Power and Principle

The age-old question in right-leaning politics and political philosophy is how to do more good than harm … or at the very least: how to minimize harm. The libertarian default on legislation or policy revision, rightly born of long study and experience of unintended consequences, is “don’t just do something, stand there.” The default on the Left was once amusingly immortalized by Ronald Reagan as, “if it moves, tax it; if it keeps moving, regulate it; and if it stops moving, subsidize it.” Even cliches, stereotypes, and dogmas have their place of course.

But in the current American age of cultural, institutional, and ideological domination by the Left, right-wingers of all varieties need to do better. I know it is a tired invocation on the Right, but the Founders provide a pretty good model. They took a prudential rather than an ideological (or absolutist) view of governmental power. The conclusion was never: more government, bad; less government, good. The questions were always: what power, exercised by whom, and to further or achieve what purpose? The Articles of Confederation were inadequate to secure America’s safety, prosperity, and the protection of the citizenry’s rights because the national government was too weak. The Constitutional convention resulted in a dramatic expansion of the power and jurisdiction of the national government and it was an increase in justice and a boon to the American people’s happiness and prosperity.

Many conservatives and libertarians have of late been decrying various efforts by red-state legislatures to act like they care about their constituents—and some GOP governors are thwarting legislative majorities by vetoing these efforts. South Dakota’s Kristi Noem tried to veto-but-not-quite-veto her legislature’s attempts to protect women’s sports in the state from competition by biological men “identifying” as women. Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson vetoed a bill this week that sought to protect confused minors from being prescribed and undergoing irreversible changes to their physiology through hormone therapy or surgery (euphemistically known as “gender affirming care”). As I write this, the legislature just overrode his veto, with most of the state’s parents who are paying attention sighing in relief. The Georgia legislature has gone half-way in ending an aviation fuel subsidy for Delta in retaliation against the airline CEO’s criticism of the Peach State’s latest voting law.

The logic from some on the Right seems to be: “let’s not do what the Left does and use government power to protect friends and punish enemies. We’re principled, after all, and on top of that, if we give the government more power to help ourselves now, then when the other side takes over it will be used against us.” But let us be practical and prudent. The only real power in America that the Right has now is political, especially in the states. America’s largest corporations, Big Tech, most of the media, most of the mainline churches, Hollywood, schools, and universities, etc—all are in the grip of the latest ideological fads of leftism. Conformity with these fads, in word and deed, is being fanatically enforced across civil society and by national and state governments and bureaucracies. The stakes are high and the time to fight is now—wielding whatever levers of power are available. 

Will the other side abuse governmental power if the tables are turned? Of course, but that will happen regardless. Part of the Right’s losing strategy in recent years has been to forget a key lesson of game theory: if you never wield power in defense of your interests, exacting real costs on the other player, you cannot expect any modification of behavior by your opponent. The Right needs to think less dogmatically and more creatively about defending its friends and constituents and exchanging tit for tat. In fact, let’s demand that GOP politicians engage in some “bold, persistent experimentation” in defense of the rights and interests of the citizenry—because after the conservative “victories” of recent years, who needs losses?