Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Pragmatism and the New Slavery

The rallying cry of the new meddlers is that it's a sin to be an 'ideologue'. They claim this leads to dogmatism, ignoring facts in favor of 'ideology'. Naturally, they give no examples, i.e. fail to cite any facts, to support their contention.

In fact, by this normative prescription, they mean one should have no guiding philosophy, other than their own, of course: the philosophy of Pragmatism. I.e., anything goes, so long as it 'works'. How we are to even guess what might 'work' in advance of actually trying it without some kind of guiding philosophy (since we obviously can not try contradictory policies at the same time, try as Washington will), they do not say. What they do say is that Pragmatism isn't a philosophy. Dewey, one of its inventors and a lifelong professor of philosophy, would be very surprised to hear it.

Look to history, the more rational among them will advise. It remains unexplained how or what lessons we're to draw from past experience without a consistent set of basic views to interpret the data. As if "X more liquidity," "Y lower interest rate," and "Z lower home prices" came tagged with what those data points represent in terms of desirable values and how they're to be achieved. As if, "higher income" were somehow an invariably desirable end-in-itself for everyone but 'the rich', regardless of how any particular person gained it.

They give no guidance about what values we ought to pursue in deciding public policy. They simply assume that them's that gots should give to them that ain't. More accurately, the issues of rights and justice never come up. Dictatorial power is the only valid means and maximizing the bank balance of "the little guy" the only valid end. But, of course, there's no philosophy implied in any of that. Sorry, guys, discussions of public policy and economics are inescapably suffused with philosophy, in particular questions of ethics.

Some of them get quite emotional about it, too, for people who apparently want to keep passion out of arguments for fear it will lead to dogmatism. I speculate they secretly know that giving free reign to their own emotions would eliminate any personal objectivity. If so, I take them at their word. If they intend to make a statement about human nature in general, well, that sounds a lot like ideology philosophy to me.

That's the excuse for the advocacy of pragmatism, of course. That anyone who adheres to a broad, coherent set of principles must necessarily be willfully blind to any facts that would tend to undermine it. But my guess is that the underlying motivation — yes, I'm no doubt being paranoid here — is that it helps to stifle all reasonable dissent.

Raise a principled objection? You're being rigid. Argue on the basis of a general idea. You're refusing to look at facts which throw doubt on your position. Try to explain how those putatively undermining facts don't actually undercut your case? You're an idealogue. Debate over.

Little noticed here is how rigid, fact-averse, and ideological the opponent is himself being. Let's take their idea serious for a moment, though, to see where it leads.

Two physicists are debating whether Einstein's General Relativity is solid as it stands or needs modification to fit newly discovered data. (That's actually happened a few times over the past 90 years.)

One of them uses an experimental result that apparently casts doubt on a general physical principle (such as the conservation of energy) to argue his case. The other points out the violation of this rock-solid principle. "You're being rigid and ignoring any data that doesn't suit your theory," the pragmatist physicist claims.

A week later, someone shows how the experimental result was either a mistake or actually supports General Relativity. Of course, there is some quark-sized probability that the conservation of energy principle has exceptions. But such a well-grounded and explanatory law would need some serious data to raise reasonable suspicions. A few years of Bush parroting the sounds "free market, free market, free market" while acting like the Progressive Herbert Hoover just doesn't cut it. And, even then, exceptions don't disprove the more general rule, they strengthen it. Otherwise, why would we call them "exceptions?"

But then, this is in Physics. In political discussions, the objector would cling to the fact and discard the principle of conservation. Physics, you see, allows for general rules. Political economy, since it studies human choices and actions, can play it deuces wild.

At this point, a pragmatist will raise the straw man of "Government has a place in society, get over it." This prescription conveniently ignores the fact that only a very small percentage of even libertarian anarchists would deny this obvious point. The issue is whether government should be limited to the protection of individual rights, or be encouraged to go beyond that to attempt to engineer certain 'desirable' social outcomes.

As a result of this, dare I say it, philosophy, we see praise heaped on FDR not necessarily for what he did right or wrong, but simply for being willing to engage in "bold, persistent experimentation." Those same voices are encouraging Obama to do the same, which is about like paying a junkie to take heroin, and will have similar results.

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