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Expediency versus Principle
by Auberon Herbert
Free Life, August, 1898. Transcribed from microfilm
A correspondent writes in to comment, "No one is mad enough to wish to put his political ideal into practice at once without reservations or deductions."
Auberon Herbert responds: Instead of ideal -- which is rather vague-- let us say principle. Don't we all wish to put what is to us a true principle into practice at once and to put an end at once to what is a wrong principle? If you are clear that State compulsory education, State restriction of drink, State insurance as regards accidents and old age, State regulation of labour hours, State compulsion as regards vaccination and certain other medical matters, are wrong -- why should you hesitate and fasten your eyes on another century instead of the present year?
Every great change brings its quota of pain and disturbance; no change is wholly for good; but if you thoroughly and strongly believe in the principle underlying the change, you will feel that the pain and disturbance count for very little in comparison with the good which results from moving in the right direction, instead of moving in the wrong direction. The whole matter, indeed, turns on whether you accept a principle, or whether you go on the pick-and-choose system. If, with us you accept liberty as a principle, as a moral right supreme above all political conveniences, if you agree that force is a wrong -- except to restrain force -- then you will not hesitate about doing away with force or compulsion the first moment that you can succeed in doing so. If next year, good; if to-morrow, better still. If, on the other hand, you reject principle, treat everything as an open question and are guided by the many conflicting expediencies of the moment, then...you must hold on your zig-zag course...and with such fortuitous inspiration as comes to you, fighting one day in the ranks of the compulsionists and another day in the ranks of those who give liberty the supreme place.
Nevertheless, though the difference must always be great between those who believe in Liberty as a matter of principle and those who believe in Liberty on grounds of expediency, and though sometimes they must be in conflict (e.g. on vaccination), yet let us hold out the hand of friendship to friends...whose faces are turned in the same direction as ourselves. I have great faith in the converting and attaching power of principle. Men fight for a cause, as they themselves believe, on the ground of expedience; but, before the battle is half over, you will find them using the same arguments as ourselves, and appealing to the great principles that underlie every human matter. You can hardly plead strongly for any vital cause without appealing to principle. In the stress of the conflict the differences between us will melt.
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