Principles Worth Fighting For

Though I have watched Braveheart several dozen times, last weekend was the first time that the blood, violence, and men in kilts reminded me of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Unfortunately, many of our elected officials in Harrisburg have come to mimic the villains of the film, rather than the heroes.

In the movie, two divergent schools of thought emerge when the Scotsmen challenge England’s tyrannical rule. The first—advocated by William Wallace—suggests that fighting for liberty is an end in and of itself, even when the cause seems lost. The second—advocated by the “nobles” and the aristocracy in Scotland—embraces the tactic of negotiating for whatever one can get for himself.

For too long, our legislative leaders have taken the advice of the “nobles” and worked for their own political benefit, rather than leading on principle. Consider these contrasting messages from the film:

Princess Isabelle of England suggests “Peace is made in such ways [trading favors and money],” while William Wallace responds, “Slaves are made in such ways.” Too often, many lawmakers are found looking out for their own benefit, rather than being guided solely by sound policy principles. Trading votes for favors, accepting perks and gifts from lobbyists, bringing home “pork” for their district, and prioritizing re-election to policymaking are all too frequent occurrences in Harrisburg (not to mention Washington).

In the film, Robert the Bruce, Sr., asks, “What good is it to be on the side that is slaughtered?” while Malcolm Wallace (William’s father) contends “We do not have to beat them, just fight them.” In today’s political climate, too many lawmakers choose political expediency rather than standing up for their principles. Fear of confronting legislative leaders and instead sticking to business-as-usual has crippled efforts for reform in Pennsylvania.

Contrast the elder Bruce’s “It is the ability to compromise that makes us noble,” to William Wallace’s “Men don’t follow titles, they follow courage.” Which view of leadership do our current elected officials hold? Clearly, on a variety of votes, our lawmakers have looked to a compromised plan that they can pass (and take credit for), rather than demonstrate the courage to stand up for the principles they campaigned on.

Consider two of the votes taken by the Pennsylvania House and Senate just before the summer recess. A majority of lawmakers voted to increase the Pennsylvania minimum wage, claiming they were “lifting people out of poverty.” Most lawmakers recognize that this legislation does no such thing—most minimum wage workers are not poor; the increase will result in reduced benefits, reduced hours, or lost employment for thousands of low-skilled, poorly educated workers; and the costs of the new mandate on businesses will be paid for with higher prices for consumers. In fact, lawmakers amended the original bill to offer exemptions for small businesses and for younger workers—essentially acknowledging the adverse effects. Lawmakers demonstrated their ability to compromise, but not their willingness to fight against what most understand to be bad economic policy.

The General Assembly followed the minimum wage vote by passing a budget which increases spending by 7.6% (more than double the rate of inflation) and spent $864 million in surplus taxes from citizens. Earlier in the year, a majority a lawmakers voted in favor of a “Taxpayer Fairness Act” which would have limited the growth of spending to 3.47% and would have returned 65% of that surplus to taxpayers. Why the inconsistent votes? Simply put, many lawmakers abandoned their espoused principles to win favor with their party leaders, to win funding for their favorite special interest projects, or simply to be on the winning side of the vote.

While many lawmakers deserve praise for continuing to fight for liberty, limited government, and sound economic policy—even if the cause seems to be a losing one—too many of their colleagues have abandoned principle for political gain. It is no longer clear what principles are guiding many lawmakers, and many lack the will to fight anymore.

Lawmakers need to ignore the advice of the “nobles” and think like William Wallace when he declares “I will invade lower England.” Though the odds may seem insurmountable, many of your supposed allies will not stand by you, and cutting a deal and compromising would be easier, doing what is right and standing on your principles is worth the fight.

# # #

Nathan A. Benefield is a policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.