Arbitrary in Fancy Text: "By Me" Hidden Inside IT.

Can a decision be arbitrary without being capricious? In light of the recent Wikileaks scandal, potential 2012 presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty criticized the Obama administration for its policy on Afghanistan:

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said it’s no surprise Pakistan is “hedging its bets,” adding that the Obama administration’s proposed drawdown of U.S. troops set to begin next July was actually contributing to that decision.

“I believe you cannot put an arbitrary deadline in Afghanistan — if you do you see the effects of that immediately,” Pawlenty said at a breakfast with national reporters on Monday.

Pawlenty appears to use the word “arbitrary” as defined by The American Heritage Dictionary

Determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle.

A decision by Barack Obama to remove troops from Afghanistan is implied to be dangerous.  The word arbitrary has long been associated with the more pointed word “capricious”, which by definition is impulsive and unpredictable.  Pawlenty chose to use the softer term, perhaps to fend off accusations he is trying to undermine U.S. foreign policy. The distinction may not matter much in the eyes of Democrats who support Obama’s decision.     

The word arbitrary has not always been understood as an insult.

Noah Webster, in 1828, used the word with tacit approval, describing a practice in Walker’s Dictionary as “entirely arbitrary, and evidently made by him to suit his own practice. It has however the good effect of…”  Walker’s decision was considered arbitrary, as it was made for an unexpressed reason, not that it was made without any reason at all. In another place, Webster accepts that some grammar rules are arbitrary and “depend for their authority wholly on custom”.  He does not denigrate or lament the circumstance.

Here is Webster’s entry for the word itself: 


1. Depending on will or discretion; not governed by any fixed rules; as, an arbitrary decision; an arbitrary punishment

2. Despotic; absolute in power; having no external control.

The first definition under heading one (I take the semi-colons as delineations) is consistent with the idea that nothing nefarious or questionable is assumed.

The word “arbitrary” is four times found in Jonathan Edwards famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” preached in 1741 (some 87 years before Webster’s dictionary).   

In the first instance, Edwards defines what he means by arbitrary: “By the mere pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will”.  God’s will is unanswered

Then, he adds shortly, thereafter: “but the sword of divine justice is every moment brandished over their heads, and it is nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God’s mere will, that holds it back.”

Later in the section is found this gem: “Natural men are held in the hand of God…all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God”   

Edwards uses the word to describe unassailable authority or power:

 The wrath of kings is very much dreaded, especially of absolute monarchs, who have the possessions and lives of their subjects wholly in their power, to be disposed of at their mere will. Prov. 20:2. “The fear of a king is as the roaring of a lion: Whoso provoketh him to anger, sinneth against his own soul.” The subject that very much enrages an arbitrary prince, is liable to suffer the most extreme torments that human art can invent, or human power can inflict. But the greatest earthly potentates in their greatest majesty and strength, and when clothed in their greatest terrors, are but feeble, despicable worms of the dust, in comparison of the great and almighty Creator and King of heaven and earth.

I am certain Edwards meant no insult of God in using the word “arbitrary”.    I am not so certain about Pawlenty’s use of the word in discussing President Obama.  

This is my column, so I will end it here.  I can do it arbitrarily, without apology, without explaining my reasons for doing so, and without caprice.

The Original Web-ster.

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