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] 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.[ii] 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.[iii]

 

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.[iv]

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.[v]

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?

 


[i] 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.

 

[ii] 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.

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204 thoughts on “A Defense of Pragmatism

  1. I agree with a lot of this. But I do see some problems with your approach, at least as you’ve described it in this essay.

    First of all, your descriptions of both progressive and conservative positions often verge on parody and strawmanism. You make it seem like you believe all progressives and conservatives are unsophisticated idiots, frankly. For example, you suggest that progressives/democrats refuse to admit that the correct answer to “Will banning firearms eliminate violent crime?” is “no.” I can’t think of a single prominent progressive who has ever claimed that banning firearms will “eliminate” violent crime.

    (It’s interesting to see how much more nuanced your discussion of libertarianism is, where you at least acknowledge that the stupidest and loudest libertarian voices don’t fairly represent the whole.)

    Your analysis here also seems to commit the error of an ideological commitment to “balance” — the pretense that on all issues, “both sides” of the conventional political divide are equally wrong. There are also issues in which one side is definitely wrong; for instance, creationists and “intelligent design” advocates are simply, flatly wrong. (I’m not at all sure that you really would disagree with me on this, but your essay as a whole certainly seems to fall into the “both sides are always wrong and both sides always have something of value to contribute” fallacy). Pragmatically, there’s no reason to believe that on some issues, progressives or conservatives might be flatly right or wrong.

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    • I agree that these problems exist, but probably not to the extent that you suggest. It is undoubtedly true that people, whether they are libs or cons or whatever, are able to see things in a nuanced way. I am not trying to argue that you must eschew ideology to do so. I am suggesting, however, that in groups ideologues do in the heat of battle abandon these things. At least, this has been my experience. (See me experiences about employee safety.)

      Also, I may have been unclear about this point so let me be more to the point: Pragmatism shouldn’t be about finding a “balance.” In the case of gay rights, for example, I don’t say “well, libs want equal rights, cons want lesser rights, so I guess some in between rights must be the trick!” For my core values, gays deserve equal rights, even to things like marriage. What I won’t do as a pragmatist is to couch this issue in ideological terms that allows me to hold off on those equal opportunities: (e.g.: Well, marriage shouldn’t be a Statist issue, so they can’t get married. Or: We really have to access the question of negative rights vs. positive rights, so… they can’t get married.)

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      • But doesn’t pragmatism, on the view described in the above comment, differentiate itself from ideological positions simply by refraining from justifying itself? Isn’t it simply assertion, to some extent? I mean, a conservative would look at your support for gay marriage as inherently ideological. Your saying ‘well, I haven’t mentioned the role of the state here, or any broad measures of equality as an end, so I’m not ideologically motivated’ wouldn’t convince the conservative of that fact.

        I get that there is in theory a view of policy that is ideologically neutral. But in reality, an ideologue will necessarily believe that their opponent is also ideological. They will simply attribute that view to you.

        To sorta make the point, lots of people on this site have been discussing what constitutes liberalism as a political philosophy, and in my view (or at least for me personally) liberalism is primarily concerned with pragmatic solutions to pressing problems. Now, the response around these parts to my saying that would be howls laughter, since everybody knows that liberals like big government as an end in itself, and that liberals like to ‘redistribute’ from the productive to the lazy, and that liberals believe inherently in the perfectibility of man and institutions, and etc. If I were to say that liberal policies merely devolve from a desire to correct social and environmental problems without an ideological agenda, people would look at me like I was crazy. (Take poverty: is there any other solution than subsidies, apart from letting them starve?)

        But there’s a reason for this: that’s because, in my view, people take the policies and subsume them under an ideology because everyone is ideological . But look, if there was a better way (an actual, practical way that had the possibility being legislatively enacted, not some theoretical principles that entail the desired outcome when 27 other variables are corrected for) liberals, and in particular progressives, would be in favor of it.

        Now, by saying all that I don’t want to deny that there are overarching beliefs that liberals tend to hold that might be viewed as ideological. One that gets mentioned a lot is the role of the state inconstraining private power. But from a liberals pov, this isn’t an ideological belief, or a belief derived from first principles: it’s a matter of evidence and empirical observation. It’s pragmatic! Corporate structures that have as their sole purpose the maximization of ROI for shareholders are only going to act in the public interest when so acting maximizes ROI. Hence (imperfect) regulations on corporate behavior for pragmatic reasons.

        Of course, my point about these issues will be made when I’m accused of being ideological without even knowing it. And hence, the quick death of pragmatism.

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        • Here, I think is the difference between being ideological and pragmatic: To what degree are your sacred cows the end product (e.g: a smooth working and free society), and to what degree are your sacred cows strategies to achieve the end result (e.g.: no federal government regulations!)?

          Ideology, at least in my observations, eventually becomes so important that it trumps the end result. I mentioned job-site safety above; part of what I have done professionally over the past ten years has led me to testify, witness and sit in committees on the State DCBS (which in my state regulates safety standards.) I can tell you that no one argues for a good result (pragmatically). Rather, they argue for the dismantlement of regulations (not because they believe this will make things better, but because their ideology compels them to fight regulations) or they argue against any review or public over site of regulations (again, the ability of the system to work is never spoken of, rather the opposition to the opposing ideology.)

          Now, a liberal or conservative might well read what I just wrote and say “well, that’s not the way I do things.” And that’s all well and good, except either you’re not being entirely honest with yourself, or you do not appear to be one of the countless people on your team running for office, lobbying, testifying in public forums, performing punditry, or doing much of anything in the public arena.

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          • Now, a liberal or conservative might well read what I just wrote and say “well, that’s not the way I do things.”

            This liberal read what you just wrote and immediately thought that these are people who argue their self-interest in the guise of ideology. That is, they’re not making ideological arguments about principled positions. They’re wrapping self-interest in a useful ideological cloak, one that gets nods of approval. But there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this either: it’s how politics is conducted.

            But also, refraining from arguing these positions in ideological language wouldn’t make them pragmatists about their positions. That they were willing to cloak hide them behind slogans is evidence of that.

            I’m not sure how pragmatics would help them in any event: they were looking for the deal that benefited them the most.

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  2. Pragmatism to what end? Without knowing more about the weightings within the milquetoast statement, it is really difficult to assess where pragmatism comes down on certain policy questions. With the reigning Rs vs. Ds ideologies you have a sense of the underlying values that are guiding the public policy choices. To me, the goals of public policy go unidentified in the vision of pragmatism you present.

    Here are some questions that occurred to me about pragmatism. The specific answers help map out a perspective on government, but also I’m curious as to how a pragmatic approach works when looking at these questions.

    Should the state fund public broadcasting? Any number of answers are perfectly pragmatic, from the “no, markets should do it’” to the, “yes, and make the public broadcaster a prominent participant on the scene like the BBC”. What is the scope of public goods appropriate or desirable for state provision?

    Is healthcare a human right? It is unclear what “the most basic of human rights” are, and a lot of the work in the other ideologies is about supplying the definitions. The foundational assumptions over basic human rights are precisely the object of the contest and pragmatism doesn’t tell much much about them. Defining human righs for an outlook leads to a whole series of related questions on what means are acceptable to achieve them.

    A final question on that note, is affirmative action permissible? There’s an ongoing debate in Germany over affirmative action for women. Some European countries have quotas for women on executive boards of companies. Germany is considering adopting this policy. What does pragmatism tell us about this question? An infringement on freedom of corporations or a necessary corrective measure for centuries of disenfranchisement and ongoing discrimination?

    I tend to agree to the knocks against pragmatism you’ve heard before, pragmatism, like “centrism”, ends up being empty of content of its own while relying on a lot of assumptions that just go unacknowledged.

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    • I don’t want to set myself up as the person that knows all the best pragmatic answers. On the other hand, I DO want to be king of the universe, so I’ll take an initial crack at them anyway:

      PBS: Is it affordable, popular, and wanted by the majority of voters? Does it seek to do harm to people? I am pretty sure the answers are Yes and No, so sure, why not? If enough of the public think that, for example, having classical music accessible is a good thing and we can afford to do it publicly I have no truck with that.

