sucks, it’s unfair, but suck it up and grow up. There are worse things in this world than a limited government. In fact, we’ll be talking about a few of them in a moment.
Growing up, I had to learn early on that if there was something I wanted, I either had to get it myself or learn to go without it. Well into my early adult life, this lesson continued, and so I was forced to become very K-selected, very pragmatic in managing resources while still trying to maintain my principles. Naturally, this hardship shaped my political views and it was the fierce protection of what little I had that propelled me from socialism to libertarianism.
Having since become a libertarian, I have learned that the political system is rigged against us and there is a practical limit to what we can do. Yes, it would be nice if we could have a completely voluntary society where everyone kept 100% of their money like the right wants and where everyone was ideologically fungible like the left claims, but that’s not the world in which we live. The world we live in is more like the battlefield of a hundred-year long war and we’re the field medics trying to resuscitate the unconscious so they can get back into the fray.
We have to come to terms with the fact that our equipment (our arguments), our conditions (the political landscape), and the state of the patient (the collectivists) aren’t always going to be as perfect as we would like them to be. That the struggle for liberty is a bloody mess and, like the field medic, we’re going to have to suck it up and just do the best we can with what we have on hand and hope to produce more combat-ready fighters for our side.
Pettiness is a contemptible trait. The reason libertarians are failing are numerous, but one of the most important reasons is public perception. Most people, if you put the argument to them in the right way, will probably come to the same conclusions as us about property rights, role of government, etc. The problem is, we don’t do that. We instead come off as crazy radicals with skewed priorities, talking about privatizing the roads while people are dying en masse.
To give you a sense of how that appears to others, imagine a field medic tending to some guy with a papercut while the guy next to him is bleeding out of a severed limb.
Although, to be fair, a lot of our people are pretty thick-skinned and have suffered worse.
The lesson I wish to instill in this article is the need to perform triage on your principles, and by extension the political policies and actions that you pursue. Divide them up into three categories:
- Those that are absolutely essential, for which you will never compromise.
- Those that are important, but not necessarily essential, for which some delay or compromise may be necessary.
- Those which would merely be nice to have, but which you have to admit are unlikely to be achieved anytime soon, and which should be set aside until everything else is done.
The benefit of prioritizing your principles in this way is that it makes your principles more actionable. You can focus your resources better and tackle the big things and feel really accomplished. This, in turn, makes your worldview more attractive to others, because people like a winner.
Each of us has a different set of values, so what goes into each category will be different for each of us, but I don’t see a lot of libertarians doing this, at all, or, at least, I feel like their sense of priorities are wildly unrealistic given what we’re up against.
I’m talking about the type of people who complain that Ron Paul has an R next to his name, or that Donald Trump used eminent domain that one time, or that Rand and Johnson are not libertarian enough… This infighting is killing us as our enemies grow stronger, all because we can’t suck it up, can’t swallow the bitter medicine, can’t make the tough decisions that prevent the likes of Hitlery from getting elected because we’re too busy with petty moral posturing and doting over our own self-righteousness.
Sully my hands with tariffs? Oh, I couldn’t possibly!
In my case, I’m an American and so I have to put the needs of my country ahead of the needs of other nations. When I look at the fact that the United States is currently $20 trillion in debt, it informs me that we can’t afford to help others since we can’t even help ourselves. That makes foreign intervention and foreign aid a simple choice: don’t do it.
Returning to the debt again for a moment, I personally choose to prioritize based on two things: should the government do it and how much does it cost?
For 2015, the top five federal budget items were:
- Social Security, Unemployment and Labor – $1.28T (33.26%)
- Medicare and Health – $1.05T (27.42%)
- Military – $609.3B (15.88%)
- Interest on the Debt – $229.15B (5.97%)
- Veterans Benefits – $160.63B (4.19%)
With the next five being:
- Food and Agriculture – $135.7B (3.54%)
- Education – $102.26B (2.67%)
- Transportation – $84.99B (2.22%)
- Housing and Community – $61.48B (1.60%)
- International Affairs – $50.22B (1.31%)
And number six down, combined, would still only rank fourth behind military spending.
