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Welcome to First Principles

Put most simply, this book looks at how we view ourselves as citizens and how we organize as a society. The content—synopses of 44 books presented in an ordered, guided reading list—aims to explore the relationship between the individual and the social, governmental, and other entities that surround him. The beliefs and connections and arrangements that develop from our cultural constructions lead to political activity, but politics is not our focus, first principles are.
       If you wish to gain a useful comprehension of the history, philosophy, economics, and political theory that led to the creation of Western Civilization and the founding of the American Republic —this should be your primary resource.
       If you wish to serve your community—or more ambitiously, your country—in the political realm by becoming better and more usefully informed, or through public activism, you should start here.
       Those who use this book to its full extent will see that it is not for Everyman. It doesn’t try to be. We’ve attempted to be engaging and moderately comprehensive, and to be helpful. Some of the readings are demanding, most are not. They are simply practical and relevant. If you do engage, we believe that your reward will far exceed your effort.
       Those of you who absorb the books offered here can make a difference in the world—somehow, somewhere, sometime. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Bill Buckley and David Keene made these works part of themselves. Many, many more unsung citizens have left their marks on the world after grasping the essence of what these books offer.
       Margaret Thatcher observed in 1991, shortly after relinquishing her office as Prime Minister of Great Britain (and equally shortly after the demise of the Soviet Union ), that the democracies of the West were not quite done on the world stage. It was her contention that we needed to make the moral as well as the practical case for representative democracy, the rule of law, and free-market capitalism. Little did anyone know at that point how prescient Lady Thatcher was, and little did anyone doubt the accuracy of her declaration after September 11, 2001.
       The practical effects of democracy supported by capitalism are self-evident, but they can become distorted. What we have learned


over time is that when they are skewed we need to fix the problem, not discard the system. This is what Lady Thatcher meant by her call for making the moral case—so that when we got to fixing whatever problems we encountered we might do so by a return to the noble foundation and fundamental value that experience has constructed in this arena.
       Lady Thatcher understood as well that this economic and political system, which guaranteed individual freedom and offered a road toward self-sufficiency for its participants, also had to support those who cannot cope by themselves. This is the ever-present tug on the free market; where the obligations, opportunities, and results for each of us are equal neither in size nor import, judgment is required to help sustain community. The authors and theories offered here address these issues, and although the answers may change somewhat from generation to generation and culture to culture, there is a base line from which any society needs to operate. Here we attempt to define and order that social commonality.
       Our book’s secondary goal is to help clear away the clutter—the intellectual, emotional, political, economic, philosophical, and psychological obfuscation that surrounds the subject of government—usually caused by the machinery of politics coupled with the effects of mass media.
We start at square one in an effort to make comprehensible the basic pieces, and outline how they fit together.  What the authors represented here seem to know well is that the job of governing is easy for those who don’t do it.  The difficult part is in understanding how actual, not idealized or simplistic governance, is best accomplished.  The conclusion is that human nature must be given its due.
       A society based on capitalism and freedom could be perfect—except for the human condition: man’s imperfectability. In order to make the best of what’s possible after taking into account our limitations, the authors we study define what should work and then defend what does. 
       Exploring and explaining the who, what, why, where, when, and how of those who developed the concept and practice of freedom in an open society is our goal. Through investigation of the books that embody and trace the course of mankind’s efforts to govern we hope to create an intelligible framework that leads to understanding, and then action.  