      Regarding HC, I would say as a pragmatic that this is a political question that has obscured the question that actually needs urgent attention: The level of healthcare we have now, with costs increasing at 7-10% a year are not sustainable. What can we do to make it so? The ideological battle over their the fundamental rights of health care is simply taking a difficult issue that is going to have some unhappy answers and couching it into a R vs. D argument that each side is most comfortable having, and coincidently forces each side to ignore the actual issues that need addressing.

      Is affirmative action permissible? Sure, why not? I think you have to go pretty far out on an ideological limb to think that in our country “we were just about to start giving jobs and universal access to housing to blacks.” Does that mean you can’t go too far and create some kind of disadvantage for others? Of course you can. I am not sure where you draw aline in this situation. But I am reasonably sure that if one side continually argues that all affirmative action is bad and the other defends even the worst, most inefficient and harebrained examples of affirmative action gone wrong neither will anyone else. Changing the conversation that acknowledges both of those truths and tries to find where we want to be as a society seem, to me, infinitely more productive that ideological bickering.

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    • My response to this is that, yes, it does appear that pragmatism without some core underpinning is a method without a goal. However, Rtod does speak of valuing freedom and the ability to achieve economic prosperity. And I think he does pin down the two dominant ideologies pretty well in their inherent contradictions (the left valuing personal freedom while economic freedom is a bit more complicated, the right valuing economic freedom while personal freedom is a bit more complicated). And I believe his argument that the rigidity of the ideologues makes it difficult if not impossible to see the truths of their own contradictory positions is spot on.

      It is why I’m more and more inclined to a libertarian viewpoint. If you read much Jaybird around here, his view of the world is about as ideologically consistent as anyone I’ve read. Even when I find myself disagreeing with Jaybird on a kneejerk level, I realize that he is at least remaining consistent to a principle; a principle that doesn’t end up being contradicted by some other belief he holds in order to remain consistent within an ideology.

      Either that or I just have a man crush.

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      • I realize that he is at least remaining consistent to a principle; a principle that doesn’t end up being contradicted by some other belief he holds in order to remain consistent within an ideology.

        Either that or I just have a man crush.

        I’ll offer my opinion: don’t tell Marcus Bachmann about your current inclinations.

        I’ve sparred with … the person in question … several times precisely to determine exactly what that principle might be. I’d be interested in hearing what you think it is – or any other libertarian, for that matter. I’m flummoxed as to what it might be.

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        • stillwater,

          I think Jaybird summed it up pretty well with this one:

          If I have an underlying principle it is some variant of “do I have the right to force you to (not) do X?”

          If I don’t, I don’t see where you get the right.

          Not even if you have 50%+1 folks agreeing with you that you do have it.

          Now I understand the devil is in the details with this simple sounding axiom, but it does seem a good place to start.

          I was once a proud liberal, to the point of writing editorials for our local newspaper here in Southern Utah trying to defend that point of view. But between a long and protracted debate between me and a reader of my tripe and the cynicism that resulted with Obama the candidate being so much different than Obama the president, I realized that I can’t be consistent in my view of freedom while arguing that rich people make too much money while poor people don’t make enough and that there is some government solution to that problem that doesn’t hamstring the ability for people to achieve their highest economic potential.

          Again, the devil is in the details but it seems that, when the point is to maximize liberty (which I see as the greatest good), you have to really be able to answer the questions that Jaybird asks – What gives anyone (me, you, the state) the right to make you do X or keep you from doing Y. If your answer is no more than mere emotional pleading toward worst-case scenarios or “because it’s just wrong (or right)” then you need to rethink the substance of that position. Is it reasoned in an honest way or is it reasoned in a way that keeps it subservient to the ideology.

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          • Well, I get what you’re saying. I dsagree, but that’s obvious. Why I disagree may matter more. You say

            the point is to maximize liberty (which I see as the greatest good).

            Fair enough. But freedom comes in many stripes. Just a few days ago I asked someone if government had a role to play in rectifying institutionalized social structures that didn’t permit an individual to act on the full spectrum of rights accorded to him as a citizen. (By my way of thinking, if one cannot in principle or in fact act on a right, then there is less than maximal freedom.) The response I got was a question regarding what constitutes a ‘full spectrum of rights’.

            In short, there are freedoms that some people have that they take for granted, freedoms to act, that other people are deprived of. If that’s the case, then our society isn’t achieving maximum liberty for all it’s citizens.

            And that’s the problem with Jaybird’s principle: insofar as the rights calculus depends entirely on introspection, it’s inherently biased against other people’s legitimate claims or grievances (even according to the same principle!) since there is no context for him to evaluate the claim that would render an affirmative judgment.

            Conservatives are at least consistent in that for a right to exist, it must pass a threshold of objective scrutiny and justification. To reduce to determination of right to subjective inclinations renders them almost meaningless.

            Now, I’m not saying that Jaybird is committed to this sort of reductive view of rights (ie., whatever I determine), but he hasn’t articulated a process whereby an individual’s inclination to pronounce something is a right can be rejected except by his own lights. I see no reason to think that such a principle will yield anything other than continued bickering, or dismissive rejection of otherwise legitimate claims of rights violations. Alternatively, however, it is very clean for the adherent, since all disputes have a handy refutation: it doesn’t seem like a right’s violation to me.

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            • You were almost Jaybirdish in your depth there, stillwater. Which is to say that much of what you wrote I’m going to be struggling to digest.

              How about we start with something Mill might like: Anything that does not cause harm (and this harm has to be relatively obvious and somewhat immediate) shall not be restricted. It’s pretty simple, I realize, but it also gives a fairly good test for all claims of restricting rights which is where I find my attention. Just because you find something offensive or contrary to established norms or can think of a scenario a hundred steps down the line where a harm might result from a certain action, is not a basis for restricting a right. And let me run this up the flagpole: You have a right to do anything then which causes no harm (relatively obvious and immediate). Help me see the errors in that statement.

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              • There are no errors in that statement. It’s a cornerstone of all liberty-based political philosophies. The problem is the scope of application of the harm principle. For conservatives, it applies only to harms of natural rights (and contracts, but that’s outside the scope of our discussion). For libertarians, it applies primarily to harms caused by the state. For liberals it applies to a wider set of rights than the conservative, and so the harm principle has a wider scope, but it also includes state intervention to ameliorate harms.

                So the problem isn’t the correctness of the principle, but what does the adherent of each philosophy advocate as a proper remedy of harms. In the case one individual harming another, all three views endorse the use of cops and courts to establish redress or punishment. But in the case of institutionalized harms, things clearly differ. I’m not exactly sure what a libertarian or a conservative would say about state involvement regarding these types of harms, but it seems to me – especially given some of the posts and comments from recent days – that libertarians are in principle opposed to using state power to rectify such harms.

                For example, a libertarian is sorta committed to saying that if an employer doesn’t want to hire women for jobs they are entirely qualified for, it’s entirely within his right to do so. (Well, in that limited scope a liberal might not oppose him.) But if entire sectors of the economy engage in this behavior, then we have a case of institutional discrimination which limits women’s expression of freedoms (even if that freedom isn’t grounded in a basic right – tho arguably it is an instance of the right to property). In a situation like this, the liberal may invoke the use of state power to rectify institutional problems that limit the overall freedom of the members of society on purely liberty-based grounds: that depriving women of economic opportunities leads to less-than maximal societal freedom, and the discrimination violates the harm principle. The libertarian, of course cannot (rather, it’s more like they will not) invoke this solution, since the libertarian premise is that more government leads to less optimal outcomes wrt maximizing freedom.

                This seems like a fundamental and irreconcilable division of the two views, ISTM. But the point here is that both the liberal and the libertarian embrace the harm principle, but differ wrt the role of the state in ameliorating certain types of harms.

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                • Yeah. I see where the problems arise, which goes back to the devil in the details, I suppose.

                  However, you present an enormous *if* when you suppose that entire sectors of the economy would engage in gender discrimination and I’m not sure how you go about proving it other than saying, “Hey, all those Vegas strip clubs are comprised of entirely female dancers.”

                  And I’ll admit, my epiphanies regarding my new outlook are not fully fleshed out yet. I will always be sympathetic to a liberal point of view about most things, but I’ve come to the conclusion that there are some inherent contradictions in trying to argue for the freedoms of, say, gay marriage, while at the same time arguing that there should be economic restrictions on wealth.

