Georgia’s Impractical Pragmatist: Gov. Nathan Deal

There is an immense irony at work in Georgia. A state that eagerly touts its recent accolades as “The Number One Place to Do Business” nevertheless suffers internal rot from a fundamental lack of principles and from leadership by economic illiterates who treat individual liberty as an expendable luxury to be sacrificed at the slightest inconvenience. True, Georgia’s government is not without its better moments, and such occasions deserve commendation and defense. But the stumbling, inconsistent manner in which many of Georgia’s leaders have pursued even their better policies reveals a group of individuals unmoored from principles, making bad decisions as probable as good ones. Georgia’s leaders have achieved a relatively rights-respecting system through happy accident of pragmatism—a philosophy of immediate expedience at the expense of long-term or lasting principles. Unfortunately, without fuller moral justification, the progress Georgia’s leaders have blindly happened upon is always at risk of being vacated as soon as the current calculus of convenience dictates otherwise.[1]

Georgia’s pragmatist-in-chief is Governor Nathan Deal—an unusual Republican with a penchant for insurance mandates, raising taxes, increasing government spending, as well as a particularly acute spinelessness toward the deregulation of medicine and college students’ right to self-defense. As a result, Georgia’s government under Nathan Deal has most frequently achieved little beyond maintaining the status quo of Republican politics. That is: Republicans like Nathan Deal strive to remain to the right of the Democrats (not a difficult task) while never straying from well-trodden ground, even against a surplus of evidence that better paths exist. The result is a style of governance so risk-averse that it allows good, important legislation to fall by the wayside in favor of the umpteenth rehashing of three-year-old issues. And when they do decide to innovate, it most often seems to be in the direction of meddling controls rather than economic freedom, markets, and individual rights.

Consider, for example, Governor Deal’s executive order issued this week, setting price ceilings for gasoline in Georgia. Due to a leak in an Alabama pipeline and resultant rushes to gas stations by drivers, the current supply of gasoline has dwindled in Southern states. The natural result of diminished supply and increased demand, as any C student of high school economics will know, is a price increase. In a recent editorial for Peach Pundit, Slade Mendenhall has sufficiently covered the economic effects of a price increase, as well as the adverse effects of price ceilings. Suffice it to say that this executive order from Governor Deal will only hasten the depletion of gasoline supplies in Georgia, as drivers will continue to consume gasoline at a level that petroleum producers cannot resupply (consumption that higher prices generally offset). What began merely as a bothersome circumstance that would remedy itself once producers repair the pipeline, Governor Nathan Deal has found fit to exacerbate.

The real question is: why? In light of overwhelming historical evidence that price ceilings produce shortages (not to mention violate the purchasers’ and sellers’ right to contract), why was Governor Nathan Deal so quick to institute a price ceiling nonetheless?

Because judgment requires principle. Judgments in the sufficiency of evidence, judgments in policy, judgments in ends—all require principles, as described by Ayn Rand in “The Anatomy of Compromise”:

“A principle is ‘a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend.’ Thus a principle is an abstraction which subsumes a great number of concretes. It is only by means of principles that one can set one’s long-range goals and evaluate the concrete alternatives of any given moment. It is only principles that enable a man to plan his future and to achieve it.” [Emphasis mine.]

In eschewing principles, Governor Nathan Deal and the broader Republican Party have inhibited their ability to discriminate between momentary whim worship and long-term goal seeking. Governor Deal merely observed that the price of gasoline was rising, perceived this to be a problem, and simply issued an order to stop it. And as Mendenhall notes in his editorial, the very means that Governor Deal chose to halt rising gas prices can be nothing but pragmatist. There exists no rational principle to distinguish gouging from normal price increases, and so the only possible definition of gouging is “whatever price politicians arbitrarily don’t like.”

Governor Nathan Deal did not and could not pause to ask whether this was a problem within the state’s cognizance, because he has no integrated understanding of the state’s proper role. Governor Deal did not and could not consider the broader implications of such a policy, because his concerns were limited to the range of the moment, and he had no standard with which to measure the relative risks. And he did not and could not contemplate whether a price ceiling would run afoul of individual rights, because very notion of a right (an absolute freedom to engage in a certain action in a social context) contradicts the very heart of pragmatism, which is that there are no moral absolutes. Such is how an immensely intelligent man like Governor Deal can nevertheless make an exceedingly incompetent decision.

Pragmatism’s prominence in the Republican Party will not likely abate any time soon. While the most vociferous apologists for the Republican presidential nominee generally espouse a more integrated ideology—a collectivism bordering on ethnonationalist socialism—it was the Republican Party’s unchecked culture of pragmatism that set the intellectual stage. For all the same reasons that Governor Nathan Deal could not properly evaluate the circumstances that led him to institute a price ceiling, the average Republican (following the national party’s cultural tone) was intellectually disarmed in assessing the complicated intricacies of national politics. So, many simply defaulted. They fell back on collectivist epistemics and morals that helped them make sense of the world, however erroneously. And Republican leadership has been equally unhelpful in remedying that default, often adopting the same rhetoric and positions in the name of expedience.

Meanwhile, Republican intellectuals still deride the principle of those who have stood their ground. Such derision has been accompanied with what Ayn Rand referred to as “an aura of hysterical self-righteousness, in the form of belligerent assertions that one must compromise with anybody on anything (except on the tenet that one must compromise) and by panicky appeals to ‘practicality.’” Certainly, the word “principle” is abused in modern politics. Many demand “principle” from their candidates without understanding it. But the abuse by some does not justify the contempt with which many in the Republican Establishment treat appeals to principle. While there is a growing and intellectually diverse chorus calling for the Republican Party to correct the problems instigated or exacerbated by its presidential nominee, the errors cannot be remedied until the GOP’s current leadership adopts an integrated set of principles or until they are replaced by someone who will. That process will start at the level of individual offices: congressional seats, senate seats, and governorships. It will mean replacing incumbents with fighters and people who can hold to a principle for longer than a campaign, who can weather the tough battles without abandoning everything that they championed to the voters. This week, though, we would settle for someone who can weather a bump in gas prices.

 

[1] Should anyone doubt the danger of pragmatism, look merely to the state of the GOP nationally, in which RNC Chair Reince Priebus is now the lapdog of a nominee who rejects, or has at one point rejected, each of the Republican Party’s alleged principles—or even to the nominee himself, for whom everything is negotiable and nothing is sacred. That is the essence of pragmatism.

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