The Information Age

Because of both the insufficiency and growing corruption of “politically correct” public education, and the rising 24/7 information glut—via print, radio, TV, and the Internet—those not grounded in first principles may become unwitting victims of demagogues, charlatans, or their own uncertain judgment. The books offered here are a lifeboat back to the basics, a method to debunk the politically effective but ever-dishonest free lunch we are sometimes tendered.
       While we cut through the information maelstrom and try to reduce the polarizing effects of rant radio and telemongering, we’re guessing there will initially be snickers that this effort will simply add to the confusion. But our intent is to take a scalpel to the chaos and the bloated rhetoric of boast and demand.
       Media, especially that which is electronically distributed, is obviously a major part of life. This condition is something new for those who grew up before television became not just ubiquitous, but dominant in the formation of public opinion. Media changes things for the better, and the worse.
       In today’s climate we oftentimes don’t know what to believe. Sadly, we have too many tools and standards, and seemingly insufficient time to digest what appears before us. Perhaps the best solution to this problem is to rediscover some of the basic mechanisms and guidelines necessary to do this job. Instead of searching for a magic bullet or one-sentence theory to explain our world, we should reexamine the time-tested and proven philosophies of the past to see where they might help us clarify the modern era.
       A note of caution is in order: if you are going to learn and use these ideas, you must understand them in some detail. None of the components of First Principles was an immaculate conception; each was derived through intellectual, and sometimes more bloody struggle. History brought us to the depths of nuclear destruction and the heights of freedom in the twentieth century and the roots of these titanic conflicts go back millennia. The analysis and deconstruction of some ideas and the crafting of others truly means something. Taken together the books summarized here leave few stones unturned—they start at A and go carefully to Z. When you finish you will have the basis of a rational and consistent political theory of how the world has been proven to work.


     Finally, it must be observed that any effort to distill five-hundred-page books into five-page synopses necessarily requires that corners be cut and concepts be condensed. We have attempted to be true to the authors’ observations, theories, and themes; however, it may be contended that
some of what is presented is at variance from what any given author said. We realize the writers who are represented in this volume developed their philosophies in exquisite fashion in book-length odysseys for a reason. Our efforts to distill the essence of those efforts will omit some nuance, some reasoned logic, etc., but we believe the synopses are still true to what is contained in the authors’ original works. We welcome comments or queries on the substance of this book if our effort leaves questions in the reader’s mind.
       We are not offering an ideology in a box, only the tools for becoming a coherent citizen. We hope that you will eventually use what you learn for civic involvement—from writing letters-to-the-editor or blogging, to feeling more confident in casting a ballot; from becoming involved with the campaign of a political candidate, to becoming that candidate yourself.  

Ideas—The Tools

Do not doubt that a citizen can alter the world. In truth, that is the only place where change begins.

This anonymous sentiment, often expressed (but equally often forgotten when we hear the public lament: “What can I do, I’m only one person?”), is basic to the suggestion that what you will learn in this book can make a difference. Ideas motivate people and inspire them to believe that somehow things can be better—and that they can make them so.
       An understanding of the need for discipline in maintaining a free society likewise animates us. An example: it isn’t just that the free lunch of the modern state is hard to sustain; it is the unrestrained sense of entitlement it breeds that makes governing difficult. Thus, when  distortions such as this become apparent, when our methods seem sound but our results appear less so, when negative effects are taken to their logical conclusions and found to be not just discomfiting but dangerous, that’s when individuals become active—no matter the cost—and ultimately make a difference.

       Many of the ideas and much of the fervor demonstrated by those who would help correct contemporary errors, even irrational impulses, first appeared in the books summarized here. When today’s activists are asked how they became involved in things political most look back to see their path was lit by these authors. And that is true not just now, but across the more than two hundred years of our American experience and earlier in Europe before the United States was even imagined.
       What these books meant to various individuals was often of great import, and what they portend perhaps cannot be overstated. They are offered not only because they were consequential to specific efforts in the past, but also for their intrinsic value that must be tested by succeeding generations. The concepts in these writings are critical to carrying on the complex business of governance in a free society. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1835,

There is nothing more arduous than the apprenticeship of liberty. It . . . is generally established with difficulty in the midst of storms; it is perfected by civil discord; and its benefits cannot be appreciated until it is already old.