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                  • I’ve come to the conclusion that there are some inherent contradictions in trying to argue for the freedoms of, say, gay marriage, while at the same time arguing that there should be economic restrictions on wealth.

                    But why are those contradictory? Even more importantly, why are the perceived contradictions inherent? Insofar as gay marriage is a freedom that causes no rights violations or substantive harms to others, permitting it maximizes freedom. Economic issues, however, are pretty clearly a situation where the expression of one person’s freedom may conflict with another’s. Eg, consider the situation of women being denied entry into the work force. You say that my use of if when describing describing discrimination of women in the workforce is a huge conditional, and that the situation as described – I guess this is what you’re saying – didn’t obtain. I would counter that by saying it’s empirically the case that women were once upon a time systematically denied entry into the workforce for huge sectors of the economy, and to some degree still are.

                    On the view you’re advocating here, the putative right of employers to hire people of their own choosing trumps the right of women to gain useful employment in fields of their own choosing. Which right is more fundamental? I would say, and very emphatically, the rights of women trump the rights of employers in this case: the right of women is an expression of a fundamental right to property whereas I see no fundamental ‘right’ of the employer to exclude people based on properties irrelevant to the performance of the job. The putative ‘right to hire people of their own choosing’ extends only to the limits of the institutional aims and goals of business: to provide goods and services to society at large.

                    So I reverse ordering from the way you suggest it: restricting the so-called ‘right’ of employers to discriminate based on sex, ethnicity, skin color, etc, in hiring practices maximizes overall liberty.

                    Of course, there is a pragmatic component to these issues in which some levels of discrimination are tolerable and inevitable. But large scale, or institution wide, discrimination requires a different solutions.

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                    • Agreed on the issue of provable race and gender discrimination. Which is where I think Rtod’s idea of pragmatism comes in. In almost all matters it will never be black or white, but varying shades of gray.

                      But I still find it, in these days, problematic to create a law to ameliorate a yet to occur harm that one could foresee ptoentially coming down the track at a later time. I understand what you’re saying about race and gender discrimination and we have had plenty of that historically. I still think it is a hell of a thing to try to prove in today’s world.

                      As far as my contention about the inconsistency of thought in personal freedom and economic freedom, I guess my dilemma lies in anyone being able to determine for someone else, based on a perceived societal need for more equal income distribution, how you actually do it. ‘Cause let’s be honest, anybody ought to be able to live on a million a year. Hell even $750,000 a year. For that matter, me personally, I’d be OK at $150,000 per year. But does someone or some body get to actually say at what level *this* much is *too* much?

                      Believe me, I’m more than sympathetic to the idea that there are plenty of derivatives traders who get paid obscene amounts of money for doing incredibly hard to quantify things that arguably contribute little to society, while police and fire and teachers do things that are far more valuable to society but make rather meager earnings in comparison. But what equation do we use to make this disparity less so? Who gets to ultimately decide it?

                      This is where I find cognitive dissonance in arguing for same sex marriage rights while believing that government justifiably steps in and arbitrarily moves the scales around to guarantee some sort of income equitability.

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                    • I still think it is a hell of a thing to try to prove in today’s world.

                      I thought we were having a discussion of principles, not pragmatics? My above argument applies even if the situation is only hypothetical. But those situations were also matters of fact.

                      So my argument isn’t intended as a rally cry for affirmative action. Whether AA has lived on past its utility, or in fact now creates more problems than it solves are empirical issues (well, principled too).

                      Regarding wealth and taxation and ‘economic freedom’ and all that, things get murky right quick. I don’t think I have a principled view of that matter other than a sorta slimey pragmatic principle: that people ought to pay taxes in proportion to the degree their income derives from government institutional structures. Eg., corporations ought to pay more taxes than individuals; income from non-productive activities in the finance sector (from speculation, hedging, HFT(!), etc) ought to be taxed significantly higher than individual income; etc. That is, income which derives directly from the power and permissions granted by the government ought to bear the lions share of funding the government.

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                  • Adding to the above: You were interested in two things in the earlier comment: consistency of principles and maximizing liberty. How do these two things marry up for the libertarian in the case I just described?

                    Insofar as the two conditions under discussion obtain – that women a) have an in principle right to work in the same fields as men and b) are systematically excluded from gaining entry into those fields, the libertarian is confronted with a problem. Either there is a rights violation (in which case the state is ostensibly empowered to offer redress) or the principles entail less than maximal liberties.

                    Now, libertarians obviously don’t like this conclusion, since they’re committed to the view that state intervention in private affairs, in particular economic affairs, creates less than maximal liberties. So one of three premises in the argument must be rejected. Usually (I mean that anecdotally) what’s rejected is the right of women to work in fields of their own choosing, while the ‘right’ of the employer to discriminate is sustained. And the grounds for this move is the rejection of state intervention in private affairs.

                    Personally, I don’t see how this move can be made with any type of internal consistency. On the one hand, it requires rejecting the prima facie true observation that a society in which women can in principle gain access to employment in the same fields as men is a society with more liberty than the alternative. And on the other, it requires denying that women have the same right (in some sense of that word) to pursue property as men.

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                    • Well, I’m not sure that *all* libertarians believe that state intervention in guaranteeing equal access to employment is a restriction to maximum liberty, because let’s face it, the state saying that your right to swing your fists ends where my nose begins is necessarily a limit on the fist-swinger’s maximum liberty. Like all ideological compartmentalization, I’m not sure you can box everybody in so easy.

                      For instance, I’m pretty sure Jason supports some sort of negative income tax as a safety net which seems that a *real* libertarian might have problems endorsing. Again, we’re on a spectrum here. And that is a spectrum that requires some pragmatism.

                      For me, and this becomes an aside, AA has issues because it picks up about 18 years after where it should have started: with educational equality.

                      But to the original discussion re women in the workplace, I’m fully supportive of the right of anyone to work in any field they want to. Having said that, I’m not sure how you go about proving or redressing the issue without becoming overly heavy handed in a systemic type reaction. In other words, if there are specific instances of this kind of discrimination, then there should be recourse available to those discriminated against. But to say that because of one or two instances, we’re going to, system-wide, require some sort of percentage breakdown in gender hires seems a bit much.

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            • It would be a lot easier if we had an authority to whom we could defer. A Pope, perhaps. A King. If we really wanted to get out there, a God.

              In the absence, I am left with my own moral judgment.

              So are you.

              So are we all.

              You’ll forgive me for not being impressed with those who clamor for Kings, Popes, and Gods.

              Or Mobs.

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              • In the absence, I am left with my own moral judgment.

                Oh absolutely. At the end of the day, each of us has to take responsibility for determining our own political views, and those views will necessarily reflect the value preferences we already embrace in non-political life. Constructing a coherent theory (or whatever) may be an individual’s goal, but more important, ISTM, is that they find some guiding principles that resolve complex problems in consistent ways. It seems to me you’ve done that to a greater extent than most. Is it complete? Does it provide answers to all the political questions that might arise? Well, probably not, but I don’t think a single general principle without corollaries could be complete. Also, I think logical consistency is too high a standard for a political theory: the systems involved are too complex to not entail contradictions at some point. In a good theory, the contradictions will show up at the edges rather than right up front. (Where the contradictions show up is one reason I reject libertarianism.)

                So, I think that the principles you adhere to are pretty fucking useful and give clear answers to important questions. They are, for example, much clearer and more substantive than the principles which inform my political decision-making. And somewhat paradoxically – even tho I disagree (to some extent) with how you approach these issues, I don’t think you’re wrong. I think fundamental political principles are too value laden to be categorically rejected (it’d be like my rejecting your belief that Weezer is a great/shitty band). The real test for them is how well they work in the real world wrt rectifying political problems – and of course, how central and egregious the inevitable contradictions are. On that score, adherents of every political persuasion have legitimate gripes against all the others. But ideally, those criticisms are based in evidence and facts, and reasonable projections of outcomes rather than an a priori rejection of the central principles. Only when a theory consistently leads to suboptimal social/political outcomes based on evidence garnered by the adherent will that person be inclined to revise the utility or correctness of his general principles.

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                • At the end of the day, I find it easiest to assume that I will always be among the group of folks being told how to live by my betters than assuming that I am one of my betters setting the policies that will decide how others will live.

