Straying from the straight and narrow
Principles are essential, but principles that calcify into unbreakable orthodoxies are hazardous.
An idea from psychology that has ascended in the first decades of this century is the "paradox of choice", which suggests that people may find themselves overwhelmed by having too many options and would often be more satisfied with fewer. Some economists have a hard time with this argument, since consumer optimization often requires many alternatives (and because greater customization often leaves people obviously happier).
■ Yet there does seem to be some kind of "paradox of choice" at play when it comes to our belief systems. Despite having greater access via the Internet and a spectacular array of media choices to a more diverse array of opinions than at any time in human history, surveys appear to document a more bimodal political landscape in America than almost anywhere else people live under democratic rule. Do people simply find themselves having too many available options?
■ It's perfectly fine if free people choose not to have strong opinions regarding their self-government. In fact, a calm, generally-satisfied public is probably a signal that things are mostly going well. But if people are attracted to escalatory cycles of increasingly rigid orthodoxies of political economy, then something is going wrong.
■ The problem isn't even (necessarily) with the exact orthodoxies in play. The problem is with adherence to political or ideological orthodoxy itself. Orthodoxies are hazardous because facts change, technologies change, and resources change. And when they change, the responses need to be appropriate to the circumstances. As anyone visiting the Jefferson Memorial can read, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence also wrote that "[L]aws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times."
■ The effort never to stray from the "right" opinion (that is, from orthodoxy) too often leads people to reject incremental growth and intermediate measures that go in the right direction. And directions matter, particularly because no human civilization can possibly reach a final destination. There is no Utopia to be had, whether it's a workers' paradise, Galt's Gulch, or a Integralist commonwealth. A destination assumes that human history plods along a singular, linear timeline that will eventually stop.
■ Even on discrete issues, people choose orthodoxies over incremental improvements at their own peril. Orthodox "Greens" reject nuclear power even though it is the only plausible intermediate-term alternative to fossil fuels. Focusing on environmental orthodoxy, California legislators voted to ban gas-powered yard equipment even though the state's electrical grid remains notoriously fragile. Gold bugs adhere to orthodox views of the money supply, even though gold production rises and falls and monetary-supply flexibility repeatedly demonstrates itself to be a vital tool for avoiding economic depressions.
■ Principles are essential, but principles that calcify into unbreakable orthodoxies are hazardous. A principle is a matter of right and wrong, and imposes upon the principled party to do the right thing, even if the consequences are bad. Orthodoxies are built upon assertions of what is right for the orthodox, all other consequences notwithstanding. And while principles may be adjusted or weighed comparatively ("tell the truth" is a great principle, but it should yield to "save a life"), orthodoxies are not so flexible.
■ Orthodoxies usually break down into disputes over purity and adherence -- usually to the words of a long-dead prophet. That's because a fixed orthodoxy usually has to attach itself to something that will not change, and living people can't help but change. (That's why invoking the name of Ronald Reagan held such power in the Republican Party after his death.) An orthodoxy with a living prophet tends to become a cult of personality, which is just as morally hazardous.
■ But community requires consensus -- or at least, a process for building consensus. As Reagan himself is quoted by Haley Barbour as saying, someone "who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and ally; he's not a 20 percent traitor". Strict orthodoxy, though easy to adopt, leaves no room for adaptation and growth over time. A decent respect for the complexity of our times demands that we bring our decent principles to bear on most public matters, but steer clear of becoming so wedded to orthodoxy that we reject the necessary compromises of life's incremental steps forward.