Tuesday, March 10, 2009



Several weeks ago, I wrote about the distinction between “principle” and “expediency.” I identified commerce with “expediency” because “success in business” requires the ability to adapt fluidly to changing circumstances, even if that means resorting to unsavory tactics. In contrast, I identified “principle” with the adjectives “honorable” and “noble” because a person wins “honor” by adhering to principles, even when circumstances tempt him to abandon them. Principles, in other words, provide vibrancy and meaning beyond mere commercial success. Principles are ideas that transcend everyday economic pressures. They represent notions that we consider good, no matter the climate. We are “noble” and “honorable” when we advance principles. And we are “dishonorable” and “unethical” when we discard them for commercial reasons. In closing, I noted that I preferred honor over expediency because I did not like the American program for “success,” which largely involves “expediency” over “principle.” I said: “Give me something to believe in and I will work hard for it.”

Principles have broad thematic appeal. They represent ideas larger than our lives and our petty financial obligations. In history and literature, “honorable men” live on in our collective memory, not commercially successful men who just “went with the program.” We remember Abraham Lincoln because he believed in a “liberty principle” and died for it. We remember Thomas More because he believed in a “conscience principle” and he died for it. And more generally, we remember America’s Founders because they fought a Revolution to advance principles. Although the Framers also had a commercial interest in separating from Great Britain, they undoubtedly believed in larger principles, such as natural human rights, free speech and representative government. They risked high treason to realize their principles. If they had been caught, they would have faced the most grisly criminal penalties imaginable. And they knew the risk.

When men follow principle, history remembers them. They may not be successful—indeed, many die in the effort or otherwise live wretched, poverty-stricken lives—but they live on after death because principles transcend individual existence. On the other hand, those who follow the “expedient” path may achieve every success during their lives, but few remember them. For example, how many wealthy bankers lived during Gandhi’s time? True, Gandhi achieved some measure of fame and wealth later in his life, but does anyone remember the wealthy, successful people who lived in his town? No. They lived unremarkable lives, even though they had money, power and success. Larger principles did not animate them; they simply wanted to “go with the commercial flow,” make money, raise children, live comfortably then die. They did what was necessary to achieve those unremarkable goals, and they died unremarkably.

Commerce demands expediency. And expediency renders us unremarkable. There is always a contrast between men who live for principle and those who live for commerce. In literature, we read lines such as: “He did it for more than money,” or “He fought for something better.” These are striking statements, because most people only do things for money; it is memorable when they do not. When a person does something for non-commercial reasons, his behavior attracts notice. He has other motivations. He might have principles. He inspires others because he rises above the crass demands of daily earning and paying. He even risks his own bodily comfort and status in order to realize his principles. He refuses to take the expedient path, even if it leads to his ruin. Others notice this and they admire it. In most cases, the man fails. But when he succeeds—even through his death—he lives on in memory as a person who was “not like the rest of us.” After all, “the rest of us” just want to get a job, earn a wage, eat, sleep, go on vacation once in a while and avoid aging. This is commercial existence. It draws strength from bodily comfort and pleasure. But the principled man draws satisfaction from larger ideals. That is why others remember him.

People admire principles, yet few follow them in every case. It is too risky and too costly. If a person believes on principle that the free market economy is evil, he should refuse to get a job within that system. Yet if he refuses, he starves and goes homeless. If he truly adhered to his principle, he would choose the difficult consequences that flow from it. But few—if any—do. Nonetheless, men such as Karl Marx believed in this principle and they took steps to further it. History remembers these men, even if many reject their principles. They had the daring and courage to believe in larger ideals and advance them, risking their own lives and comfort in the process. They did not merely drift from day to day following conventional rules and adapting their behavior to make money. They lived for their ideas. That is what separated them from the rest.

Those who follow principle attract positive attention because only a few people dare to break from commercial expediency. Yet at the same time, they attract negative attention because many abhor their beliefs. We remember Marx because he believed in ideas that upended the free market economy. But we also remember Marx because other people utterly despised his principles and fought to crush them. Every principle reflects strong, individual belief. At the same time, every strong belief engenders strong reactions from those who do not share it. Interestingly, principles invite conflict between those who adhere to them and those who find them threatening to “the order.” On the one hand, there are “believers” who are willing to die for larger ideals. On the other hand, there are “reactionaries” who do not like the principle and believe it will make their comfortable lives more complicated. In many cases, the “reactionaries” are people who follow conventional lives rooted in commerce. They do not want disturbances. Thus, they violently react against others who believe in “disturbing principles.”