                  On that, at least, I haven’t been wrong yet. (And, in the past, every time I’ve assumed otherwise, I’ve been very, very wrong.)

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        • So, suppose you’re really tall – Manute Bol type tall. Do you have the right to force people to put in higher doorways in public places? If you’re not Manute Bol, do you have the right to prevent him from passing legislation requiring raising doorways in pubic places?

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          • Do you have the right to force people to put in higher doorways in public places?

            I wouldn’t think so, no.

            If you’re not Manute Bol, do you have the right to prevent him from passing legislation requiring raising doorways in pubic places?

            Wait, if I don’t have the right to force you to do X, where did he get the right to force you to do X?

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              • This goes back to something I said below: If I am an authority on anything, I am an authority on myself. I have checked myself for a right to force you to raise your doorframes.

                I could see arguments for how I might want such a thing. I could see arguments for how such a thing would make life better not only for me but people like me… but I couldn’t get from there to being able to force you to change your doorframe.

                Since I couldn’t find such a right within myself, I’m stuck wondering where he got it.

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                • Good. So the operating principle is to scan your own intuitions about what constitutes a legitimate right, and project that determination on others? Is that about right?

                  Does this mean that someone with radically different intuitions can operate under the same general principle and come to conclusions you would find incorrect, in fact construe as rights violations?

                  If so, is this a problem for your view?

                  Is this just politics?

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                  • I’m saying that if I do not see where I get a right to tell you to raise your doorframes, I am then stuck wondering where you get the right to tell others to raise their doorframes.

                    If you are not inclined to tell me where you got this right but instead start talking about my projection, I’d smile and nod but notice that you still have not explained where your right to tell others to raise their doorframes came from.

                    Does this mean that someone with radically different intuitions can operate under the same general principle and come to conclusions you would find incorrect, in fact construe as rights violations?

                    Oh, yeah.

                    There are people out there who earnestly explained to me that gay people should be able to have civil unions, “but they shouldn’t be able to call it marriage!”

                    When I asked why gay folks didn’t have a First Amendment right to call it marriage, the conversations usually disintegrated.

                    This led me to the conclusion that the folks in question sorta knew that they didn’t have the right to prevent “them from calling it marriage” but still felt very strongly about it.

                    I try to avoid putting a whole lot of weight on feeling things very strongly while being unable to explain them in a discussion.

                    For the most part, when people can explain where, no, “I have the right to force other people to X because of (this list of reasons right here)” the conversation tends to flow better than when people fall back to pointing out flaws of mine. If nothing else, it gives us ground to discuss the limits of X and the limits of the list of reasons (if any exist) and what happens if things get flipped around and someone else argues that they have the right to force people to *NOT* X (because of this other list of reasons (some of which are startlingly similar)).

                    If there are problems, the problems arise when people are arguing for positions that they’ve never really thought about but have only felt about.

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                    • Nice. I like that picture. Jaybird, I know you better now!

                      So, discriminating against gay marriage doesn’t satisfy the general principle (I agree with that). In this case, the remedy is to passively extend accepted rights to an excluded subgroup. What about other cases of discrimination – AA type stuff – where government power has been used to actively compel people to eg., hire women, or accept black students? How does this fit into the general principle?

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                    • I’m saying that if I do not see where I get a right to tell you to raise your doorframes, I am then stuck wondering where you get the right to tell others to raise their doorframes.

                      Interstate Commerce

                      (More seriously, this right is presumably granted by virtue of the fact that that the Elongated Persons Alliance convinced a majority of the elected body to support this regulation. Or convinced the regulatory body where the elected body – or bodies – vested the power for such regulation.)

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                    • What about other cases of discrimination – AA type stuff – where government power has been used to actively compel people to eg., hire women, or accept black students? How does this fit into the general principle?

                      The first case that comes to mind is this one.

                      You may have seen it. It’s a story about a funky hairdressing place that didn’t hire a Muslim woman who wore a headscarf to cover her hair. This resulted in a lawsuit.

                      It seems to me that the lady who owned the hairdressing place had every right to say “hey, we’re looking for hip, urban, happ’n’n kinda funky people to style hair.”

                      The question comes whether “funky” is a discriminatory job requirement.

                      It seems to me that, yes, it is. That’s the point.

                      The proper response seems to me to not be to sue folks, but to ensure that there are low enough barriers to entry to allow there to be a “Young Earth Creationists Hairstyles!” down the street that can cater to women who only show their hair to their husbands.

                      Historically, the problem has not been that “Establishment Store Refuses To Hire Minorities” anywhere *NEAR* to the point that “Establishment Store Seeks Regulations To Protect The Children From Insufficiently Regulated Businesses Like The Ones Minorities Would Run, Probably”.

                      Thus preventing African-Americans from running their own taxi cab services. Thus preventing German-Americans from opening a restaurant. Thus preventing Irish-Americans from opening a bar.

                      In a situation where the regulations have already been captured by the powerful business interests, *EVEN MORE* legislative capture strikes me as something that will perpetuate the iatrogenic disease we’re purportedly trying to fight… and we’ll be back later with another, even bigger, dose.

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                    • The “right” in question, I believe, is the collective right to self-governance. Of course, it’s entirely possible for the right to be abused (“tyranny by the majority” and all that), though the same can be said for individual rights.

                      It all goes to a more fundamental question, which is that rights without power aren’t really rights in any meaningful sense. Cops can tell me I have the right to find a well-lit place to pull over, but if I choose to do that and get rammed to the side of the road and cited for “evading arrest” while no punishment comes to the cops, it’s really no right at all. There’s no power behind it.

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                    • A definition of “rights” as “privileges negotiated” is one that makes some kind of sense but it seems as likely to lead to nihilistic advantage taking as some sort of standard reflecting a moral undercurrent.

                      It doesn’t hold up well to a veil of ignorance, say.

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                    • The proper response seems to me to not be to sue folks, but to ensure that there are low enough barriers to entry to allow…

                      So government’s role is to ensure barriers of entry low enough to ensure that discrimination doesn’t happen, or low enough to permit discrimination to not happen? Will low barriers of entry correct institutional racism issues (eg., like that experienced by African Americans who were systematically denied mortgages for home purchases?).

                      In a situation where the regulations have already been captured by the powerful business interests, *EVEN MORE* legislative capture strikes me as something that will perpetuate the iatrogenic disease we’re purportedly trying to fight… and we’ll be back later with another, even bigger, dose.

                      This is a sticky point for us. We both agree that corporations (and other business interests) will act in self-serving ways that violate other people’s rights. My suggestion is that regulation and legislation tries to stay ahead of corporate malfeasance to keep it somewhat in check. Your suggestion is that layering up regulation only compounds the problem. I don’t think I would disagree with that. But isn’t this layering-up effect simply a product of the dynamic nature of economic and political institutions – that regulation must change as business practices corrupting regulation change to adapt to new restrictions?

                      If not, then what is the politically feasible alternative strategy to keep corporate malfeasance in check?

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                    • How are you going to prevent discrimination from not happening, Stillwater?

                      You discriminate with where you choose to spend your money when you go out to dinner. You go to the places you like instead of the places you don’t, you hope to sit in the section of the waitress you like rather than the waiter you don’t. This is not something that you ought to be sued for.

                      It’s the same for a hairdresser picking someone to work with her to get someone who will draw customers to the shop rather than to the shop down the street… and if the chador makes a comeback and everybody is stampeding to Young Earth Creationist Hairstyles, then that’s not worth a lawsuit either.

                      like that experienced by African Americans who were systematically denied mortgages for home purchases

                      Oh, the *GOVERNMENT* should be color-blind, gender-blind, and whatever-else blind.

                      The problem comes when certain things happen to be true and folks try to overcome them by passing laws. For example: does a requirement that a firefighter be able to carry 160 pounds of potatoes down a ladder discriminate against women?

                      Which laws do you think will result in this best being addressed?

                      what is the politically feasible alternative strategy to keep corporate malfeasance in check?

                      Don’t bail them out when they crash.

                      And they *WILL* crash.

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                    • So your intuitions say that government ought to play a role granting gays the right to marry, but they also say that government ought to play no role in discrimination because I, as you say, discriminate with where you choose to spend your money when you go out to dinner. You go to the places you like instead of the places you don’t, you hope to sit in the section of the waitress you like rather than the waiter you don’t?

