In the current election season, while candidates vie for favorable position in the public eye, a particularly visible aspect is the constant barrage of attack advertising. It’s almost impossible to escape the seemingly never-ending series of accusations not only about political positions, but also concerning aspects of candidates’ personal lives. For example, debate has raged over Mitt Romney’s annual income, and even over his alleged mistreatment of the family dog.
This latest election controversy is just one more example of how our culture’s ability to resolve ideological disputes lags dramatically behind our abilities in other areas, particularly our ability to solve problems in science and technology. With debate focused on issues like those nagging Romney, it is little wonder that many people complain that arguments on topics in morality and politics continue without resolution, with multiple parties seemingly unable to persuade one another of their position. As a result, we have a list of problems that stubbornly persist with little hope of mutually agreeable solutions.
Though negative ads themselves have received plenty of criticism, they remain one of the most effective tools a candidate has: voters have demonstrated that such ads carry significant weight in their election decisions. And thus, we have the specter of the nation’s choice of President—whose decisions and leadership have far-reaching implications for economic prosperity and political freedom at home, not to mention the lives of soldiers abroad—being at least partly determined by his perceived attitude toward pets. And this sort of thing is nothing new: nearly every recent candidate has encountered the same kind of intense but ultimately distracting criticism. For John Kerry, it was the “swift boat” controversy, and for Barack Obama, his association with the unsavory pastor Jeremiah Wright.
This points to a pattern that is found throughout today’s ideological debates. It is a pattern of focusing attention on surface-level details of issues rather than their core principles, of asking small questions rather than large ones, of treating disjointed symptoms of problems rather than their common causes. In short, it is a pattern of failure to think in terms of fundamental principles.
One might object that a political candidate’s character or financial status are hardly trivial matters, insofar as each might influence his political decisions. This is true; such questions are certainly important. But they aren’t the most important—they don’t stand alone, but rather rest upon more basic questions and assumptions, which are neglected when superficially-related or irrelevant questions receive scrutiny.
The question of Romney’s annual income, for example, is only important insofar it could impact his views on tax policy, which matters only if one thinks the wealthy should be subject to higher taxes. But the question of whether the wealthy should pay more taxes rests upon one’s view of whether government should be empowered to reduce inequality of income. And underlying that is one’s view of whether wealth inequality is a moral problem in the first place. Fundamental to all of this, finally, is one’s view of the basic moral principles that define what constitutes justice and “fairness.” One’s view here ultimately influences how one answers those derivative questions.
The word “fundamental,” of course, refers to that which serves as a foundation or basis for something else, something underlying or basic. Examples can be found in any number of subjects. Teachers stress the importance of fundamental abilities like reading and basic math in order to prepare students for more specialized subjects which build upon that foundation. Basketball coaches start young players with drills on fundamental skills like dribbling and passing in order to equip them for more advanced play. Doctors rely on their knowledge of fundamental topics like anatomy and biology in order to diagnose and treat diseases that arise from problems in these basic areas.
Indeed, awareness of and respect for fundamentals is critical for problem-solving in general. It’s easy to see the folly, for example, in choosing a doctor based solely on his bedside manner rather than on actual medical credentials that enable him to accurately diagnose and effectively treat ailments. Likewise, it would be senseless for a patient in need of life-saving treatment for a difficult disease to choose a doctor based upon the doctor’s eating habits rather than his medical knowledge and decision-making ability. In the former case, we recognize that unless the doctor has genuine medical knowledge, the empathy he conveys when he expresses his diagnosis will not matter. And while a doctor’s own personal diet may bear some relationship to his medical knowledge, it is just as irrelevant to his quality as a doctor as Romney’s pet care skills are to his quality as a political leader.
