Character and Principles

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org. It is adapted from a 2007 essay by the author for the Center for the American Experiment in Minnesota.”

Playing a politician in a classic Marx Brothers comedy, the inimitable Groucho once declared, “Those are my principles! If you don’t like them, I have others!”

We laugh at Groucho’s line but it’s a flash of candor that too many of today’s politicians aren’t honest enough to say in public even though it describes the way they behave. I wish they would subscribe to a set of principles rooted firmly in truth and consistency, press for policies that advance those principles, and compromise only when it’s required to at least move the ball down the field in that direction. But before we can expect politicians to be so principled, we must insist they be men and women of character.

Character is what differentiates a politician from a statesman. Statesmen don’t seek public office for personal gain or attention. Like George Washington, they often are people who take time out from productive careers of accomplishment to temporarily serve the public. They don’t have to work for government because that’s all they know how to do. They stand for a principled vision, not for what they think citizens will fall for. When a statesman gets elected, he doesn’t forget the public-spirited citizens who sent him to office and become a mouthpiece for the permanent bureaucracy or some special interest that greased his campaign.

Because they seek the truth, statesmen are more likely to do what’s right than what may be politically popular at the moment. You know where they stand because they say what they mean and they mean what they say. They do not engage in class warfare, race-baiting or in other divisive or partisan tactics that pull people apart. They do not buy votes with tax dollars. They don’t make promises they can’t keep or intend to break. They take responsibility for their actions. A statesman doesn’t try to pull himself up by dragging somebody else down, and he doesn’t try to convince people they’re victims just so he can posture as their savior.

When it comes to managing public finances, statesmen prioritize. They don’t behave as though government deserves an endlessly larger share of other people’s money. They exhibit the courage to cut less important expenses to make way for more pressing ones. They don’t try to build empires. Instead, they keep government within its proper bounds and trust in what free and enterprising people can accomplish. Politicians think that they’re smart enough to plan other people’s lives; statesmen are wise enough to understand what utter folly such arrogant attitudes really are. Statesmen, in other words, possess a level of character that an ordinary politician does not.

In America’s first century, Americans generally were skeptical of the expansion of government power not because they read policy studies or earned degrees in economics but because they placed a high priority on character. Using government to get something at somebody else’s expense, or mortgaging the future for near-term gain, seemed dishonest and cynical to them, if not downright sinful and immoral.

One of the fascinating people in American history is Grover Cleveland. (see http://ciel.fi/en/blog/grover-cared/). He had no college education, no formal economics training and may have never read a policy paper before being elected president. Nonetheless, he almost always came to the right policy conclusions. That’s because he clearly saw the connection between character and the principles of a free society. Because he possessed the former, he became a champion of the latter.

Cleveland said what he meant and meant what he said. He did not lust for political office, and he never felt he had to cut corners, equivocate or connive in order to get elected. He was so forthright and plain-spoken that he makes Harry Truman seem indecisive by comparison. H.L. Mencken, who was known for cutting politicians down to size, wrote a nice little essay on Cleveland entitled “A Good Man in a Bad Trade.”

Cleveland thought it was an act of fundamental dishonesty for some to use government for their own benefit at everyone else’s expense. Accordingly, he took a firm stand against some early stirrings of an American welfare state. The country was in good hands when it was run by principled citizens like Cleveland.

So, you might want to know, how quick should elected officials be to compromise? I offer here no clear line of demarcation, just a suggestion that if we insisted first and foremost on character, this question would matter a whole lot less than it does today. I’d sooner trust a statesman than a politician to know when to compromise.

About the author

Lawrence W. Reed wrote 32 articles on this blog.

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Irvington, New York--www.fee.org. An economist and former college economics professor, Reed served for 20 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan before assuming his current position at FEE in September 2008. Full biography available on Wikipedia or at fee.org.

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Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Irvington, New York--www.fee.org. An economist and former college economics professor, Reed served for 20 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan before assuming his current position at FEE in September 2008. Full biography available on Wikipedia or at fee.org.