                      I don’t see how that follows. Where I spend my money is a function of public markets; who gains employment is a function of private idiosyncrasy. To reduce institutional racism to market preferences seems like a category mistake.

                      The problem comes when certain things happen to be true and folks try to overcome them by passing laws.

                      So, there is no law that has actually changed societal behavior for the better, on your view? There’s only what’s true, and laws clumsily and counter-productively pushing against that?

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                    • So your intuitions say that government ought to play a role granting gays the right to marry

                      Governments do not and cannot grant “rights”. They can only extend privilege. That’s it.

                      My stance is more that the government should not be involved in withholding privileges involved with civil unions from gay couples even though there are majorities all over the country interested in doing so.

                      This distinction is one that changes the subsequent assumptions about my position.

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                    • Well, you’re gonna need to flesh that out some for me to get it. Civil rights are privileges? And human rights are right? I must not be getting it right, because it seems that if civil rights are only privileges granted by the will of the state, then the t government does have the authority to arbitrarily restrict privileges according to, eg, the will of the people.

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                    • Well, you’re gonna need to flesh that out some for me to get it. Civil rights are privileges? And human rights are right? I must not be getting it right, because it seems that if civil rights are only privileges granted by the will of the state, then the t government does have the authority to arbitrarily restrict privileges according to, eg, the will of the people.

                      Rights exist independently of The State.

                      There are some things called “Civil Rights” that are, in fact, Rights and some things that are, in fact, not (which is not to say that they are not public goods or good things in and of themselves or mitzvahs or whathaveyou but that does not make them “Rights”).

                      Marriage, for example, is one of those things that precedes The State. It can easily exist independently of it. It’s a relationship that is so very powerful that, I’m sure, you can think of any number of things that various institutions throughout history have attempted to weaken it for their own benefit, or attempts to co-opt it, or attempts to say that they are the arbiters of it. We know, however, that it exists independently of these institutions, no?

                      This is one of the things that disappointed me about the Gay Marriage debate. It seems to me that the couples ought to have argued that they wanted their marriages recognized rather than argued that they wanted to be able to get married in the first place… alas. Too many folks think Rights come from The State.

                      then the t government does have the authority to arbitrarily restrict privileges according to, eg, the will of the people

                      It has the power.

                      I deny it the authority.

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                    • Mr. Jaybird is on a heavy clarity riff here, delineating natural rights from political ones.

                      I’m going to clear out of this discussion here, but an example is that although “trial by jury” is an American constitutional/political right, it’s not claimed as a natural or human right, not elsewhere in the world, and not even in America by those who can tell the difference. There is a difference.

                      Cheers.

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                    • Civil rights are those rights extended to us by the government in return for surrendering in principle our natural rights to individual self-defense, to holding promisers accountable, and to exacting restitution.

                      As we’ve given all those up, we get the civil rights that come with our criminal justice system, with our democratic elections, and with our freedom of contract.

                      Trial by jury isn’t inherent in human nature. Extracting a fair compensation for injury is. But in a civil society, we can’t just have everyone running out and doing it however they see fit. So we have a set procedure that we’ve all agreed upon, and that — faute de mieux — we impose on the holdouts. It’s called trial by jury, and it’s a civil right. And so on and so forth, for all the rest.

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    • I think you outline one of the useful contributions of ideology. Perhaps the way to address this is to go up a level (because I’m So Meta, Even This Acronym), and pragmatically evaluate ideology.

      It seems to me ideology has the following benefits:
      1) it gives you a set of values to work with. A pure pragmatists will also have values, but I think is less likely they will realise they have a specific set of values. I see this most particularly is certain public health activists who see to feel that cracking down on fattening foods and smoking is self-evidently good because they don’t seem to be counting the consumption benefits of these goods.

      2) Ideologues are of the a useful source of outside-the-box thinking. After all, Friedman’s opposition to conscription and fixed exchange rates were considered radical and ideological once.

      I think ideology is at its most problematic when it leads to people having preferences over policies, as distinct from outcomes. I’m sure we’ve all come across people who seemed to care more about public schools (or vouchers) than they care about educational outcomes. Without wanting to be the squishy moderate here, I can’t help but feeling that the best approach is to have an ideology, but leaven it heavily with pragmatism.

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      • “I think ideology is at its most problematic when it leads to people having preferences over policies, as distinct from outcomes.”

        I think we are in agreement here. Where we may differ might be that I think ideology in groups – and in determining public policy – leads to this regardless of intentions.

        If you are from Portland, you think Kobe Bryant is a terrible basketball player, and only achieves things because the fix is in – no amount of data will ever be able to make you think differently. I am arguing that the same dynamic – the hard-wired instinct to view things as an overly passionate us vs. them – occurs when we begin to make deal with others based on ideology. Both rationality and the focus on a positive end result become secondary.

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    • No, but I don’t think I said that he was a gay basher; I said he was happy to throw them under the bus.

      Cheney was the #2 man in an administration that used gay bashing as a way to garner power when they were fearful of losing it. Because of his family situation, he was asked a lot of questions in the ’04 campaign that sought to have him step up and – in my mind – do the right thing. That he didn’t, to protect his ideology stay in power, is indefensible. In my mind it’s one thing to not like gays because the Bible says you shouldn’t and you wish to be an upstanding God-fearing man. It’s another to know well that gays are just like everyone else and pose no threat, but to vilify them for your own non-related ends.

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  3. “While I recognize most people do list their political ideology as one of if not their singular core values, I do not-“

    I think this is recent. It seems to me to be a result of Communism dying out in 1989 and there being a missing pole in our discourse. During the good old days when we all were pretty sure about not wanting to live in Soviet Russia, back when there was a Soviet Russia, I remember “ideological” being an insult, among both liberals and conservatives. We could debate and quibble, so long as we weren’t like those ideologically-rigid Party types over there. The old joke about the Communist Party official asking, “Okay, sure it works in practice, but will it work in theory?” actually made sense then.

    Now? I don’t know. It seems like we’ve lost that cautionary example of ideologically-rigid thinking making life miserable. Both the right and left in America seem pretty frustrated with their elected officials for being more concerned with practice than they are with theory.

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  4. For every political philosophy, there’s at least three versions of it. There’s the great complex version of it that it internally claims it is…and there’s at least one version of it that foolish supporters think it is, and there’s at least one version of it opponents think it is.

    Libertarians have the distinct disadvantage that the version that supporters think it is is almost identical to the version that the opposition thinks it is: Tax cuts for everyone, the government doing almost nothing.

    There are all sorts of weird disconnects in politics, which is why I jokingly suggested a while back (I think it was here.) that if a genie gave me one wish it would be to remove all current existing political labels and classifications from everyone’s mind and make them come up with new ones and actually explain what they mean.

    People should describe their political positions in terms of goals and means to those goals. And should be able to explain _why_ they want those goals.

    Which would result in a lot of social conservatives sounding like idiots. I’m reminded of that California court that kept asking what the specific _policy_ reasons for banning gay marriage would be, and the complete inability for anyone to come up with any.

    And ‘libertarians’ would sound pretty silly, also. Because the government having ‘less money’ is hardly some logical way to get more freedom. The government can do rather horrific things to people with almost no money at all. (Of course, if the only ‘freedom’ you’re worried about it to ‘keep all your money’, and can use your money to buy your way out of everything else, then it’s relevant. Which is why some people on the left tend to impunge the motives of the super-rich supporting all those ‘libertarian’ think tanks.)

    Meanwhile, economic conservatives tend to have logical goals and claim to have logical means that seem to work….until you realize those means that have been _repeatedly_ disproven to actually accomplish the things they say they wish to accomplish.

    The left usually tends to have logical goals, ones that can be clearly stated and almost every agrees with…but often stupid means to get there. Often, it’s not _possible_ to get there at all.But at least their means tend to be _new_ stupid means, instead of old stupid means. (Which is why I should point out the left has almost entirely given up on gun control, so that’s a spectacularly silly example to worry about. The left was _barely_ able to propose ‘clip size’ legislation after the Gifford’s shooting, and wasn’t able to pass it. The idea of gun control helping anything is essentially discredited, and unlike the right, the left can actually give up on stupid ideas.)