       The books offered here embody the concepts and theories of what is termed conservatism or classical liberalism (which are not synonymous but which, for ease of reference, are often used interchangeably in this compendium; the difference between the two will become apparent as you read the text.). Our authors, many of whom wrote before today’s labels were invented (or distorted), address the core ideas of freedom and justice, rights and duties. Rising above mere politics, every one of our writers exhorts his contemporaries to guard these values.
       There is an important lesson here about labels. It must be understood that the modifier “conservative” is not as important as the subject: government and the social compact. Conservatism is not an ideology; it is a movement, and it is a way of thinking. Put simply, conservatism is about principles, not politics.  The vitality of the subject is far more important than the political efficacy of the modifier. This book aims to present the foundation—the first principles of government and social interaction—in a manner that will be useful for today’s discussions and defining for tomorrow’s leaders.


Understanding and Action—The Methods

He who endures what he could change acts no less than he who interferes in order to attain a different result.  
                                                                                Ludwig von Mises

Many people believe that the most important book of the twentieth century is The Road to Serfdom by Nobel Laureate Friedrich von Hayek. This work clearly and concisely explains why socialism and collectivism lead to slavery. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan both read the book and were changed by it. Each subsequently made decisions and took actions that transformed the modern world. The converted Thatcher and Reagan are examples of an observation by economist John Maynard Keynes, an advocate of government intervention in the marketplace. Keynes, whose star rose and then fell in the early and mid-twentieth century, understood the force of ideas:

The power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.

Ironically, Keynesian interventionism itself was undermined, discredited, and largely discarded through the power of ideas and their influence on human action.
       Ideas define square one. However, it must be observed that the principles enunciated and investigated within this book will not be immediately and uniformly applicable in all places and all times—there are preconditions to any attempt to implement them. If the cultural base of any given society is not similar to that of the West, then the creation of a free society will not be as elementary a process as it otherwise might be. Freedom must be allowed to compete with whatever is extant before its value will be accepted—or not. As well, the universal utility of a free society can only be learned; the gates cannot simply be opened for freedom to be understood, or to work successfully.  For example, freedom is not self-executing, the rule of law must accompany liberty, or freedom will result only in anarchy.  Without the rule of law the only way to control men is through violence. 
       But freedom, once planted, does allow the flowering of initiative and incentive.  When those are present, as day follows night people begin to build lives.  Once life is seen as an idea rather than just an

existence, as opportunity rather than endurance, then consensual political institutions will thrive in order that the newly free populace can protect its gains—tangible and intangible, political
and economic.  They will discern the vested interest they have in the common weal, and democracy and duty will grow as secondary steps after freedom is established and law is implemented to protect it.
       What conservatism represents was not inscribed on a tablet in an ancient era. This manner of thinking is made up of guidelines. Life is too complex and too varied to be reduced to very many rules. The fact that people will discern the ideas of conservatism, and then adhere to them as they institute self-government, requires something additional, something quite intangible—a leap of faith, not religious in nature, but spiritual nevertheless. It is a faith in those who travel with us and who will follow us, a faith that each of us will not only ensure everyone else’s rights, but will voluntarily, and generally without need for conscious intention, fulfill the obligations those rights imply. The connection between rights and duties is the indispensable component in the practice of freedom and democratic government.
       While society may suffer from some elements of the human condition, it also benefits from the inspiration embodied in the human spirit. It is this latter characteristic that defines us (and it is the former that sustains the media; beware the media). Being ever mindful of our duties keeps the human condition in check. Being ever aware of our opportunities fuels our spirits. Through both we can wend our way to a rational endpoint, as we have for so many thousands of years, improving with each century, each decade. 

                                                                 *      *      *

Following the eighteenth century’s industrial revolution, as capitalism blossomed and free societies progressed to modern abundance, the economic and social authoritarians came to the fore. The authors who investigate the history and economics of this era and ours, and who were not afraid to comment upon human nature (an undertaking that is sometimes considered politically incorrect today) make clear the folly of this cadre.  They shed a revealing light on the relationship between the twentieth century’s despotism, collectivism, and socialism and the twenty-first’s welfare state.  
Over time we learned that each of these political fabrications changes the nature of our relationship with one another.  They stifle freedom


