Nov. 2nd, 2013

pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
There's a category of things I call metaprinciples. It includes things like states rights and libertarianism. There is never a situation involving just these principles, you can only apply them to other principles. For example, in deciding whether to support a federal law on credit card disclosures, you must both decide how you feel about the actual disclosure, how you feel about it being mandated at all, and how you feel about the federal government being the one doing the mandating.

When you have a metaprinciple and a controversial issue, you have two options:

  1. Only invoke the metaprinciple when it gets the answer your primary principle suggests, e.g. "I'm for states rights when they're passing abortion restrictions, but not when the state is allowing Terry Schiavo to be taken off life support." Opponents will accuse you of hypocrisy and the population at large will dismiss the metaprinciple as political noise.
  2. Invoke the metaprinciple even when you find the particular application bad or even abhorrent, e.g. "I want women to receive equal pay for equal work, but don't want a law mandating such". Opponents will accuse you of holding the opposite view on the primary principle (in this case, "you must want not care if women are underpaid" or even "you must think women deserve less").


Of course, that's only for important and controversial issues. If you ever bring up a metaprinciple in regards to a non-controversy, you will be called pedantic and annoying. See this Colber Report clip:

The Colbert Report
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,Video Archive



Summary: a woman attempts to poison someone and is convicted under a federal chemical weapons treaty statute. She challenges on 10th amendment grounds and it reaches the Supreme Court (Bond v. United States). Colbert's response "I've always said poisoning was a state's rights issue." Because if you challenge the methods you must oppose the outcome.

I believe that your commitment to metaprinciples is measured by how much violate of your primary principles it will make you tolerate. In what meaningful sense can you be said to value something unless it changes your actions or beliefs? This makes it frustrating for me when proponents of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 accuse opponents of hating women, with no further evidence. It erases the possibility of someone genuinely wanting fair pay and genuinely wanting something else even more.*

Of course, many people are committing choice #1 from above and using a metaprinciple to justify something they wanted to do anyway. You can prove this by looking up their record and finding situations they advocated the opposite, but it's time consuming and much less satisfying.

The other reason metaprinciples are meta is they are often shorthand for primary principles that look unrelated to the question at hand. For example, I think discrimination based on race is morally wrong. But I think private individuals (and thus the companies they own) have an absolute right to choose who they hire and fire, that anti-discrimination laws violate that by making them prove their decisions were just. I worry that this power could be used to for evil, like deny unemployment to anti-government activists, or even allow individual employees to punish their personal enemies.

Of course, the Civil Rights Act and Ledbetter decision suppose the government *does* have that right, they're just arguing over how long it has to enforce it.**

If I say this, and my opponents understand it, we can argue about the second order effects of the laws and come to conclusions about the relative costs and benefits. We might disagree, and I might maintain that the law of unintended consequences means we are likely to underestimate costs, but at least it could be an honest debate.

*In the particular case of the fair pay portion of the Civil Rights Act, that could either be "the federal government has no standing to intervene in private contracts" or the more practical "It is impossible for a jury to evaluate the merits of a wage decision made 50 years ago and I do not believe the documentation costs and uncertainty this law would impose on corporations, some of which will come in the form of reduced risk taking, justifies the benefits for women. I'm worried it may even come back to bite women, Americans with Disabilities Act-style" or even "I want the statute of limitations to extend from last the last paycheck and believe it would be constitutional, but also believe the text of this specific law mandates first paycheck and believe observing the text of laws is important. I support passing the Ledbetter act to change this."


**Although enforcement, and paying for it, falls to the individual. This is one reason I hate these laws: invoking them requires a certain about of social and economic capital, and the more of these people have the less they need the protection. You're imposing a burden on companies to protect themselves from law suits (expensive even if they never lose. Expensive even if a suit is never brought) to give people above a certain critical threshold a tool to get richer, while leaving the truly poor (in money or knowledge or connections) out in the cold. That there are charities that occasionally enable people below the threshold to use the law is great, but insufficient.

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