The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 4:46:46

Do we want our politicians to be consistent?

Jules van Schaijik, Feb 23, 2012

In last night's Republican primary debate, candidates were asked to describe themselves with one word. Ron Paul answered firmly: "Consistent." That struck me as both apt and telling. I haven't been paying very close attention to the race, but I gather that Ron Paul is a principled libertarian. His positions hang together in a coherent way and follow logically from the first principles to which he subscribes. He has defended virtually the same positions throughout his political career. He is not beholden to any person or any party, and not swayed by public opinion. He seems to have the integrity so needed and yet so often lacking in a politician. He can't be bribed into supporting things he does not believe.

All that is good and admirable. But consistency becomes a problem if one's first principles are inadequate, as they so often are, especially in politics. A politician has to be able to take in new situations and deal practically with unexpected events. He should be able to adjust his principles as needed—not in the Machiavellian sense of setting them aside because the end justifies the means, but in the Aristotelian sense of realizing that the concrete is often richer and more complicated than the general principle accounts for. Hence, it is not so much logical consistency, as principled prudence that is wanted in a political leader.

My impression is—though I'm open to be being persuaded otherwise—that Ron Paul is consistent to a fault; that his political principles are too narrow, and that he sometimes applies them without due regard for the particulars at stake. A lot of what he says about foreign aid for instance, strikes me as sensible. But to oppose it tout court seems reckless.

One thing that confirms me in this impression is the ease with which Ron Paul decides all sorts of difficult questions. Such ease could be a sign, of course, of having deeply understood the whole problem and knowing exactly what to do. But I rather fear it comes from a tendency to oversimplify matters, and a habit of not recognizing realities that fall outside of his libertarian principles. (This is how we used to solve physics problems in high-school: by ignoring the factors we hadn't covered yet, such as wind-resistance and surface-friction.) Ron Paul sometimes reminds me of what Chesterton says about madness, that its strongest and most unmistakable mark is a "combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction":

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment.

I don't mean to suggest that Ron Paul is mad or even anywhere close. But he does strike me as too committed to consistency for the job he's seeking. A principled but prudent politician, someone who wants to be effective as wel as consistent, and who knows that politics is "the art of the possible," may find it more difficult to come to a decision in a given case. (That explains, perhaps, some of the difficulties Rick Santorum found himself in yesterday, having to defend his voting record in light of his principles and positions, and struggling to do so within the limits of the debate format.)

I have said a lot about Ron Paul just now. More, perhaps, than I should have, given my limited knowledge. But my main point is not really about him at all. I am more interested in the philosophical question: Whether, to what degree, and in what sense, is consistency a desirable quality in a politician? Or, to put the question more precisely: is consistency something that should be directly pursued, or is it rather the natural fruit of a life-long, disinterested dedictation to the civic and common good?

I think the latter. If consistency becomes a goal, it will inevitably degenerate into a kind of dogmatism and inflexibility. An inability to cope with new situations. It is possible to be perfectly consistent and dead wrong. It is also possible to be right and truly consistent, while appearing to be inconsistent. True consistency is the result of being faithful to reality.

Genuine consistency in the realm of politics, can be described in similar words as John Henry Newman uses to explain the lasting identity of a real and living idea:

In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and fall around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.