Now, I believe in property rights and the non-initiation of force as a principle. From that, certain things follow, like that taxation is theft, that wealth redistribution is theft, that globalist nation-building is immoral, etc. If I wish to remain consistent with my principles, that means I have to oppose things that use taxes as a source of funding, which is everything on this list. However, if I wish to apply my energies in a way that will do the most good (‘good’ here being the reduction of theft and murder), I have to triage and target the bigger items before moving down to the lesser ones.
So when I look at the above list, it’s really not even a choice for me. I have to start at number one and go down. That means focusing on targeting entitlements, military spending, and interest on the debt as priority.
If you want to count privatizing roads as part of transportation, then that doesn’t even come into the picture until number eight, and even then it’s a puny portion of the overall budget. If we got rid of items 1-7 first, most people probably would not raise such fuss about having to pay 2.22% in taxes to have public highways.
Most can’t even be bothered to raise a fuss about anything, as it is.
Compare that paltry amount to how much we spend in entitlements, and it’s not even a question, really, about where our focus should be.
As others have demonstrated, the math works out such that you can cut literally everything else, leaving only entitlements, or even tax the rich at 100%, and still not have enough to balance the budget.
So, entitlements and healthcare get stricken wholesale because commodities aren’t rights, and we can’t afford them. That saves us $2.33 trillion or roughly 60% of the federal budget!
Think about that for a second. If you did nothing else but cut entitlement spending, you’d save 60% of the budget. Subtract that from the total $3.8 trillion in total spending for 2015 and you’re left with $1.47 trillion (and we can probably cut a lot more). Total revenue for that same year was $2.05 trillion, meaning we could put about half a trillion towards paying down the national debt, or otherwise refund it back to the people in the form of tax cuts, thereby stimulating the economy.
Personally, I would use it to start paying off the debt, so that we have less interest to pay in the long-run, which would take yet another item off our list.
We could have saved 50% or more by switching to fiscal conservatism.
Naturally, there will be pushback against abolishing entitlements. I’ll probably go through each of these items in more detail in future articles. I just wanted to demonstrate the concept of prioritizing how you go about applying your principles and your resources, because we libertarians need to be smarter about picking our battles.
That said, let’s look at the second criteria I listed above. The first was cost, the other is whether or not government should be involved. While we can all agree objectively on how to prioritize based on costs (because math), we won’t necessarily agree on the extent to which government (federal or otherwise) should be doing any of this stuff, but the same principle of prioritization and triage applies.
As a minarchist, I maintain that the only legitimate role of government is collective defense and enforcement of the common law. The next item on the list after entitlements is military spending, which at least has the benefit of being constitutional to some extent. So if you’re a minarchist, a constitutionalist, or even a Republican, chances are you will want to prioritize cutting back on the excesses of the military-industrial complex without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Pulling out of foreign conflicts and instead focusing on defense of the homeland will save a boatload of money, not to mention human life, and prevent the creation of future enemies that would otherwise drive both these costs up. Refocusing our efforts on issues like this will be yield more in the end, and they’re easier to sell.
When someone says parking meters are a violation of the NAP, but you don’t care because there are still children being bombed.
Again, I’m not going to go through everything on this list in this article. I’m just using this as an example of the sort of big picture strategies we need to start adopting. Yes, food stamps and the post office are still problematic, but it seems like we spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about that stuff while accomplishing very little in the way of preventing war with Russia or ending the War on Drugs.
Abstractions can be fun, but at the end of the day, your principles are only as good as your ability to put them into practice. It only hurts the cause of liberty to be seen as a bunch of crazy people with radical notions of overturning things the majority of people presently view as legitimate.
So in summary: pick your battles, triage your principles, and be smarter about how you manage your intellectual resources. We’re having enough trouble dealing with the big things, we can let the more frivolous stuff go for now, to be dealt with at a later date. Do that and we will see greater reductions in State power. Do it not and you’ll only have yourself to blame when we slip further down the path towards authoritarianism.
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