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    • Before I even finish reading your comment, I just want to note:

      “For every political philosophy, there’s at least three versions of it. There’s the great complex version of it that it internally claims it is…and there’s at least one version of it that foolish supporters think it is, and there’s at least one version of it opponents think it is.”

      I like this observation a lot.

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  5. It’s also possible that “rising to power” is something the libertarian movement ought to avoid. Lord Acton, Tolkien, Harry Potter for the kiddies, even. Power corrupts.

    I strongly suspect that almost anyone would be corrupted once their hands were on the levers. The productive but difficult work is showing how to dismantle them without touching.

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  6. Great post R. While i’m on the liberal side i think there is a lot to be side for simple pragmatism. To many political discussions hereabouts turn into philosophical debates, which is fine as far as it goes. What to many people fall down on is that philosophies or first principles need to be implemented which is inherently difficult and can only succeed in the real world if you have some commitment to empiricism and pragmatism. The real world makes a hash of every bodies theories. Its wonderful to be philosophical and consistent if you never have to apply it. Until ideas work in the world they aren’t worth much.

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  7. I feel a kinship with the spirit of this post. I think of myself as post-ideological, having dabbled in just about everything and found everything wanting.

    It also gets to the nub of one of my recurring observations, which is how people (right, left, and center) conflate ideological preferences with objectively good results. Law enforcement measures that I disagree with simply don’t work! The laws of available supply and demand simply don’t apply to drugs, so we can get rid of drugs without an uptick in usage! More guns, less crime, so I get to have my guns and it makes sense for me to have them! Affirmative action hurts minorities by putting their qualifications to question Which is not to say that the above arguments are not actually correct. They might be! But it’s no coincidence that the folks against them on an ideological level also find them to be pragmatic.

    Of course, I would like to say “I support what I support because it works, they support it because their ideology compels them to,” but that’s pretty self-serving in its own way.

    At the end of the day, we’re dealing with a lot of ambiguity. What works and what doesn’t depends, in part, on how you measure outputs. Which (perceived) injustices you find most acceptable. To use your New Deal example, whether it’s more significant that people are starving or the economy is being slowed down by people coasting on the welfare state. Granted, I prefer a conversation where all participants acknowledge that both of these are issues and then we can discuss it as a matter of competing interests rather than saying that one or the other is insignificant, but they really view it as such.

    And even when they don’t, such as with the CPS discussion on NaPP, there’s still the question of which side of the equation you’re seeing: kids being taken away from their homes on flimsy contexts, a generation of obesity, or more broadly kids living under parentage that anyone should consider unacceptable and the state doing nothing about it. What you see (or read about, for that matter) is the problem that you’re most apt to believe needs to be addressed. At the expense of the others, if need-be.

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    • “It also gets to the nub of one of my recurring observations, which is how people (right, left, and center) conflate ideological preferences with objectively good results.”

      Not only that, but they assume that the actions compelled by their ideology aren’t the result of dogmatic thinking, but are in fact truths revealed by rational logic.

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      • Quite so. Which is sort of why I cringed when I read RTod refer to himself as a pragmatist. Not because I hate pragmatists, nor because I find RTod to be some sort of ideological warrior (his labeling makes sense). But rather, my experience with people who tout their pragmatism are often working from some basic assumptions (the ambiguities) that they don’t realize they’re making or that they believe to be uncontested facts.

        Even so, I’ll take a hat-tip towards pragmatism over pure dogma.

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        • Along these lines, I’d distinguish between ideological commitments that convince you that you know the answers versus those that convince you that you know the rules that will generally lead to the right answers. I think people who have any strong political opinions that they’d characterize as more than just a preference have to be one sort of ideologue or the other.

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    • The ultimate example of ideological preferences is ‘tax cuts’. This appear to be the solution to every economic problem. Every one of them. Even when we’ve come out of a _decade_ of tax cuts that, uh, didn’t appear to help anything.

      At some point, society as a whole needs to say if you want tax cuts as an _ends_, fine, say so, and we can vote on that. But we’re not buying this nonsense where they’re coincidentally the means you think of to solve _every single problem_ that popups up. You propose them in good times, you propose them in bad times, you propose them to fight inflation, you propose them to make the economy work, you propose them as a pizza topping. We’re not _total_ idiots here…you just want some damn tax cuts, don’t you? That is your _actual_ goal, isn’t it?

      There’s a couple of other disingenuous ‘solutions’ that come up in response to a lot of problems they couldn’t possible solve, and are suggested so often that it’s pretty obvious that they are not ‘solutions’ as much as ‘things people want to do’…but all the examples I can think of are on the right, and I’m trying to be somewhat neutral here. Perhaps someone else can think of inane ‘solutions’ the left suggests that are simply things the left wishes to do, and obviously wouldn’t solve half the problems they are proposed for.

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    • “At the end of the day, we’re dealing with a lot of ambiguity. What works and what doesn’t depends, in part, on how you measure outputs.”

      I actually agree with this 100%. My argument is that when we cling to ideology we are not measuring outputs, we are measuring inputs. If you doubt this, see how any given economy, issue, poll question, etc. gets wildly different data and results dependent upon who is giving that data.

      Please do not think that I believe that if we all look at things pragmatically we will all come to the same answers. We won’t. But we *will* be able to address issues head on, and come to some kind of consensus. To say that we will all come to the table agreeing on the correct safety net (or even the need or wisdom for one) is obvious. But so too is the fact that if all sides pretend reality is different than it is for the sake of their ideology. And without ideology, we would be better at evaluating when those decisions were total fish ups, and act accordingly.

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  8. I dug the post and if stuff wasn’t crazy today I’d have a real substantive response (maybe tonight).

    I do want to say that I am in no way to be considered a spokesperson for Libertarian above and beyond that of my own. I’m just this guy who lives in Colorado. I have no official affiliations with anybody, I don’t teach anything anywhere, I don’t write papers for folks, I’m part of no think tank. (This is not to say that doing such necessarily gives standing within the community, of course, but if it does, know that none of this standing has fallen on me.)

    If there is someone out there who is an authority on Libertarianism, it ain’t me.

    If I’m an authority on anything, I’m an authority on me. Which is *WHY* I’m a Libertarian… but that’s a completely different argument.

    I’m just this guy.

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  9. “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.”

    This is true. But what do you say about pragmatism becoming a larger force? I know that it isn’t a “dogmatic ideology” per se, but if you are a politician, at any level, running as a pragmatist, what do you sell yourself to your constituients as? Of course, you can just say “i’ll look at the evidence and come to the conclusion that best benefits as many people as possible without harming basic freedoms,” but that doesn’t matter much when you have to take a vote on a bill, or put planks on your platform. Would you vote yes on the health care bill? Should there be a tax on carbon? Because, at the end of the day, every politician would say they’re the pragmatic one, it’s just that two sides can approach the same broad goals and come to vastly different conclusions. When you’re the guy writing in legal clauses for regulation or filling out precise lines in the budget book, you eventually have to come to a definite statement. I just think you underestimate that many people, all operating under the same pragmatic pretenses, can and will come to conflicting answers because no man is filled solely with reason. Never doubt the power of bias, deep-seated values, and limited human knowledge (“man is, and ought only to be, a slave to the passions”-hume).

    So I respect the fact that you take decision-making seriously and in the tradition of the enlightment (something that, as you say, not enough folks do), but I don’t think “pragmatism” works as a label or ideology. To me, you sound like a moderate liberal, in today’s political terminology (not necessarily a Democrat, mind you). Maybe you don’t like the term, but you’d have to prove to me that it doesn’t fit.

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    • This is a good comment. I was struggling with how to articulate the distinction between being a pragmatist as an academic exercise and being a pragmatic in terms of political movement. They can blend of course, but only insofar as you can (as you say) “sell yourself to your constituents.” In the end, I think there are pragmatic liberals who vote Democrat, and pragmatic Conservatives who vote Republican, and both groups hold their noses at the voting booth.

      But also, isn’t there a sense in which the ideologue views himself as ‘pragmatic’, since the principles and evidence on which he bases his political decision-making are, for him, entirely obvious and self-evident, and as a result it’s everyone else that’s ideological? I mean, from his pov, how could other people get it so wrong?

