Playing a politician in a classic Marx Brothers comedy, Groucho Marx once declared, “Those are my principles! If you don’t like them, I have others!”
We laugh at Groucho’s line, but it’s a flash of candor that too many of today’s politicians aren’t honest enough to admit in public. Sadly, it describes the way they often behave. What Groucho’s character was saying, in effect, was that he had no principles at all, or that he would be glad to abandon any principles he did have simply to please the next audience.
“If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.” Whoever said that should get a Nobel Prize for wisdom.
Though some might view principles negatively as a sign of rigidity, ideology, or closed-mindedness, that’s often just a way of dismissing another person’s principles while holding fast to our own conceptions. Most people instinctively admire someone who seems to really believe in something!
To be unprincipled should never be a compliment. If you dodge and weave to avoid principles so you can claim to have an “open mind,” you’ve simply demonstrated how empty your mind really is. And perhaps your soul, as well.
Stanley Baldwin, one of Britain’s more forgettable prime ministers, once declared, “I would rather be an opportunist and float than go to the bottom with my principles around my neck.” We still aren’t sure what his principles were, which is a big reason he remains forgettable.
If you need some helpful suggestions for principles that would make the world a far better place, I have some for you here.
In all walks of life, politics included, an honorable person should stand for principles rooted firmly in truth and consistency. He should support policies that advance those principles, and compromise only when compromise is required to move things in the right direction. Before we can expect politicians to be principled, however, we must insist they be men and women of character.
A statesman (man or woman) in government is a politician with character, which is to say that character is what separates a politician from a statesman. Character—and I mean the good kind—consists of such traits as honesty; humility; patience; courage; responsibility; faithfulness; gratitude; a long-term focus; and respect for other people’s choices, rights and property. You can learn more of why these things are important in my book, Are We Good Enough for Liberty?, which you can read online for free here.
Being of good character, statesmen don’t seek public office for personal gain, public attention or to satisfy a lust for power. They usually are people who take time out from productive careers of accomplishment temporarily to serve the public. They don’t have to work for government because they can’t do anything else. They stand for a principled vision, not for political expediency.
When a statesman gets elected, he doesn’t forget the public-spirited citizens who sent him to office and become a mouthpiece for the permanent bureaucracy or some special interest that bankrolled his campaign.
Because they seek the truth, statesmen are more likely to do what is right than what may be politically popular at the moment. You know where they stand because they say what they mean and they mean what they say.
Statesmen do not engage in class warfare, race-baiting, or other divisive tactics that pull people apart. They do not buy votes with tax dollars. They don’t make promises they can’t keep or intend to break. A statesman doesn’t try to pull himself up by dragging somebody else down, and he doesn’t try to convince people they’re victims just so he can posture as their savior. In other words, you can’t be a demagogue and a statesman at the same time.
When it comes to managing public finances, statesmen prioritize. They don’t behave as though government deserves an endlessly larger share of other people’s money. They exhibit the courage to cut less important expenses to make way for more pressing ones. They don’t try to build empires. Instead, they keep government within its proper bounds and trust in what free and enterprising people can accomplish.
Politicians think that they’re smart enough to plan other people’s lives; statesmen are wise enough to understand what utter folly such arrogant attitudes really are. Statesmen, in other words, possess a level of character that an ordinary politician does not.
Smart people are skeptical of the expansion of government power, because they know history, economics and human nature. They place a high priority on character and refuse to support politicians without it. They don’t allow such politicians to buy them off with other people’s money.
Are you “bought and paid for” by manipulative politicians who give you stuff that doesn’t belong either to them or to you? Is your vote for sale to the highest bidder? That’s sinful and immoral, so remove that albatross from your life as soon as you can.
All over the world today, we seem to have an overabundance of politicians and a shortage of statesmen. That, unfortunately, is a big reason we have an overabundance of bad government—with all the injustices, tyranny and poverty that it brings.
Let’s make 2021 a year in which we work to build our character, restore sound principles, and vote out the politicians who refuse to be statesmen.