A Defense of Pragmatism

A Defense of Pragmatism

~by RTod

When I was in high school I briefly embraced Communism.

I did so for all the reasons white suburban 16 years olds often do: Communism was defiant and rebellious, seemed at first blush to be “fair,” and having Che Guevara on your t-shirt impressed more girls than the Up With People logo. (Added bonus: I had no money so any redistribution of wealth was definitely going to be a net gain.) As I grew older I did what most other WASPy kids that embrace Communism do: I abandoned it when it became clear that Communism in real life did not match Communism on paper, and that in order to believe that it did you had to be dogmatic to the point of irrationality. A pretty common path, really.

The difference between myself and others that have travelled this path is that as I’ve grown older I have come to similar conclusions about pretty much every other political ideology. In fact, I’ve gone one step further: I have come to believe that ideological dogma of any kind – when used to steer public policy – at best keeps us from finding the best solutions to problems, and at worst creates problems that are even worse. I am starting, in other words, to embrace a philosophy of pragmatism as I get long in tooth.

To state the obvious: This does not make me popular with people who like politics.

I would say that pragmatists are often dismissed out of hand at the League, but this would be myopic; pragmatists are often dismissed out of hand everywhere. I had always assumed pragmatism was viewed as a fairly benign in a useful but low key and non-threatening kind of way – kind of like a tea cozy. However, since I have started calling myself a pragmatist in political discussions I have been surprised to find wonks of all stripes regard me in a way similar as they might a bedbug infestation. So I have asked the esteemed editors of the League if I might offer my own defense of – and call for -pragmatism. I do this for two reasons. First, I think that pragmatism deserves a bigger and more formal voice in these discussions than it normally gets. Second, I think of my pragmatism as a work in progress, and so I welcome the criticism and counter-points I know this group will serve up. (Who knows, maybe after this is over I will be convinced to renounce pragmatism and declare myself a neo-techno-acrachno-libertariacrat or some such thing.)

First off, a definitional point: When I think of pragmatism, I am not intending it to mean “devoid of values.” I just don’t think of any specific political philosophy as being a core value. (For a fish-in-the-barrel illustration, Rush Limbaugh would list conservatism as a core value. And he really means it; after Obama’s election he famously declared that he would rather see the country go into financial ruin under Obama’s watch than see the new administration’s policies work and make the country prosperous again. That’s being true to your values.) While I recognize most people do list their political ideology as one of if not their singular core values, I do not – and I think this is a central characteristic of the pragmatism I seek to define. Instead, my core values as they relate to the public sphere can be summed up in this laughably near universal and milquetoast statement:

I value freedom and the ability to achieve prosperity (financial and otherwise) for as many people as possible, and I value any system that enables these things – without interfering in the most basic of human rights – in the most efficient way possible.

There, that’s it. Not much of a political statement, I think you will agree. But it gets me where I need to go when using this prism to make public policy decisions. Got a plan that will cut poverty rates by a quarter, but in the course of executing it five guys in Manhattan will make a filthy obscene amount of money? I’m in. Found a cheap way to fix poorer performing schools, but it will take additional involvement from the federal government? Awesome. You can prove to me that the war on drugs is expensive and unnecessary, and infringes on individual rights? Let’s scrap it, good riddance. You think we can win this next election and get some great policies implemented, but in order to do so we have to scapegoat and strip rights from gays and lesbians? Sorry, no can do. In other words I do not think of a libertarian approach, or a liberal approach, or a conservative approach, as a core value. I think of any and all of them as simply tools to achieve my own core values.

This reverse approach of visualizing the solution to a problem and working backboards through different political ideas to realize it, I think, is the major difference between pragmatism and dogmatic ideologies. That, and if you show me a situation where the pragmatic option is not the best, I’m (pragmatically) OK with that. It’s not important to pragmatism that our dogma “wins.”

I suspect that it is the confusion caused by not choosing a dogma as a core value that leads to most of the objections to pragmatism I run into. In Tim’s The Conscience of a Liberal post, both Tim and Larry summed up the most common knocks on pragmatism.

While agreeing that choosing rational pragmatism over ideological dogma looks nice on the outside, Tim worries that “theory and principle [that is, political ideology] are ultimately all that separate us from despotism.” I hear some variation of this a lot.But to me it is a lazy argument. How lazy? Try this quick thought experiment: List in your own mind the ten most evil, cruel despotic regimes you can think of. Stalinist Russia? Hitler’s Germany? Ferdinand II’s Spanish Inquisition? Whatever, you choose. Now ask yourself: how many of these despotic regimes oppressed, killed, tortured, enslaved or whatever awful thing they did because they just weren’t dogmatic enough?

