On principles and policies: Our laws reveal what we think a human being is

On principles and policies: Our laws reveal what we think a human being is
© Greg Nash

In February 1995, Heather Higgins wrote an incisive essay in The Wall Street Journal entitled: “The Principles behind the Policies”. President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' MORE’s view of America’s greatness contrasted with the bring-America-down-to-size approach of the previous administration is a question of principle. A policy is some law or program of political action.

Behind every policy we find a conception of human nature that can be stated in terms of principles. These latter explain and justify what is proposed to be done in practice in the light what a human being is conceived to be. Each conception needs to be articulated, examined. Policies do not arise out of the clear blue sky. When examined, they reveal a conception of reality that they seek to implement through a particular policy.

“The debate about welfare reform,” Higgins wrote, “isn’t about moral censure or cold-heartedness; it’s about a vision of human beings as more than slaves or domesticated animals on the plantation of dependency.” The welfare state needs people on welfare. It rejoices in caring for the poor and downtrodden. It needs them to vote and keep the take-care state in office.

This initial governmental concern for others, which sounds compassionate, carries with it a moral implication. Unless the government takes care of these needy people, no one else would or could. Eventually, no one else will be authorized even to try. The added codicil is that government is best qualified to care for people. Mercy and compassion become primary functions of the state, not of the individual person.

Thus, to have people dependent on the state legitimizes state rule. The poor and destitute, however they are identified in a given polity, serve as enablers for the size and power of the state. If there were no poor or needy, the state would have no moral reason to exist.

The reason for open borders and immigrant voting rights is to bring into a state sufficient poor to justify state power to care for them. The decline of the birth rate and the numbers of abortions are the proximate causes for this need of new people from outside the given country. Immigration policy cannot be isolated from the all-caring state’s need to perpetuate itself and its bureaucracy.

“In recent years,” Higgins added, “we have seen a pernicious perversion of the language of ‘rights’, a transformation of the notion of ‘natural rights’ into entitlements.” An “entitlement” is something that someone, the government or others, owes to me for no other reason than my need or my want. I have a “right” to be taken care of, not as in the older version, a “right” and a “duty” to take care of myself within the framework of a political institution that allows and encourages me to do so.

The alternative to the all-caring state is not a libertarian no-state exchange mechanism. It is a limited constitutional state whose concept of the common good is not some overarching “plan” to purify the world of its ills. Rather, it is the effective bringing forth the virtues and good sense found in the given capacities of citizens.  

This common good recognizes that the protection of the lives and security of people is an essential element of any civil order in this world. Hence, laws, police, and army will not disappear or wither away, nor will crime. At best, it can only be confined, dealt with. The origin of civil disorder, as Plato intimated, is first a disorder in the souls of actual human persons.

A natural “right”, in the best sense, means my freedom to exercise my own powers, but, as Higgins says, to exercise them “justly” within some legal order. I am not freer but enslaved to my own passions if I follow principles or feelings that have no grounding other than in my own will. Principles based on reason and a stable human nature enables us to recognize what we are in whatever era or place we find ourselves in. In this sense, history is our teacher of both glory and degradation.

The words — “rights”, “values”, and “duties” — all seemingly noble words, each with a presumably set meaning, have become a part of our ordinary vocabulary. We do not realize the radical difference it makes if we take a look at the differing principles according to which they are understood.

If we understand “rights”, “duties,” and “values” against a voluntarist background, each concept will be itself changeable according to the will of the ruler, be it court, executive, or legislature that makes or defines the law or norm. If my “right” only means my freedom to do whatever the law allows, then my freedom consists in doing what is permitted, whatever it is. It does not consist in doing what is right to do whether legally permitted by law or not. In other words, a voluntarist concept of will-based law can in principle permit anything. Its freedom is not limited by reason.

When we understand our laws and actions to be based on reason, our effort is to understand their order, their permanence. Principles, no doubt, may come to be seen as old-fashioned or undoable. In itself, this view does not necessarily make them either out of date or undoable.

The “principles” of politics do not argue to having one universal world state to which all are equally subject with no intervening boundaries. They do argue to having a universally recognized clarity about what man is, what is just and unjust in dealing with him. The fact of a multiplicity of differing political states is perhaps the best guarantee that at least some of them will be able to retain a civil order in which principles matter.

“Properly understood, ‘rights’ exist externally,” Higgins observed. “They came from somewhere, God or natural law, and are not whimsically decreed or expunged, as politicians see fit.” When “rights” do not come from somewhere, they end up meaning anything. Policies based on such principles lead to chaos, not order. The contemporary problem, as a result, is a cultural blindness, and refusal to recognize and define moral chaos when it is legislated or an unwillingness to remove it when it is seen.

The Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., author of “A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning & Being Forgiven,” is professor emeritus at Georgetown University. His latest book is “The Universe We Think In,” published by The Catholic University of America Press.