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Principle vs. Pragmatism in Supporting Romney-Ryan

Here is another question I’ve received in various forms regarding my endorsement of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan: “Isn’t it pragmatic and unprincipled to campaign or vote for Romney-Ryan on the grounds that the ticket is merely less bad than Obama-Biden?”

This question entails a misunderstanding of both pragmatism and principle.

Pragmatism is not the weighing of alternatives, but the rejection of principles, truths, absolutes. Philosophical pragmatists, such as John Dewey and Richard Rorty, reject principles across the board, openly proclaiming that there are no absolutes or truths; there is only what “works.” Political pragmatists, such as many Republicans today, do not necessarily say that there are no truths, but they nevertheless fail to recognize that the principle of rights is an absolute. They regard rights as rules of thumb, and they aim to do what “works” politically.

Contrary to claims of pragmatists, principles do exist and are absolutes. Principles are fundamental truths or ideas to guide people’s thought and action. But, properly understood, principles are not purposeless rules or contextless absolutes; rather, they are purpose-oriented tools that are properly applied with respect to the context of a given situation. To apply a principle correctly, one must recognize the purpose of the action in question, and one must apply the principle with respect to both that purpose and the surrounding facts.

Voting in a presidential election for the less-bad ticket among two possibilities when those possibilities are the only viable alternatives, and when there is some value to be gained by voting for the less-bad alternative (e.g., more time to educate people about the moral foundations of freedom), is not pragmatism but an act of principle. It is the application of the principle that the purpose of voting in a presidential election is to help put into office the best (or least bad) team that can possibly be elected at the time. To refrain from voting when one of the only two viable alternatives is significantly worse than the other is to aid the worse ticket by withholding a vote for the less-bad one.

(To vote for a candidate who has no chance of winning, such as Gary Johnson in this election, is to do the same thing. Johnson supporters would do well to recognize the principle that “ought” implies “can.” To use one’s vote to say that Johnson should be president is to imply that it is possible for him to be president. But it is not possible—so there is no “should” about it. And even if Johnson could win, his choice to join the Libertarian Party, not to mention his suicidal foreign policy, would disqualify him.)

Thinking and acting on principle requires recognition of both the proper purpose of a given action and the full context of the situation in question. To ignore either is to commit the fallacy of context dropping.

A U.S. president is (among other things) the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military and a major participant in the passage of legislation. Unless the viable candidates running for the presidency are equally bad—in which case a protest vote can be proper—the purpose of voting for a presidential candidate and his running mate is to help place them, rather than the worse candidates, in office.

Determining who is better, who is worse, and who has a chance of winning an election requires taking into account the relevant facts concerning the candidates, the election, and the culture at large. In regard to the coming election, we know (among other things) the following:

  • Either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is going to win.
  • As bad as Romney is, Obama is substantially worse, especially in regard to the economy, which is in dire straits and continues to deteriorate.
  • Romney and Ryan aim to slow the increase in government spending and the expansion of entitlement programs; Obama aims to accelerate both.
  • Romney and Ryan have some respect for businessmen and profits; Obama, to put it mildly, has none.
  • Romney and Ryan recognize that if you built a business, you built it; Obama says, “You didn’t build that.”
  • Romney and Ryan aim (however confusedly) to save the Land of Liberty; Obama aims to destroy it.
  • Ryan calls (however confusedly) for protecting individual rights and embracing the moral foundation for capitalism; Obama calls for taxing “the rich” and “spreading the wealth around.”
  • Ryan, while making clear that he is not an Objectivist, expresses respect for Ayn Rand’s ideas—which are the ideas of the future if America is to have a future; Obama embraces the ideas of Saul Alinsky.
  • Ryan’s presence on the Republican ticket has invigorated and will continue to invigorate discussion of individual rights and of Rand’s ideas in the news, on talk shows, on editorial pages, in op-eds, across social media, and so on; Joe Biden’s presence on the Democratic ticket is an embarrassment to the human race.
  • Ryan’s presence in a Romney administration would invite constant comparisons of the administration’s proposals and policies with Rand’s ideas.

This context matters.

Voting in a principled manner involves recognizing the purpose of voting and the context at hand and making a decision with respect to that goal and those facts.

Of course Romney and Ryan are far from ideal candidates. They are middle-of-the-roaders, torn between reverence for religion and respect for rights. But they are also far from as bad as Obama. There is a big difference between having a religion-induced misunderstanding of freedom, rights, and the American ideal on the one hand—and harboring outright hatred of freedom, rights, and America on the other. Likewise, there is a big difference between engaging in rights-violating policies because one is mistaken about what is the good, and engaging in such policies because one eagerly seeks to destroy the good. Such differences make a difference.

Endorsing or supporting Romney and Ryan does not imply that one endorses or supports their flawed fundamental philosophies. Rather it implies that one recognizes the purpose of voting and the context at hand. Far from being unprincipled, supporting Romney-Ryan is precisely what principle calls for at this time.

Support Romney and Ryan during the election cycle, and make clear all along why you are supporting them. When appropriate, point out that Ryan is not an Objectivist, that many of Romney and Ryan’s policies are at odds with Objectivism, and that you would provide more support if they were more in line with Rand’s ideas. Then, once Romney and Ryan are in office, help keep the national discussion focused on individual rights, on Rand’s philosophy, and on the relationship of the new administration’s proposals and policies to the fundamental principles of a free society.

This is the principled thing to do.

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