Quoting Keynes, Larry puts up a similar but different argument to discount pragmatism: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” This argument seems devastating if you believe that pragmatists reject both contemplative thought and intellectual influence. But neither of these things is true; in fact it’s quite the contrary. In order to be a pragmatic you must be influenced by thinkers on all sides of an argument. When facing, say, a safety net public policy quandary, I choose to recognize the truth of Capitalism that money motivates people to work and handouts can curb that motivation; but I also choose to recognize the truth of Liberalism that left unchecked the power of the very rich will be used to keep the poor and disenfranchised from having a reasonable chance to better themselves. I don’t want to have an ideology that forces me to choose either truth to stand alone regardless of the situational particulars; instead I want the freedom to consider “all of the above” in an effort that gets me to the solution that best meets my aforementioned core values. I posit that when I recognize both of these truths – and try to find solutions that recognize both as well – I am not, as Larry or Keynes might suggest, discarding intellectual thought and influence. I am embracing them.

All of the above is of course simply a quick defense of the knocks on pragmatism; but even if you choose not to discount pragmatism, why is it any better than embracing ideological dogma? My quick answer is that ideological dogma often eschews reality in favor of ideological dogma, and does so is a way that protects the sanctity of the dogma while ignoring the people that it governs. And it does so even with the most mundane of issues. I used safety standards – one of the things my company deals with – as a way to illustrate what I mean in an earlier comment, and I’ll use it again here.

A generation and a half ago, the general rule of thumb when building a skyscraper was if you averaged a death per story, you were doing OK. Today a single death is both unacceptable and practically unheard of. This change has nothing to do with emerging technologies; the basic safety methods that are used today existed back then. The difference between now and then has been the emergence of OSHA, coupled with regulatory fines and a mandated workers comp system that hits owners hard in the wallet when workers are not kept at a minimum level of safety on the job site. To this end, OSHA and State oversight of safety standards have been an awesome success story. On the other hand, even the most liberal union shop guy will tell you that many current OSHA regulations are inefficient, ineffective, cumbersome, overly expensive and made by people who work in an office that have no idea how the things that they are regulating work. What’s more, sometimes bureaucrats with a vindictive streak wield them as a weapon.

You might think that the solution is relatively easy, then. In the real world, however, it isn’t – because ideology gets in the way. Battle lines are drawn between Rs and Ds, even though none are truly required. (Management and labor are almost always in agreement on these issues; pols not so much.) Rs are required to forget (if they ever took the time to know) what death and injury rates were like before any government oversight. They argue for either the elimination of oversight or, if they are “moderates,” demand oversight that will lack the financial incentive that has kept workers so much safer over the past 40+ years. Ds, on the other hand, will pretend (or, more likely, refuse to see) that any kind of a problem with bad regulations ever exists. These problems are remarkably easy to prove quantitatively. But as so often happens, ideology trumps reality, and data is dismissed as irrelevant or conspiracy. The best the building industry on the whole can hope for is that both sides arrive at some kind of angry compromise that isn’t a total fish up. The worst that can happen is that one side outright wins.

So Rs and Ds don’t solve this problem, but they’re political parties. Can pure ideology do better? I submit it can’t. Are you a corporatist-wing conservative? You are necessary to the discussion because your ideology helps to inform us that there is a point of diminishing returns, and if regulations make it so that profit disappears completely there will be no jobsite to keep safe. But you won’t be able to find a good solution, because in order to do so you’d have to concede that management will endanger workers if they think it’s in their financial interest – worse, you’ll have to admit unions have some good points about those they work for. A progressive far-leftie? You’re necessary because without your pushing for oversight or aggressive financial penalties, off-site management consistently accepts higher profit margins at the expense of greater and more severe injuries. But your complete disregard for efficiency and practicality means that even the people you want to protect hate working with you, and eventually stop listening to what you tell them they should do for their own good. Libertarian? Having a voice that understands that some of the best safety policies and procedures are created in a bottom up environment will actually help most of all. But if you insist on this being unregulated and at the market’s discretion, owners won’t ever allow those bottom-up strategies to be implemented. Good public safety policy just doesn’t happen when people who cling to dogma – regardless of what that dogma is. You just can’t get to the best solution without throwing out all dogma and stripping down each ideology’s positions for parts.

I know that some people will read this and think “that’s how other ideologies works, we’re much more reasonable.” (Or perhaps more likely, “but Rs/Ds aren’t real conservatives/libertarians/liberals/progressives like I am”) But even if you’re right (I don’t think you are) I’m not so sure this matters. Your ideology might have a good and decent approach on paper, especially if you have not yet come to power. But ideologies always work on paper when you’re not in power. One of the disconnects I have noticed within any ideological movement is that those that are part of the movement’s intellectual set usually believe that their nuanced and well thought out micro-positions are reflective of the larger movement as a whole. But they almost never are, and when hungry fed-up-with-status-quo-crowds get a hold of ideology it rarely ends well and even more rarely ends as well as it might have. (Which is why every ideology that reaches that tipping point of power and success has it’s own Trotskies.) This brings me to the example of libertarianism.