The result of the failure to identify and emphasize fundamental questions manifests itself in several ways. One is “complexity creep.” We see this in particular in political attack ads. Confronted with the hundreds of 30-second spots highlighting numerous deficiencies in a candidate, we’re left to sort out what seems important from what doesn’t before coming to a very difficult decision. On this question as for many others, the ease with which we can navigate the intellectual waters is slowly and subtly diminished, like the speed of a ship under the resistance of barnacles attached over long periods of time.
If we could sweep away all of this noise and instead understand a candidate’s clear positions on the political principles that would shape all of his subsequent decisions, we could more easily and meaningfully decide whether we support those principles, and therefore, the candidate himself. For instance, if Republican candidates were to debate whether being wealthy should disqualify one from being president, rather than debating how wealthy Romney is, we could begin to assess the candidates on the basis of the deeper, more meaningful positions they take on their view of what a president should be, what the function of government is, and the values upon which it should be based—and the clarity of our decision would improve dramatically.
Another measure of complexity creep is the total number of pages of legislation passed annually by Congress, which has roughly quadrupled over the past 60 years, with many bills measuring well over 1,000 pages. This is particularly alarming when one considers that the Founders required only 1,300 words to present, in the Declaration of Independence, a set of political principles on which to build an entire nation. We’re told that we need these regulations for different aspects of different industries in a way that we never did when we lived in “simpler times.”
While there are more people, more technologies, more options and more decisions to be made than in the past, it is only the number of derivative applications of principles that has increased—not the nature of the principles themselves. The principle of economic freedom, for example, was central to motivating the American revolutionaries, who argued that one’s efforts to make a living are rightfully off-limits from encroachment by the state. The application of this principle is no different in today’s economy of computer programming and investment banking than it was in those days of farming and basic industry. Either our work and earnings are our own, or the government has a role in dictating how we are permitted to pursue them. The maze of rules, conflicts of interest, loopholes, and pressure groups that confront us today have only arisen as a result of abandoning the clarifying and understandable principle of economic freedom in favor of the open-ended and ultimately-arbitrary doctrine of economic interventionism.
Another consequence of the widespread failure to think in terms of fundamentals is a definite sense in which our culture is adrift, floating from one crisis to the next, characterized by constant shifting of tactics and proposals to regain a solid direction. For example, Americans have become increasingly erratic in their election choices. While the Democrats previously held control of Congress for decades, control of Congress has now changed hands three times in only the last 18 years, and the outcome of the upcoming election is anyone’s bet.
Only fundamental principles can provide an intellectual compass to guide our understanding of issues in a way that allows us to see the basic direction in which a given idea will take us. For example, consider those who vote Republicans into power because they are concerned with the dramatic growth in the size of government, but then throw them out of office the next time around because they are worried about cuts to their favorite government entitlement programs. As long as they refuse to answer for themselves the fundamental question of whether the proper function of government includes the power to redistribute funds from one individual to another for the purpose of “social welfare,” focusing on the superficial issue of government’s size will do nothing to solve the actual fundamental conflict between the aims of protecting individual wealth and property and compromising that protection for the sake of those in “need.”
We need to be able to think in terms of the same kind of basic principles when it comes to the seemingly vast and inscrutable problems involving not only issues like foreign policy, the economy, health and education, but also the choices we as individuals face while making our way in life.
This is not to say that a focus on fundamentals is easy to achieve, or that it can solve any problem overnight. But thinking in fundamentals is far easier and more effective than navigating within the approximate and superficial, where there are always an endless number of seemingly disconnected puzzles to solve.
Though not easy, there is a simple and powerful method to improve at thinking in terms of fundamentals: by asking questions, or as Ayn Rand put it, checking one’s premises. When considering an issue or question, ask what it assumes or depends upon; when thinking about your own view on a subject, ask yourself why you believe it and upon which deeper premises you’ve based your view—whether consciously or not.
Rand once observed that “when opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.” This is a reminder of the value to be gained by each of us in making our fundamental principles clear: whether we’re right or end up discovering and correcting an error, we ultimately work toward the rational and the good in human life. And that, after all, is the fundamental goal.