Politicians continue to speak of prudence in political discourse, but the recent government shutdown highlights a lack of actual prudence in present policy debates.
Classically, prudence is practical wisdom, the virtue of politics. Prudence unites the intellectual and moral virtues, the realms of ideas and actions. Prudence unites the best means to proper ends. As practical wisdom, prudence understands the limitations of action. Thus, in uniting ends to means, prudence always necessitates practicability, the best possible means for the best possible ends.
U.S. political history provides vivid definition to prudence in action. While maintaining the right to political revolution against tyranny, the Declaration of Independence cautions, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes…” The implications follow neatly. The people can properly engage in political revolution responding to tyrannical government; altering a tyrannical government is a worthy goal. The caution though entails that proper means can be matched to a good end and still be imprudent. Prudence looks at the whole picture, practicability and necessity of the particular means for achieving the goal.
The recent government shutdown reinforces the Declaration’s maxim: proper means and good ends are not enough. Prudence dictates the best possible means for the best possible ends. Forgetting this important lesson, the GOP harmed its own cause and weakened the possibility of achieving the proposed end.