John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Reductio Ad Absurdem

Posted on May 21, 2010
In 1803, emissaries from the American President, including future President James Monroe, signed a treaty, which was then the largest real estate purchase in history.  Thomas Jefferson authorized his ambassadors to sign the Louisiana Purchase Treaty despite some misgiving he had about its constitutionality.  He did it because he thought it was a great deal (it was – 15 million bucks for property which would later make up parts of 14 states), and because he wanted to enhance American security.

He was opposed in his efforts to make the purchase by Federalists, who while they appreciated the expansion of federal power (being Federalists and all), didn’t like so much money going to a sworn enemy of the English, who they liked.  So, the Federalists made a big stink about Jefferson’s lack of philosophical consistency, as they themselves showed that they lacked any philosophical consistency by opposing an expansion of federal power, which philosophically, they supported.

Had Jefferson been a stickler for his philosophy, American history would have taken a dramatically different course.  Instead of a sprawling and vibrant democracy powered by Manifest Destiny in the 19th and 20th centuries, the United States would have been hemmed in by European powers France, Spain and Great Britain, where it would have become at best a second-rate power.

It is important to have philosophic principles in public policy.  But as Everett Dirksen, the illustrious Illinois Senator once said, “ I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.”

I thought of all this as I saw Rand Paul grapple with what should be an easy question about the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  To be philosophically consistent, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 presents a challenge.  As an abiding principle, having the government dictate private activity is problematic, especially if you are a Libertarian.

That may all be true in a perfectly philosophical, ideological world, but in the real world, it makes no sense.  Of course, the Civil Right Act of 1964 was the correct course of action.  Allowing private businesses, like restaurants, motels, grocery stores, to discriminate on the basis of race was morally wrong, and stopping that discrimination required action by the federal government, because of the widespread racial policies that were enacted in most southern states throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Paul bungled the question because his ideological outlook clouded his moral and political judgment.

That is a common mistake by rookie politicians.

They rely on their ideology rather than their instincts to make judgments about public policy matters, and they get caught up defending arguments that are absurd on their face.

Conservative thinkers used to be anti-ideological.  They used to understand that ideology is the anti-thesis of common sense.  They used to believe instinctively in tradition, experience, character, and virtues like temperance, humility, diligence, charity, patience, and thrift, would help lead people to make the right conclusions about public policy.

Ideology came from the far-left, in the form of Marxism and then Communism, and from the far right, in the form of rabid nationalism, fascism and racism.

True conservatives, like Russell Kirk and Bill Buckley, building on the intellectual foundations established by Edmund Burke, distrusted foolish ideology.

Conservatives today should similarly reject conservative ideologues who put theory first, and leave common sense on the cutting room floor.

Reduction ad absurdum is a form of argument in which following its implications to its absurd conclusion disproves a proposition.   Both libertarianism and socialism, as ideologies, are vulnerable to this form of argument, as Rachel Maddow schooled Rand Paul on earlier this week.  Common-sense conservatism, by definition, is invulnerable to this form of argument, because it explicitly rejects the absurd as a matter of course.

Conservatives are better off when they embrace common sense and reject a slavish devotion to ideology, no matter how compelling it might be.