Be Principled, Not Doctrinaire
At the heart of the conservative worldview is the notion that there are certain first principles—universal and permanent moral truths—that ought to form the foundation of our society, our government, and our politics.
I’m not talking about conservative buzzwords like “fiscal responsibility” or “balanced budgets.” I mean the basic tenets that guide our thinking and our actions. Chief among them are the self-evident truths expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the principles underlying our Constitution.
As Calvin Coolidge wisely put it, “About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. […] If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.”
Like the stars that help a ship captain find his way at sea, these principles act as our fixed political compass guiding our actions. They don’t tell us exactly what to do in every scenario, but they provide a direction and purpose for all of our actions.
Incidentally, these principles also provide the most rhetorically compelling rationale for our policies.
For some reason conservatives have the bad habit of sounding like economists and actuaries when we talk about public policy. Rather than explaining the impact that government has on people’s lives, we tend to focus only on the price tag of our policies.
Yet it is hard to persuade or inspire voters by talking about CBO analyses or GDP-to-debt ratios or unfunded liabilities. It also makes us sound hopelessly boring.
Instead of always appealing to people’s logic, we must speak to their hearts. We can do this by defending our policies in terms of our principles.
Take any recent debate in Congress and you’ll see what I mean.
For instance, which is the more convincing critique of the Democrats’ recent student loan bill: the one that rails against its excessive spending and unnecessary taxes, or the one that exposes it for failing to expand access to higher education opportunities for all Americans?
We shouldn’t stop making the fiscal argument—but if we want to persuade people, we need to begin with the principled argument more often.
There is a difference, however, between being principled and being absolutist.
How exactly you should apply conservative principles depends on the circumstances. Prudence is what enables you to figure out the best course of connecting your principles to the particulars of any given scenario.
Ronald Reagan undoubtedly believed that a marginal tax rate of 50 percent is an infringement on the property rights of the citizens that one that undermines their capacity for self-government. But the day he moved into the White House, the top tax rate towered at a staggering 70 percent.
The principles of free enterprise and limited government may have demanded that these rates be slashed in half—or more—but Reagan knew this was politically impossible. He understood that there was little appetite in Congress, or the country, for such a dramatic reduction all at once.
So Reagan had to compromise. He recognized, in this case at least, that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Rather than insisting on a flat tax, only high enough to fund his ideal government, he applied his principles to the hand he was dealt.
In August 1981, he settled for a 50 percent top marginal tax rate. This may seem astronomical today, but this tax reform is rightly hailed as one of the most influential achievements of his presidency. And it paved the way for the 1986 reform that further reduced the rate to 28 percent.
So leadership requires a solid grounding in first principles as well as a firm grip on the particular circumstances in which you find yourself.
Mike Lee represents Utah in the United States Senate. This is an excerpt of a speech delivered at an America’s Future Leadership Dinner on June 25, 2014 in Washington, D.C. To read more about Mike Lee, please visit his website.