Paul Jacob

The distinction between a possible “end” (something we judge in and of itself, or as the result of something we might work towards) and our concerned and considered attention to the shoring up of acceptable “means” (in this case, the framework of law and government, of our rights and the institutions that would defend them) is probably the most difficult notion in politics and policy. Too often we see impatient folks forgetting about the distinction, advocating, instead, the allegedly “practical” plan of just “doing” whatever it is we want done.

We live in a time of reckless shortcuts. Political shortcuts. It’s much quicker for a president to just give a command to bomb a bad guy in a foreign country than it is to go to Congress and ask for a declaration of war. But the latter, more difficult method is what the Constitution prescribes.

It is also what wisdom prescribes.

Hate as we must foreign bad guys, dictators and tyrants and the rest, but the very essence of being a “bad guy” is to disobey the rule of law — by doing the shortcut thing, our presidents (including the current one) flirt with the badguyhood they say merits immediate and unhampered destruction.

It might be nice, in a limited fantasy world, to just be able to “push a button” and have all the world’s bad guys disappear. Or be bombed.

But real-world attempts to make this so are, in themselves, horror stories. The wrong kind of fantasy.

The real world is more complicated.

Aficionados of realpolitik often say that talk of rights and laws and the like are “naive” and “fanciful.” Everything I’ve learned in the course of dealing with law and politics and lawyers and politicians — bad guys and good — for the past 30 years or so, leads me to the conclusion that the realpolitik folks are just plain wrong. Rights and laws and dedication to acceptable means are not naive. They are absolutely necessary to keep people like the realpolitikers — as well as people like me — from straying into corruption, tyrrany and the like. Not naive, but wise to the ways of the world.

The two levels of “Things and People We May or May Not Disagree With” and “The Principles We Must Defend” can be seen everywhere. My own area of expertise — initiative and referendum politics — provides ample examples of these separate levels, too. For instance: I support, very strongly, the right and practice of the citizen initiative. But this does not mean that I support every initiative. Right now, in California, there’s a petition to put on the ballot a prohibition of circumcision. I understand where the measure’s supporters are coming from, but I think this proposal is absurd, laughable even (were it not contemplating the force of law).

Indeed, it is properly a personal issue. As it was for my wife and me before the birth of each of our . . . daughters. (But then, some problems solve themselves.)

Issues that can be handled through persuasion . . . should be. The initiative is a fine way for the people to legislate. But not everything should be legislated.

This is not a “contradiction.” It is not “irony.” Nor “antinomy.”

It is a basic distinction in ethics. The right and the good are not quite so tyrannical as some suppose. Not everything you may rightly wish to discourage should be prohibited. Not everything you wish to encourage should be made mandatory.

In other words, totalitarianism is not a moral option. And flirting with it, at the state or federal levels, is not acceptable politics.

Now, return to your regular programming, watch Donald Trump, and have a ball.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.