Friday, September 7, 2012

The Bottom Line

You wouldn't believe the dorkus she was with when I met her. The guy came to us with a business proposition. We're always looking for opportunities. If the conditions are right. We're willing to take an occasional risk, if the downside isn't too steep. But this guy hadn't done his homework, he didn't know the bottom line. That's how I knew he was full of shit. You've got to know the bottom line. That's all that really counts....He didn't have the goods, this guy. He was like a lot of guys you run into -- they want to get rich, they want to do it quick, they want to be there with one score. But they're not willing to do what's necessary. Do you know what I mean?


I'm not sure. You mean, lay the groundwork? Earn it?


No. I mean do what's necessary. Whatever's necessary.


Yeah. I know that kind of guy. I can't stand that. It makes me sick.


Me too.


I'm not like that.

[From Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay Body Heat.]

You don't have to be in love with mobbed-up Florida mogul Ed Walker or sleazy shyster Ned Racine (who eventually murders Walker) to appreciate the immense insight in the above passage.

What's that? You have a goal, you say? Well, what will it take to get there? Say what? You're not willing to go that far? Then your "goal" isn't really your goal, is it?

Not much further on in the play, we see that not only isn't Ned Racine "like that," but Walker's adulterous wife Maddie isn't, either -- and Maddie is much cleverer than her lover Racine, who's merely a tool in her plans.

Now and then, we see a glimmer of understanding of this principle in practical politics -- even in fringe politics:

Wayne Allyn Root, 2008 Libertarian Party's Vice Presidential nominee and political commentator, resigned this morning from the Libertarian National Committee (LNC) to, according to his resignation letter, "elect good people and change the direction of this country outside of a third party."...

When I asked if he was now backing Mitt Romney, Root responded, "I am," adding, "I don’t deny that Romney and Ryan aren't libertarians, but Romney is a pro-business capitalist and Obama is a Marxist-socialist."

"The economy has been trashed. This is about my kids' future, it's about my businesses," said Root. "There is no hope for America if Obama is re-elected."

Bravo, Mr. Root. Good sense is sufficiently rare that it should be applauded vigorously when it presents itself to public view.


I am a libertarian. That my personal preferences and practices are conservative-Catholic has no bearing on my political stances. Indeed, I lean anarcho-capitalist, at least when I'm thinking clearly. At one time I was the chair of the New York State chapter of the Libertarian Party, and before that the Suffolk County chapter chair. That set of associations came to an end in 1990, when it became all too terribly clear that:

  • The party was being taken over by persons I wouldn't allow into my home;
  • Above and apart from the prior observation, the party had cemented itself into a stance that was effectively anti-libertarian. That is: its public statements and operations were bringing about a net loss of popular interest in individual freedom.

Once I realized that, I could not remain a party allegiant.

Root appears to have traveled a somewhat different path. He appreciates, as I do, the importance of buying time for America. That's his driver for abandoning the LP. It's an entirely defensible stance. As chess players like to say, your strategy won't matter much if your tactics are about to get you murdered.

In the epilogue to his early Hugo Award-winner Double Star, Robert A. Heinlein delineates the overriding consideration that binds all political movements, good, bad, and indifferent:

People don’t really want change, any change at all — and xenophobia is very deep-rooted. But we progress, as we must — if we are to go out to the stars.

Or, as Arthur Herzog put it in The B.S. Factor, "Change, in any case, is hard, and difficulty makes people impatient."

In practical politics, principles matter only to the extent permitted by a nation's innate reluctance to embrace change.


Libertarian politics is, as the LP has touted for many years, "a politics of principles." Those principles are rooted in a conception of individual rights. Though I maintain that they're employed beyond their proper demesne in formulating certain policy positions, I have no quarrel with individual rights themselves. Indeed, I've never encountered an argument against them that would hold water for a full minute.

But "a politics of principles" is equally "a politics of oughts." One must accept its "oughts" -- its moral and ethical postulates -- to be perfectly happy with their implications. He who doesn't immediately and viscerally "buy into" those postulates simply cannot be sold on their implications for policy without arguing over the policies themselves. That's where the fun really begins.

As C. S. Lewis has told us:

From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. We must therefore either extend the word Reason to include what our ancestors called Practical Reason and confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved (though they can support themselves by no reason of the sort that Gaius and Titius demand) are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself; or else we must give up at once, and for ever, the attempt to find a core of 'rational' value behind all the sentiments we have debunked.

(Apropos of which, if you haven't read Lewis's mighty essay The Abolition of Man, do so at once. Its arguments, and the ability to grasp and defend them, are prerequisites for the comprehension of the material published at Liberty's Torch. Yes, I'm serious. Do it now. There'll be a test on this.)

To get "all the way" to the (defensible) libertarian policy prescriptions, one must embrace the "oughts" inherent in the individual rights asserted by libertarians. That's quite a jump from our current political condition:

  • The right to one's life implies a right not to be killed except in self-defense or as retribution for premeditated murder;
  • The right to one's liberty implies a right not to be coerced into any course of action, nor out of a course of action that does not infringe on others' rights;
  • The right to one's justly acquired property implies a right not to be expropriated against one's consent, except to make restitution for an offense against someone else's rights.

Whoosh! There goes the entire corpus of federal law, the laws of the fifty states, and the ordinances of three thousand counties and nearly ninety thousand towns, villages, hamlets, and school boards. (We also sacrifice a few minor bits of the Common Law we inherited from our English brethren.) Full acceptance of the libertarian "oughts" requires that we tear up the legal accumulations of three centuries of Anglo-American practice.

I know a few people who'd shrug and say, "Well, that's the way it's got to be." A few. A very few. Most of us can't accept a change that radical, at least not in one leap. That we might just get rapped in the teeth by such a change -- not through libertarian political triumphs but through widespread social collapse -- doesn't alter the practical-political situation one iota.

People don’t want change, any change at all. Whenever they accept change, they do so grudgingly, and with much grumbling over the required adjustments to their ways of life.


I've argued before against partisanry, and I'll continue to do so. Allegiance to an organization, even one whose principles one accepts wholeheartedly, invariably gets in the way of other goals. Thus, I'm not a Republican partisan and will not become one, despite the rather tempting array of incentives and enticements that have been offered me. But I will tend to vote for a Republican over a Democrat, as long as the candidate is a decent man whose emphasis is on morally acceptable changes of a tolerable magnitude that militate toward greater individual liberty. In other words, for the foreseeable future, what's good enough for Wayne Allyn Root will be good enough for me as well.

If gentle, incremental changes are all that's practically possible, let's work toward those. Their bottom line, in Ed Walker's phrasing, is within ethical and practical reach. Radical changes, no matter how theoretically desirable, involve a "bottom line" that's likely to include mass suffering, even bloodshed.

You've got to know the bottom line.

1 comment:

Linda Fox said...

It's like buying software - if it does 85% of what you want, buy it.

Most people pick their presidents that way (and, often spouses) - find the person who gives you MOST of what you deem important, and vote for him. If the agreement is higher than usual, campaign for him.

Libertarians and Ron Paulians (and the Green Party, et al) aren't like that - their candidate has to be WITH them on EVERYTHING. Don't care that such a stance produces candidates with NO chance of winning. They are ideologically pure.