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    • This is a really excellent comment. And I would be full of it if I said I felt confident that these were non-issues. I have an initial thought, but I recognize even now that it might not word in a political forum:

      Most successful businesses I know of don’t hire the people in charge based on ideology, religious views, or litmus tests of social issues. And once hired, they do not reward or terminate based on those things. Why can we not take the same approach as an electorate?

      At the moment, all the “issues” we fight over seem to be ideologically self-serving. Should we tax the rich more, or less? Should we get Big Brother off of our back, or use the government to help protect us from things that it can (or can’t)? The “winners” of these kinds of questions *are* the results of our elections. But I think they are because parties make them so. (There are many ways we might determine who is the greatest athlete alive, but if we allow the NFL to determine the metric it might well be Most Touchdowns Scored. Always make the debate the debate you are best suited to win.)

      I think we would be better served with different metrics. For example, it seems we have gotten out of and into financial jams in the past by taxing and spending, and the same with taking a more laissez-faire tack. Why then not decide how to measure growth/reduction in the economy, and be willing to use either approach – or a different one – as the situation requires? Why not, in other words, move toward a more results-oriented determination of who is fit to lead? (And for the record, I reject the idea that this is what we do already.)

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  10. Well, the first tenet of any ideology is “if you aren’t with me then you’re against me”. So you can understand why a philosophy based on considering each situation individually, rather than first turning to ideology, would be a problem for zealots.

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  11. This isn’t pragmatism at all. That word means something, and it doesn’t mean what you think it means. Instead, what you’re proposing is really just a stripped-down, big-tent ideology. It’s a nice-sounding ideology, to be sure, and flexible enough to permit compatibility with a wide variety of political implementations, but it remains an ideology. You’ve even smuggled in the concept of human rights–which is philosophically problematic to say the least–with a wave of your hand.

    No, to be truly pragmatic, you can’t draw your little circles around “most basic human rights” as areas not subject to pragmatic analysis. Even deeper, to be truly pragmatic, one needs to be willing to assert not only that both sides of the argument may have their strong and weak points, places where they’re right and places that they’re wrong, but that ultimately neither side can be right or wrong because the questions do not have a moral valence.

    Now that’s pragmatism.

    I say this because I actually consider myself to be a pragmatist when it comes to politics. I’m not convinced that political questions are moral questions most of the time, i.e. in some sense it doesn’t actually matter what answers we come up with. I’ve actually been called a “political nihilist,” and I won’t dispute that. What you’re proposing here is not this. It’s certainly a more minimalist approach to politics than is frequently found on either side of the aisle, but it isn’t pragmatism. Not really.

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    • Interesting, it’s always important to remember that “pragmatism” has a very specific philosophical history and meaning as well. To quote William James, the father of this school of thought, “The most ancient parts of truth . . . also once were plastic. They also were called true for human reasons. They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations. Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatsoever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they are true, for ‘to be true’ means only to perform this marriage-function.” (“Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth” 1907)

      Like you said, a true-to-the-book pragmatist wouldn’t talk of natural rights in any sense. Everything is about ends. It’s a pretty bold philosophy, one that I’m not quite comfortable with myself. But fascinating nonetheless.

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      • Charles Sanders Peirce is more interesting than James and his epigones, his “pragmaticism” more interesting than “pragmatism.” [Peirce’s “pragmatism” came first; he coined “pragmaticism” to differentiate it from James, et al.’s appropriation of it.]

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    • “it isn’t pragmatism. Not really.”

      Fair enough.

      (But it is a little exciting. The wee little political philosophy I’ve latched onto is already showing signs of schism-ing with accusations of the unfaithful lacking purity. It feels like we’ve finally made it!)

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  12. “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”—Blackstone, 1760

    This is ideology, not pragmatism.

    “Volokh cites an apparent questioning of the principle, with the tale of a Chinese professor who responds, “Better for whom?”

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      • We’re all off the invite list, then, eh, RT? These abjurations of principle always miss the point. We cannot avoid principles and values. And that’s OK with me.

        “Pragmatism” seeks to wear the mantle of prudence or wisdom, but it’s not synonymous. As if anyone is opposed to prudence or wisdom.

        I found the etymology of “ideology” interesting, BTW

        http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=ideology

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        • Tom –

          a). That was a joke.

          b). No one is opposed to “wisdom” that I know of. But if you believe that groups of people in an ideology care about finding good working solutions to problems over and above whatever solution sits within the semantics of their ideology, then we have had very different life experiences. Ideology may start from a place of inquiry, but in my experience when it becomes a movement the sole inquiry of import is “how do we further the ideology?” (e.g.: every time you have correctly noted that liberals have been OK with something Obama did that they cried treason when Bush did, and all mirror-image observations about the right from the other side.)

          c). Thanks for the link. You always come up with awesome links.

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          • RTod, a) yah, I got you were j/k. But I thought the Blackstone cut the Gordian Knot on this. It was more than a bon mot or drive-by.

            Similarly, on the gun question, we’ve decided [mostly] that more guns is the price for the right to self-defense. Although I’m not ready to stipulate that the “More Guns Less Crime” thesis is empirically wrong.

            b) Stipulated. I’ll mostly give the benefit of the doubt to the left here, that their Eurostatism is based on empirical grounds, at least to their own epistemological satisfaction. For instance, what with the %age of GNP we spend on health care, a statist takeover should be more efficient.

            Which is to say, in theory at least, the numbers add up; the case for UHC is not a priori, albeit still theoretical.

            This is sometimes used as ammo for the self-appellation “reality-based community.”

            The right is more attracted to a priori, although I’d say it’s closer to Charles Sanders Peirce’s “abduction,” a stronger variant of “induction,” and something we might call radar or common sense. And in fairness, “rationalism” as opposed to “empiricism,” that reason can derive truth prior to experience. It’s not all religion and ideology.

            And neither is it so that because one cannot articulate his position as well as his opponent can articulate his that the opponent has accessed more truth. Perhaps the opponent’s case is just more reductive and simple-minded.

            But stipulated that ideologues don’t seem to care how their ideology plays out in reality. This was true of the communists, and is surely true of some on the right as well. Their a priori claims may be logically valid, but have flunked the a posteriori test by human nature.

            As for the Obama-Bush hypocrisies, that one’s position depends on whose ox is being gored [or whose Gore is being oxxed], I try to highlight especially those issues where the mirror image doesn’t mirror.

            [I did note that Sen. Obama voted against raising the debt limit in 2006, but I get no kick from the hypocrisy game. Given as a constant that they—and we—are all hypocrites at some point. Hey, we’re all human.]

            c) Glad you liked the link. It’s really my biggest kick around here. I have a good memory for the standout and probative stuff I run across—stuff that it took me hours to find whether by dogged tracking down of clues, or by mere serendipity in some neglected corner of the internet.

            It’s in the sharing that I get a buzz, and I often link without editorializing, in the hope the most gentle of readers will follow, read, and then make up their own minds in light of what is likely new information.

            Thx, man. Gentle reader.

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            • tvd – Regarding Blackstone, why is this statement incompatible with pragmatism? As I said above, I do not define my pragmatism as an absence or beliefs or values.

              “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” – Blackstone

              This seems like a solid value, and an ending point from which you can start working backwards to find the right path. My issue with ideologues, right or left, is that this statement and statements like it will be used when it suits their ideology, and ridiculed when it won’t.

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  13. In order to be a pragmatic you must be influenced by thinkers on all sides of an argument.

    Which brings to mind the old line about the difference between being open-minded and having holes in your head. If you think being “pragmatic” means being free of principles, then you’re simply tending toward the latter condition. More specifically, you become more vulnerable to powerful but emotional rhetoric, to short-term and often inconsistent answers, and simply to whatever the bien pensant (i.e., the fashionably orthodox) are wearing/thinking/saying at the moment.

    If, on the other hand, you think you have principles, but you’d rather not inspect them too closely or think about them too deeply, then you either fall prey to the Keynesian quote re: the “slaves of some defunct economist[/philosopher/pundit/etc.]”, or you become merely dogmatic in their defense, or you become opportunistic and/or hypocritical in using them only when it suits you and abandoning them when it doesn’t.

