The Sadness of Compromise

By Tibor Machan

This was posted to alt.philosophy.objectivism by Jimmy Wales on March 23, 1995.

In 1970 Robert W. Poole, Jr., and I, when we both lived in Santa Barbara, conceived of an organization that would uncompromisingly promote the ideals of rationality and liberty in our culture. We called it Reason Enterprises, invited some others to work with us and made its main task the publication of Reason magazine. In 1979 the organization became the Reason Foundation, a tax-exempt think tank. In the mid-80s the it moved to Los Angles and went, as one might say, near-big time. Bob Poole immersed himself in the world wide privatization movement -- which very likely got its name from him in the first place -- while Lynn Scarlett, who became one of the foundations central figures, started to appear on TV and get published in the major media on various environmental matters. (Scarlett was perhaps the first critics of reckless recycling, showing that such policies often had side effects that defeated their purpose.)

One thing we wanted for the Reason Foundation is uncompromised integrity in its support both of rational analysis and the political principles of individual liberty. Reason magazine editorialized in support of both of these for many years, although more recently the scope of the coverage shrunk a bit, with a greater focus on politics and public affairs and not much on culture in general (education, science , philosophy, art, etc.). This task was not an easy one to achieve. Pragmatism is always a temptation -- the world of politics and public policy develops in line with a combination of more or less rationally conceived actions and institutions, not in line with well formulated, honest, decent, rational ideals. Liberty, too, is difficult to respect, since existing policies and institutions are often predicated on major violations of individual rights.

Still, we were determined not to allow ourselves ever to advocate ideas that didn't pass mustard with our supposedly rationally conceived ideals. One such ideal was that taxation is never a good idea and harks back to the feudal age when ordinary folks had to pay the kings to permit them to exist, to work, to low the land and so forth. Government could function, to the extent it is legitimate, by charging fees for its services, even if this idea would not be easy to sell to anyone just yet. We would never, however, join the ranks of those who would solve problems by advocating what we called "legalized theft."

Just how difficult this mission turned out to be is well illustrated by the fact that the first time that the Reason Foundation became a fairly major public policy player -- as it got involved in advising Orange County government on how to deal with its recent financial crisis -- it also became the target of efforts to corrupt it.

When one of its staff members appeared on a talk show in Los Angeles, he allowed, entirely as a matter of his own reflection, that Orange County may have to raise taxes for a bit before I can recover from its current financial woes. This happened in the wake of Bob Poole's earlier insistence that the county could weather its troubles without a tax raise, mostly by selling off assets, downsizing and doing what most governments ought to be doing anyway to come near their proper scope of operations.

When this happened, the news immediately hit the wires services -- I read in The New York Times that "recently reversed its stand and said it believed that a tax increase might be essential." Bob was on vacation in Florida and had no knowledge of this statement by one of his staff. Before anyone could set the record straight, by reiterating that the Reason Foundation as such never promotes tax increases as a solution to problems -- since that would be to breach its integrity, like the Pope promoting abortion or Hillary Clinton the total privatization of health insurance -- the Los Angeles Times had published a gleeful editorial announcing that even that bastion of laissez-faire ideology, the Reason Foundation, had to abandon its ideology in the face of a real world crisis.

What a joy it must have been to statists at The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, the two major statist dailies in the country, to find that a bastion of political integrity has finally caved in. So much so that they didn't even bother to check with the major officer of the institution. Instead, based on the casual chit chat of a staffer on a rather minor radio talk program, they pounced on the chance to find yet another organization to be as unprincipled as they are.

You can be sure that we you, who have a measure of integrity, even appear to compromise it, those who do this big time, who lack principles in the first place, will eagerly call it to everyone's attention. For those without virtue love to see others fall. Of course, they will try to paint this "coming around to realism," not what it is, a breach of moral or political integrity. It is only when someone practices pragmatism whom they want to smear, such as Richard Nixon, do they identify his conduct as a beach of the virtue of integrity. When it goes the way they like to have people corrupted, by advocating and promoting the power of the state, then integrity is labeled "ideology."

I am very glad that the folks at Reason refused to cave in to the call for political realism. They have by their courage shown that a principled approach to political life and public policy is more important than getting praised by the statist big guns for selling out. It may be a fact of contemporary political life that to be a really big player one must abandon principles. But this merely serves as an added indictment of our unhappy times.



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