and incentive while attempting to convince us that our care has become the state’s obligation.  How the state is to do this when it runs out of money, because of the political, economic, and psychological disincentives created by continued paternalism, remains unanswered.
       Our examination of these eras studies everything from the history of political theory (the first raw steps of which confronted equally raw power) to modern nuanced administration that deals with the common denominator of political efforts: the aforementioned human condition. We seek to enable people to understand the societal ties and interactions that result in government. Public administration, being the sum of how we conduct our social and political policy, can then be judged—and accepted or altered or entirely reconstituted. But it cannot be eliminated--thus our enduring endeavors to grasp the principles that underlie sound governance.
       The authors of the books synopsized here dissect and refute the goals and theories of myriad monarchists, collectivists, socialists, and, of course, thugs and other less-than-benign despots who advocate imposing government on free people—imposing being the operative word. Sometimes the authors themselves were able to watch authoritarian attempts self-destruct because of the actions of a small group of committed citizens, sometimes these changes took many years.
       As Hayek observed more than a half-century ago,

What to the contemporary observer appears as a battle of conflicting interests decided by votes of the masses has usually been decided long before in a battle of ideas confined to narrow circles.

       The job of assessing and improving every government is an ongoing effort. Collectivist theory (collectivism is universalist government that is imposed, supposedly for the good of the governed, by an un-elected and arbitrary ruling class) will always remain seductive to some because of its superficial equalitarian promises. Reality makes these ultimately empty assurances look petty. The fact that collectivism’s primary twentieth-century mechanisms—socialism and its ugly stepsisters, communism, Nazism, and fascism—have been discredited and discarded seems no impediment to this phoenix. Less overt collectivist impulses persist in the garb of state welfarism, and they are somewhat more insidious than their predecessors. They employ an emotional subtlety in the guise of public guilt or false duty. Authors


Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw point out in The Commanding Heights (Chapter 29)—their survey of twentieth-century economic history—the draw of collectivism and government intervention in both the marketplace and the lives of citizens. This lure persists in spite of the obvious and enormous public consequences of such schemes, and is reducible to a natural emotional response:

Idealism, morality, justice, human sympathy, the shock of confronting poverty, the vision of a better world—all these brought people into the [collectivist] crusade.

       Many perceptive Western intellectuals have observed this impulsive aspect of welfare-state governance and have understood the emotional appeal of collectivism and its equalitarian goal. Because our emotional faculties are invariably more developed than our intellectual capabilities, and because we first respond emotionally in almost every situation, the appeal of the apparent fairness of equalitarian results can overwhelm the compelling evidence that such goals have not and never can be achieved; the effort to do so, as is amply demonstrated by both history and our authors, is not only futile and unfair, but inherently unjust.  This comprehension is investigated in-depth in the chapters that follow.
       Once the notions of collectivism and equalitarianism were deconstructed (an effort that demonstrated such programs created more injustice and poverty than they alleviated and were equally inept in producing a utopian society) the question of what should replace them naturally arose.  The answers that were offered ultimately influenced the world-wide social, political, and economic revolution of the second half of the twentieth century, and comprise most of the remainder of the book.

Intentions and Consequences—The Results

The synopses presented in First Principles are the book’s core. The authors and their writings cover the landscape of political, social, and economic reasoning and experience. The resulting combination of ideas—presented and dissected, compared and modified, discarded or etched in stone—has come to be known as conservative thought.
       First Principles is organized to allow one to proceed from the basic tenets of governance to an in-depth investigation of the complexities


of modern democracy. This allows the reader to look at the relationship between the individual and society, with particular reference to the reciprocal rights and obligations of each.
       Around the time of the American Bicentennial a national newsmagazine published a letter to the editor commenting on the various festivities and celebrations extolling liberty. The writer was a newly minted U.S. citizen, a Russian immigrant, who simply noted that while studying for his citizenship test he was initially curious and then somewhat surprised to learn that there is a Bill of Rights appended to the Constitution, but no Bill of Responsibilities.
       There are responsibilities, of course, but they are not codified. And perhaps that is a great failing in the design of our system. We emphasize freedom without making sure everyone understands that their freedom ends where the next person’s begins, that their freedom also encompasses duties. If we focused on the equation between responsibility and liberty there might be less misunderstanding among us—and far less need for government. The synopses we present explore all aspects of this equation. However, it must also be noted that to understand the totality of both freedom and duty in a complex and shrinking world discovering the books themselves, not just our condensed overview, is necessary.  