    There’s a third hand — viewing pragmatism as a necessary but not sufficient characteristic of a political (or philosophical or ethical) stance. In this sense, pragmatism is simply an approach to thought that needs intellectual substance to give it body and shape. That substance can only come from ongoing attempts at deliberate, careful, and reasonably consistent thought about principles, and where those lead in specific issues. Now, it’s true that it’s possible to become so enmeshed in such abstractions that you can no longer really see the contingent, concrete world before you, and that too is certainly a fault. But that’s where a pragmatic approach, guided and focused by thought-out considerations of principle, becomes a real virtue.

    So really what we need is principled pragmatism, or pragmatic ideology.

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    • Then what to do if your ideology believes that the federal government should not regulate, but you run into an area where a lack of federal regulation leads to unnecessary suffering? Or vise versa?

      I am arguing for a pragmatic approach, where you are willing to dump your ideology in cases where it hurts rather than helps. I am not sure that I see this as unprincipled.

      I had tried to make the case in my post (and perhaps not very well) that the lower-t truths of ideologies are important. But when you abandon the realities before you because it does not mesh with your ideology (see my very real and personal example of job-site safety standards), then what good is your ideology?

      (Side note – Good to continue this discussion with you Larry. Hadn’t seen you around for a bit and was hoping you’d pop back for this.)

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  14. Then what to do if your ideology believes that the federal government should not regulate, but you run into an area where a lack of federal regulation leads to unnecessary suffering? Or vise versa?

    I’d make two points about this:

    The first is just to caution against too crude or simplistic a notion of “ideology”. A bald assertion that “the federal government should not regulate” is distinct from the notion that state regulations should be reduced and eliminated wherever possible in order to be replaced by more localized and evolved practices that suit different contexts. They both are general statements, but the first is inflexible and absolutist, whereas the second is an ideological principle open to practical situations.

    The second and more important point is the question of knowledge — how do you really know that a lack of federal regulations lead to unnecessary suffering? Let me use an admittedly extreme counter-example to illustrate my point — if the federal government were to regulate away construction altogether, it would certainly eliminate construction deaths altogether, but it’s (I hope) obvious that such a policy would have such bad consequences otherwise that in fact it would be the federal regulations themselves that lead to unnecessary suffering. I understand that nobody would propose something so stupid (though I think there are other examples that, in their sheer imbecility, come close), but I’m using this just to make plain the fact that the measurement or determination of what constitutes “unnecessary suffering” is by no means obvious. Without a god’s-eye view of humanity, policy-makers have to rely on broad aggregated statistics, often inducing a kind of tunnel-vision focus that excludes all kinds of unmeasured effects outside the area of immediate concern. And the usual result is huge reams of regulations constantly patched and modified, difficult for anyone, even the policy-makers, to understand in their entirety, and adding great overhead costs on all sides in compliance-monitoring. There’s an irony here, in fact, in the sense that what might look “pragmatic” in a very broad or federal context all too often becomes the very opposite of pragmatic in the local and particular context in which it must be applied. But that realization or understanding is itself a general one that stems from what I would call a practical ideology (for example, I can’t do better than to recommend, again, Hayek’s famous essay on “The Use of Knowledge in Society”).

    (btw, thanks for the side note, and I welcome this discussion as well — we may not be that far apart in fact.)

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  15. 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.

    The problem is not the Rush Limbaughs or the Glenn Becks, but our heads of state who employ slippery economics and vituperative rhetoric to advance their own “core values.”  Consider that while governor of New York, FDR remarked “I want to preach a new doctrine—complete separation of business and government.”  As president, however, he called wealthy Americans “money changers” and chiselers.  As Richard Hofstadter put it, however, such political pragmatism is forgivable, since “every sophisticate might be expected to know that in such times a few words against the evil rich are necessary to a politician’s effectiveness.” 

    Sure, I’ll let FDR alone and accept he was doing what needed to be done.  He was a pragmatic hero.  Unlike Wilson who was troubled by his principles in executing his office, FDR’s freedom from intellectual consistency or economic literacy, by some accounts, saved the nation.  But in less troubled times, leadership that exhibits intellectual inconsistency and economic illiteracy hemorrhages credibility.  When the fate of the nation is on the line, no one is going to dicker about the abstract meaning of “freedom.”  We’ll be content to leave academic matters aside until the flames are out.  But in peacetime, I demand to know exactly whose “core values” are being served by licensing regimes on florists or requiring taxicab drivers to obtain a taxi medallion, costing as much as $600K. 

    And yes, I demand to know what is left of the Enumerated Powers doctrine if Congress is deemed authorized to compel every American to participate in certain private economic transactions.  Political pragmatism got such a law enacted, yet the majority of Americans are still skeptical of its legitimacy. 

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  16. Mr. Kowal, I’m pretty sure that a significant number of knowledgeable people blame FDR’s inchoate policies for taking a recession and making it a depression, which appears to be the goal of our current president. I would add that IMO it’s unconstitutional to create a national social security program. However, I do think the state could do it on a ‘voluntary’ basis. As I understand it the city of Galveston opted out of the national ss program, did their own, invested the money in the market, etc. and the recipients are doing considerably better than the current general gummint ss program. Perhaps you could straighten me out on that.

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  17. I’m pretty sure that a significant number of knowledgeable people blame FDR’s inchoate policies for taking a recession and making it a depression

    They are not knowledgeable. The year over year changes in real gross domestic product at that time are as follows:

    1929/30: -8.6%
    1930/31: -6.2%
    1931/32: -13.1%
    1932/33: -1.3%

    Mr. Roosevelt took office in March of 1933. From the spring of 1933 to the end of 1936 and from the middle of 1938 to the fall of 1945, the economy grew quite rapidly. By 1941, gross domestic product per capita exceeded 1929 levels by around 15% or so. The trouble was that the labor market was severely injured so this more affluent society had a problem with mass unemployment.

    The creation of Social Security was arguably not the exercise of an enumerated power. So, what are you going to do now? You can pass a constitutional amendment which legitimates the program ex post facto or you can implement a 35% reduction in the real income of the elderly and disabled (or a 100% reduction in many cases). Ball’s in your court.

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    • A Larry Summers quote via Greg Mankiw:

      Never forget, never forget, and I think it’s very important for Democrats especially to remember this, that if Hitler had not come along, Franklin Roosevelt would have left office in 1941 with an unemployment rate in excess of 15 percent and an economic recovery strategy that had basically failed.

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            • But the point remains, doesn’t it?, that the ‘recovery strategy’ was effectively the same both cases. I’m not in agreement with Krugman that a bigger stimulus would have led to a long term recovery now, however. I don’t really know enough about it be super confident, but it seems to me that the situations are disanalogous: in the 30-40’s, stimulus, in particular war funding, created capital centers that were later used to provide jobs and give the US trade surpluses for a couple decades. In today’s economy, I don’t see what a stimulus is going to effectively stimulate, if you know what I mean. Manufacturing is dead. So is housing. Our service sectors are increasingly being shipped over seas. So, without alot to go on, I disagree with K-man on this one.

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    • Thanks Art, for the stats.
      I’m no expert but wasn’t the primary reason for Roosevelt’s depression the fact that bidnessmen were concerned that he was going to pull a Mussilini and phuck up (have the gummint take over stuff) the capitalist system. Their uncertainty, much as the uncertainty surrounding out latest commie administration, forced them into a ‘wait and see.’ Please feel free to correct that.
      Also, I’ve heard we didn’t get outta the depression until a few years after WWII…is that right?
      Oh you’re right, I believe SS is here with us whether it’s right or wrong. However, I think it best to limit who gets it, and put it in a ‘lock box,’ and maybe some other stuff. People who have injuries, or are poor, should be another ‘program.’ SS should be for those who have ‘contributed.’ BTW, how much did those Galveston people get on their version of ss, or how about the people in Chile. I heard they do much better than the US.

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      • By 1939, the economy was producing in goods and services as much as it had in 1929 and by 1941 per capita income also exceeded the levels of 1929. The thing is, about 6 or 7 % of the workforce was completely unemployed at any one time in 1941 and another 8 or 9 % was stashed in low-productivity jobs in the WPA and like agencies. So, the economy had recovered but you had persistent mass unemployment of a sort you had not known for forty-odd years prior to the Depression. Most European countries have been suffering from persistent mass unemployment for about 30 years now, even though prosperous.

        Growth rates averaged over 6% per year during the period running from 1933 to 1941 and faster during the War. That is rapid. