David R. Henderson  

Do Mark Shields and Michael Gerson Understand Principles?

In the Name of "Affordable Hou... Twenty-Somethings...


Well, I think we saw some of that in the mosque controversy, where the president first set out a very clear and ringing principle, and then retreated from it significantly.

Saturday, when he qualified his unqualified endorsement of Friday night, was that helpful? No.

The first quote is from Michael Gerson and the second is from Mark Shields, both speaking Friday evening on PBS. Having the two of them "face off" is PBS's idea of controversy. In other contexts, I have called this "politics between the 45-yard lines."

But the narrowness of the differences is not my point here. My point is that neither seems to understand a principle. The Friday night speech that Shields referred to was one in which Barack Obama defended property rights and the freedom of religion. He expressed his view that people who own property have a right to build a mosque on it. On Saturday, he said that he would not comment on the wisdom of building a mosque.

In no way did Obama back down from his principled defense. Yet neither Gerson nor Shields could see that. One can defend someone's right to do something without saying that doing that thing is good, right, or desirable. Notice that here, by the way, even the MSNBC headline writer showed an inability to make the distinction. The headline, "Obama Defends Plan to Build Mosque Near Ground Zero" is inaccurate. At no point in his speech on that Friday night did he defend the plan. Instead, he defended people's right to carry out the plan.

It's not really surprising that neither Shields nor Gerson nor the headline writer understands the difference between defending someone's right to do something and defending the doing of it. This same confusion occurs frequently in political discussion. So, for example, if I defend someone's right to buy a yacht, I can be accused, inaccurately, of saying that it's a good idea for that person to buy a yacht. Etc.

Now, if only Barack Obama would become a consistent defender of property rights, that would be impressive.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (4 to date)
Chris Koresko writes:

Great point. I suspect that Shields & Gerson may be allowing their emotional reaction to the idea of building a mosque near Ground Zero, together with a perceived flexibility of principles on the part of the President, to cloud their understanding of these two public comments.

David Henderson: Now, if only Barack Obama would become a consistent defender of property rights, that would be impressive.

I'm impressed enough when a Republican politician defends property rights consistently. In someone like President Obama it would be truly astounding.

Yancey Ward writes:

Those who want politicians to come out against building the mosque are criticizing Obama for not criticizing the decision to build it there. On the other side, though, you will find those who are critical of Obama for not supporting the idea of building it where it offends people. I find neither group particularly likeable.

Hyena writes:

It's sad that it has to be said, but: most people in the world are dishonest and much (if not most) of the time someone defends the right, they approve of the action.

I think that is the fundamental fact that drives the "confusion". When you defend someone's right, people will dismiss it (usually rightfully) as a cover for approving of the action itself.

Tom West writes:

most people in the world are dishonest

I disagree. I think a *lot* of people have a fundamental difficulty with the separation of the two.

Many of the most viscous fights I have gotten into were situations where people *could* not differentiate between fighting for the right to do something, and approving of the same action.

I've come around to the idea that the separation of the two is not natural to human beings - it's learned and it takes effort to overcome the instinct to equate approval of the right with approval of the action. (There's another concept that a lot of people have trouble with. If you say it's 'natural' to behave a certain way, then you're assumed to approve of that behavior.)

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