Idealism/Principles as Policy

Every thinking person should have ideals, but ideals need to be tempered with practicality.

There’s a saying that’s been attributed variously to George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Disraeli, Otto von Bismarck, Winston Churchill, and others that goes like this: If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain. According to research by a number of individuals, the original version of this was first uttered by French historian and statesman François Guizot when he observed, “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.”

I’d put it another way. To trumpet high-sounding ideas without any practical, workable, and politically acceptable plan for implementing them is well-intentioned idiocy, but, equally, to turn one’s back on want, discrimination, and the abuse of privilege on the grounds that attempting to remedy or ameliorate those ills is impractical is not only arrogant and uncaring, but stupid, and, in the long run, often fatal to a society that ignores those needs.

And, frankly, that’s the political divide I’ve seen emerge out of the unrest in the United States today. I look at all the rhetoric on the Democratic side, addressing valid concerns and real ills… with almost no practicality in sight. You cannot raise the money to deal with those problems by merely increasing tax rates on the wealthy; under the current structure, they’re already avoiding taxes. What’s needed is a tax structure that cannot be avoided, that is seen as fair, and that is not confiscatory. I could make the same sort of case about most Democratic proposals. Of course, that’s why almost all of them talk in glittering generalities.

On the Republican side, almost all the rhetoric is about principles…or fear… principles that aren’t working well for most Americans, except for the well-off and well-educated, and fear of change, fear of anyone who is different, and fear that people won’t live as well as their parents did.

There’s another old saying, about death and taxes, but that’s not quite right. The only two things that are certain in life are that things do change… and that, sooner or later, everyone dies. We try to prolong life, but death remains. And if we don’t adapt to change, things will get worse… and we’ll die sooner.

Neither impractical ideals nor unyielding rejection of change serves anyone well, but that’s the shape of the current political divide.

2 thoughts on “Idealism/Principles as Policy”

  1. Hanneke says:

    The one quibble I have with this, is that things which in American politics are considered impractical ideals, are working realities in a bunch of western European countries.

    From what I’ve read, both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have worked out the financial/budgetary plans necessary to pay for their ‘idealistic’ plans (which are just middle-of-the-road ordinary plans, for a reasonably fair and caring society that leaves plenty of room for entrepreneurship, to European eyes), to a much better balanced budget than either this, or the last, Republican presidents managed.

    Even the “Green New Deal”, which is (from my understanding) an intention to develop plans to reach several ambitious goals and thus not specific enough yet to be considered a fully worked out plan including all the financial details, contains goals which other countries consider do-able or are already working towards as well. So if other countries can do so, why would it be intrinsically impossible for the richest, most powerful nation on earth?

    Insisting on calling those reality-based plans ‘impractical and unrealistic ideals’ seems rather counter-factual to people who already live that way, in countries that are doing just as well as the USA…

    It might be hard to see how such eminently reasonable plans (from my European point of view) could be implemented in the current extremely partisan climate of US politics, but that does *not* make those plans themselves into ‘impractical ideals’.

  2. Corwin says:

    I agree, here in Australia we have a universal medical/scheme where everyone gets the treatment they need and most medical drugs are available for a low fixed price and are close to free for those on a pension, or welfare. If we can do it, why can’t the US?

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