Yet who really remembers reactionaries? Throughout history, revolutionaries, visionaries, martyrs and radicals have introduced new principles. They gave their lives for those principles. Who took their lives? The reactionaries. In hindsight, we can call the radicals “honorable” because they refused to abandon their principles even when they stood to lose everything. But can we call the reactionaries “honorable” for squashing ideas that threatened their commercial comfort? We remember men who fought for bold, new principles. We do not remember the men who fought to suppress them. In virtually every case, reactionaries come from social classes that are content with the current order. No one remembers them because they simply fought for “business as usual;” and there is nothing memorable about “business as usual.” In other words, no one remembers people who simply fight for commerce. When people “fight for the money,” they might win. But their memory swiftly fades after their victory.

Why exactly do men fight? Men will always fight, but for what reasons? And what reasons motivate them the most? Reactionaries fight to maintain the existing order against what they consider to be “dangerous new principles.” Yet throughout history, men have fought for much less compelling reasons. They have fought for women, as the Greeks did at Troy. They have fought for land and resources, as did the Crusaders in the Middle Ages and as the American pioneers did in the 19th Century. They have fought for personal loyalty, as the medieval knights did for their feudal lords. They have fought to discover treasure, as did the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico and South America. They have fought for trade rights, as did virtually every European power during colonial times in North America, Africa and Asia. Finally, men have always fought as mercenaries, taking cash payment to shed blood for anyone who can pony up the price.

Yet did men fight with genuine vigor for these reasons? What principles did they advance? To merely win land, money, women, treasure and trade rights? Viewed largely, those are not very compelling prizes. In my view, men fight more vigorously when they fight for more abstract ideals than mere commercial gain. For example, the early Muslims conquered the Middle East, North Africa, Portugal and Spain because they believed in Mohammed’s religious teachings. They were not fighting for gold, land or women. The American colonies fought against England for “human rights” and “liberty from tyranny.” Later, revolutionary France fought for enlightened principles such as liberty, equality and brotherhood. These were ideas in which men could strongly believe, even if they brought no tangible economic benefit. The Russians and Chinese fought to establish communist governments committed to a new economic order. And during the 20th Century, virtually every major power fought for “nationalistic” reasons premised upon the idea that every Nation has its own unique values, territory, language, traditions, culture and power.

Men fight more vigorously for principles than they do for money. Principles transcend. While every man must overcome economic adversity to survive in our commercial world, there is nothing grandiose about fighting for commerce. But there is something grandiose about fighting for equality, religious belief, brotherhood, fairness, justice, national pride or freedom. There is nothing expedient about these motivations; they motivate men precisely because they transcend expediency. They stand for something more than commercial success. Yet when men fight for commercial gain, they appear somehow undignified, cheap and ignoble. That is why almost everyone despises mercenaries; they have no principles. They take motivation solely from the wage they receive. They do not care about the ideas for which either side fights; they are just “doing it for the money.” In conflicts between men, however, principles are real. When a third-party intervenes for commercial reasons, they attract mordant resentment. That is why mercenaries receive no quarter on the battlefield. Just ask the American “contractors” who found themselves burned and hung from a bridge in Iraq. The Iraqis knew that those men were in their country for a price, not to advance principles. They rightly held them in contempt. Any American would have done the same to a foreign mercenary fighting in an American conflict on American soil. In fact, the Iraqi insurgents have a compelling principle: To eject a foreign invader from their country. They have no financial interest in this; it is pure principle.

Conflict inheres in human existence. Not everyone has access to the same resources or the same opportunities. There will always be inequalities in wealth, status and power. There will always be some successful people and many more unsuccessful ones. Commerce regulates this social order. In peacetime, men either win in commerce or they lose. They compete with each other. They want to make money and move ahead. Yet as they compete, they constantly must weigh expediency against principle. Why do they act? Do they act merely to move ahead? Are they just “doing it for the money?” If they are, do they feel good about it? At the end of the day, principles implicate individual, subjective belief. When a man believes in principle, he gives voice to his individuality. Yet when he “adapts” to meet commercial demands, he suppresses his beliefs in order to please superior powers. Success, then, depends in part upon suppression and surrender. On the other hand, principle defines. We remember those who fight for principles because they make a mark beyond mere commerce. They identify themselves through their beliefs. They may never achieve success, but when they do things for reasons other than money, they break from the mass. And we notice them, even if we detest their beliefs.

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