Perhaps at times we consciously or unconsciously ignore our childhood teachings. Most adults understand that stealing is wrong, but many still believe that it is necessary to take Billy’s modest and prudent savings to bailout large institutions that gambled recklessly and lost…in order to save the system. Others may proclaim that if Billy has become a rich businessman, it is perfectly acceptable to take his property and give it to others who have less. They argue that it is necessary to set principles aside for the moment if it helps advance their immediate goal, whatever that may be. “Principles are idealistic,” they say. “In the grownup world, you have to be practical.”
I am not convinced there should ever be a conflict between the practical and the principled – that is, if the principle is rightly understood and the correct action is taken in its pursuit, we put ourselves in the best position for success. Of course, there will always be the possibility of unforeseen external factors. However, even setting obvious stipulations aside, it is far too common that otherwise reasonable, just goals are attempted using inappropriate means. To err is human. In order to avoid common mistakes we can learn much from the teachings of economics, history, and philosophy.
It may also be the case, however, as it often is, that the principles we were taught might not actually be the best guidelines for us to follow. For example, as a child you might have heard an adult preaching the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This sounds harmless enough if taken to mean that we should treat others with the same respect with which we wish to be treated. But does it also mean that because you like ice cream, you should give Amanda, your lactose intolerant friend, a cone stacked high with cookies n’ cream? If taken literally, the Golden Rule seems to also permit us to take action for other people if we think we know best as to what they should want and how they should act based on our own preferences.
Perhaps that is not what we really mean. Maybe a better adaptation (or an additional constraint) to place on the Golden Rule would go something like this: “Don’t do unto others as you wouldn’t want them to do unto you.” Rather than forcing our preferences on other people, maybe we should refrain from interfering with them in ways that are not justified. This idea is the crux of what advocates for individual liberty call the non-aggression principle: Don’t commit acts of aggression against otherwise peaceful human beings. Aggression may include things like physical coercion, threats or intimidation, and fraud. While this is not the only principle of liberty, many regard it as the foundation upon which the other principles of appropriate social interaction rest.
After all, isn’t the non-aggression principle really at the heart of all those playground lessons? Maybe we as adults could remember something from those childhood teachings.