In politics, ends justify means

North Carolina politics can be exhausting. The past few weeks have brought us wrangling over redistricting and constitutional amendments, conflicts between Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican lawmakers over disaster relief and a gas-pipeline fund, and a mob of protesters toppling the Silent Sam statue at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Other than a certain circus-like quality, what did these seemingly disparate events have in common? I think the answer is that each featured people acting, to varying degrees, as if the ends justify the means — as if the immediate consequences of an act are what matters most, not the nature of the act itself or the precedent it may set for future actors.

The idea that greatly valued ends can justify even unsavory means is often attributed to Niccolo Machiavelli in his 16th century work The Prince. But the idea is far older. The ancient Greek playwright Sophocles famously presented it in his version of the story of Electra, who takes revenge on her mother for killing her father. In her situation “there is no place for prudence or respect,” Electra exclaims in the play, because “in evil times we are forcibly compelled to act in evil ways.”

It would be an overstatement to attach the word “evil” to, say, gerrymandering a political map or tearing down a memorial. But if we soften the description to “unlawful” or “unfair,” you can see the principle in action.

For example, North Carolina Democrats accuse Republicans of rigging congressional and legislative maps to favor GOP candidates. Republicans respond, correctly, that Democrats rigged the districts for decades before 2010.

Indeed, in some years the Republicans got the most votes statewide for General Assembly, yet Democrats controlled both chambers. During the ensuing legislative sessions, Democrats enacted budgets, tax increases, and a range of policies, including the state lottery. From the perspective of Republicans, these were all fruits of a poisoned tree. But back then, Democrats argued — to me personally, I don’t have to speculate — that while tilting political districts in their favor wasn’t exactly fair, the result was worth it because Democratic rule was better for education, infrastructure, and social progress in North Carolina.

Now each side is in the other’s shoes. Republicans say tilting districts in their favor may not be a good thing in the abstract, but it’s only fair after decades of Democratic gerrymandering — and after all, North Carolina is better off under their conservative policies. The ends justify the means.

Similarly, Republicans believe they have good reason to doubt that Gov. Roy Cooper’s appointees to the state board of elections and appellate courts will faithfully execute election laws enacted by the General Assembly. They point out that Cooper helped to sabotage what would have likely been a successful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of a wobbly appellate decision striking down, among other things, a voter-identification measure.

So, Republicans have placed on the ballot constitutional amendments that not only authorize voter ID but also give lawmakers a major role in filling judicial vacancies while restructuring the elections board to deny either party a majority of members. Was this a proper means to accomplish the Republicans’ ends? Voters will soon have their say.

As for Silent Sam, whatever you think of keeping the century-old Confederate memorial prominently displayed on campus, was it right for vandals to take the law into their own hands? Should removal now be considered a fait accompli, even if accomplished by criminal means? I think not, and I’m hardly alone. According to a new Civitas Institute poll, 70 percent of likely North Carolina voters disapprove of the protesters toppling Silent Sam. Only 22 percent endorse it.

A larger (but still not majority) share, 39 percent, favor “legally removing Confederate monuments and memorials,” demonstrating that many North Carolinians are quite capable of making ethical distinctions.

In a free society, justifying the means must come first. If that requires living with outcomes one might dislike, at least for a time, so be it.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.