Honored After the Breach

Posted: Dec 31, 2006 12:00 AM
Honored After the Breach

The outgoing Congress — including the lame-duck Republicans of the House — didn’t do a whole lot for the nation. Our representatives didn’t limit government. They didn’t halt government growth; in fact, they increased it in nearly every one of its dimensions. And for this they got punished. Voters turned on them. Their ranks diminished, enough will be replaced to make for a Democratic majority in the next session.

But in the remainder of their last session they did do something for freedom. A little something. They honored the late Milton Friedman, expressing their condolences to his family, asserting his importance to economics and public policy in America and around the world.

  • Congress rightly declared, “Doctor Friedman’s writings and ideas have influenced Presidents, other world leaders, entrepreneurs, and students of economics” . . .
  • And, too, that Friedman “gave himself generously to public service as an economic adviser to Senator Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the presidency in 1964, Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1968, the Nixon Administration, Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, and the Reagan Administration as a member of President Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory Board” . . .
  • His “ideas were the model for the free market reforms undertaken in eastern European countries as they emerged from communist domination in the early 1990s, helping extend the blessings of prosperity to millions who had long been denied them” . . .
  • And Congress noted that Friedman was “one of the world’s foremost champions of liberty, not just in economics but in all respects,” as I also noted in this space weeks ago.

After all the “whereases,” the House resolved to mourn and honor Doctor Milton Friedman. And I don’t really want to find much fault in that. Friedman was a man of many accomplishments, and his life warrants the acknowledgement of the House.

But it does smack a bit as “too little too late,” doesn’t it?

Which brings to mind a phrase people used to use all the time: “honored in the breach.”

That’s what liberty is like in America, too often. Honored in the breach. Or: honored in speech but not in practice.

Had the Republican majority actually taken Milton Friedman’s advice during the 109th Congress, and put principles of freedom above practices designed for getting re-elected, they would have been controversial, sure, and condemned by many. But they would also have earned some respect. They might even have been . . . re-elected!

This is a little like the Happiness Paradox in philosophy, isn’t it? It’s long been observed that when one strives directly to find happiness, one won’t. It’s only by working towards a few worthy goals — in business, family, the arts, politics, what-have-you — that one discovers that one is happy.

Same with getting re-elected. Yes, you can do things that seem directly to feed re-election, and those techniques often work. But how much better to stick to your principles, and do things for the common good, rather than buy off constituencies directly! This builds respect. Reputation. True honor.

Thus increasing one’s chance of being re-elected.

Even when you step down, say, because of your belief that terms should be limited, your own demonstrated honor accrues to your party, indirectly. It increases loyalty among the voters. And your party’s successor for your position, he or she is more likely to get re-elected.

But this lesson is lost to the current Republicans. They blew it. They must now spend at least two years in the wilderness. And they must hope that the Democrats don’t figure out that same Principle of Honor and build up enough good will amongst the voters to prevent their comeback.

It’s a pity that the principles the Democratic Party would be most likely to lurch towards are neither mine nor Friedman’s. So the Republicans, in putting off till the end of their reign the principles that justified their very existence (and which motivated voters to put them in charge in the first place), seem bigger fools yet.

So, as 2006 draws to a close, let’s join the Republican House’s deathbed conversion; let us honor Milton Friedman and his good advice. And, since we are practical people, we should be mindful of the advice just a bit more than the man, eh?

Honoring a man is one thing. But when that man stands for something good, the real honor is in standing beside the man’s principles.