The League has been instrumental in helping me form my current (very) positive view of libertarians. Before becoming a regular lurker here, though, I associated libertarianism with the overly simple knee jerk pols and pundits you hear on talk radio and cable TV that bandy the word “libertarian” with anti-government screeds. Back then I shared the criticisms that the mainstream currently has with libertarians: they were overly corporatist, they seemed to suspiciously find one party’s excess of corruption necessary and another’s Satanic, and worst of all seemed to cherish freedom when it meant not paying their taxes but willing to quickly discard the concept of freedom if it meant sticking it to Muslims, gays, potheads or “cultural elites.” I shared these critical views because, like it or not, in mainstream America this is what those who both claim the mantle of libertarianism and have the largest megaphones say libertarianism is. Reading and discussing issues with people here has made me completely reassess libertarians as generally good-hearted and (usually) consistent of thought. But my knowing this now doesn’t eliminate the issue of the loudest and the most visible.

And so when a Freddie DeBoer or a John Cole says that libertarians wants to stick it to the poor and the gays, and Jason and Jaybird rejoin that they don’t know fish about real libertarianism, I find myself feeling uncomfortably that both sides are right. Jason and Jaybird are right because… well, because they’re right. But DeBoer and Cole are right because if libertarianism ever comes to power in this country it is not going to be because 400 million Americans started reading and salon-ing on the comparative works of Rothbard, Nozick, Bookchin, et al. It will be because a majority of people gets to a place where overly simplistic messages like “the government is working with the gays/Muslims/govt. class/whoever and they’re out to get you, but the libertarians will save you” resonate. I don’t say this because I think it’s right or fair. I think that that’s just the way ideology works in the real world. Put another way, the Jasons and Marks might be right about what a risen-to-power libertarian movement should be, but the Rush Limbaughs and the Glenn Becks will ultimately have say over what a risen-to-power libertarian movement will be. However great your ideological dogma looked in committee, when it goes primetime it’s going to be hijacked.

Finally, we just don’t live in the bi-chromatic world ideologies rely on to discuss public policy; until we stop treating the universe as if it is bi-chromatic it makes it hard to get things right. Pragmatism is the best way to address issues when your goal is to find the best solution. Which is not to say that it is the easiest way; being pragmatic instead of dogmatic forces you into a lot of uncomfortable and more difficult realities that need to be dealt with for public policy issues. Sticking to rhetoric is comparatively easy. Pick any topic and you will see this is true.

Gun control: Will banning firearms eliminate violent crime? Will gun proliferation lead to more deaths by firearms? I think deep down inside we all agree on the answers to both of these questions, so why must our public policy debates consist of each side pretending the answer to one of those questions is different than it is? It’s hard to acknowledge both of these truths and even harder hashing out where to best draw the line (if anywhere). But it will lead to an imperfect consensus, and might even go in directions we haven’t fully considered because we can’t get off of a he-said she-said type dialogue.

Safety nets: Did the New Deal help people who needed it while escaping forcing the country into the quick bankruptcy it’s critics said was inevitable? Is there any truth to the argument that if someone doesn’t have to work to make ends meet they might not work as hard and not be as successful as they might otherwise have been? Again, deep down I think we all agree that the answers to both are yes, but ideology will not let us address them in this way. How is that helpful?

In almost all public policy decisions that result in best outcomes, I would argue, the winner of Black vs. White almost never defines success. (This assumes you consider good public outcomes as your desired metric of success, and not the act of either Black or White winning.) It’s more often a question about where do we find the sweet spot in Grey, or possibly taking a look at Blue or Green. So wouldn’t it be better if we addressed public policy problems in this way – in, dare I say, a pragmatic way - and skip the ideological Black vs. White distraction altogether?

Here’s my analogy of a pragmatist trying to join in an argument between a liberal/progressive and a conservative/libertarian: Two guys at a bar are having a very heated discussion about which is the best TV show ever – Star Trek or Star Trek TNG. A guy sitting next to them asks if either of them has ever seen The Wire, because it is a better show than either. The two Start Trek guys briefly join together to berate the Wire guy and then they ignore him, because even if The Wire is a better show that’s not the argument they enjoy having.

People always say that scapegoating a minority like the gays is exactly the kind of thing a pragmatics would do, but history suggests the opposite. Cheney, Rove and Bush by all indications don’t have a problem at all with homosexuality in their private life, but were happy to throw them under the bus to feed their ideology. Ditto progressives and liberals who, when in power, have historically been ok with forgetting how passionately they "care" about such things if it means they have a better change of sticking it to the rich in an slightly and incrementally larger way.