                                                                   *      *      *

There is a price to be paid for all progress.  What the free societies have attained and kept has been costly.  In 1984 President Ronald Reagan observed the 40th anniversary of D-Day at the American cemetery at St. Laurent, France. (D-Day was the massive June 6, 1944 Allied military invasion of Europe to regain the continent that Hitler’s Germany had conquered earlier during World War II.) Walking among row after row of the almost ten thousand grave markers, and remembering the same scene earlier that week at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., he intoned with quiet emotion, as he faced the enormity of that field of lost soldiers, that their headstones “add up to only a tiny fraction of the price that has been paid for our freedom.” A tiny fraction.
       Reagan had observed previously, during his 1981 Inaugural Address, that not only is there a price to be paid for freedom, but that the cost is borne through individual dedication and devotion—not through a superficial or faceless patriotism. At that time he spoke of Martin


Treptow, a young American killed in World War I in July 1918 at the battle of the Marne Salient in France . After the war young Treptow was buried in Arlington Cemetery. His diary was found on his bullet-riddled body when the battle was won. He had written on the flyleaf:

                My pledge: America must win this war. Therefore, I will work,             
                I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully
                and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle
                depended on me alone.

That sense of individual and solitary purpose must transfer whole from battlefield to back yard for a free society to be successful. James Wilson (1742-1798), an American born in Scotland, was one of the few men who participated in both the American Revolution in 1776 and the months-long Constitutional Convention in 1787. As a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution he understood the pristine simplicity of the personal determination that each citizen must feel in order for a free society to work. On July 4, 1788 he told those gathered at Philadelphia to celebrate the ratification of the new Constitution:

                Let no one say that he is but a single citizen; and that his ticket
                [ballot] will be but one in the box. That one ticket may turn the
                election. In battle, every soldier should consider the public safety
                as depending on his single arm. At an election, every citizen
                should consider the public happiness as depending on his single vote. 

       These sentiments, which are far from sentimental in their import, are the reason First Principles has been written. Our country, our society, and ourselves depend on our individual understanding of the values presented in Wilson’s words. It is the obligation of each of us to be willing to ensure freedom in equal measure to what we receive; freedom is not free. The drafters and signers of the Declaration of Independence understood this as they began their treasonous course to liberty. At that time they made a pact with one another, and they closed the Declaration of Independence with this commitment:

      [W]e mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our     
sacred Honor.


      Today, as citizens who benefit so greatly, can we offer anything less? Contemplate for just a moment how much these men risked (and what they lost: many gave up their lives, many more their fortunes; but none saw their honor sullied) and then think about how much less each of us needs to do to preserve what they created.

                  No one could make a greater mistake than he who did nothing 
                  because he could only do a little.
                                                                                     Edmund Burke

       Take a step back from the public declamations regarding this or that politicized event of the day. Find the tools to cut through this often mindless and directionless chaos by discovering the first principles of sound government in an open and free civil society.
       We submit this final note: what is presented here is one judgment, illuminated by the details of experience.  It is expected that a novice will have questions; as well, however, we encourage the skeptic to penetrate any reservations that arise.  When Martin Luther received a reply from the pope in 1521 to his 95 theses that launched the Protestant Reformation, he burned the document in the public square.  As the pages were engulfed in flame he observed: “It is an old custom to burn bad books.” If you find deficiencies or anomalies or are critical with regard to the substance presented here, we welcome your thoughts—incendiary or not. Please voice your concerns by contacting us via e-mail at <editor.firstprinciples@gmail.com>. If you find merit in what you read here, please contact anyone else you know and commit to your own participation in the ongoing global experiment in self-governance.


Thomas N. Tripp


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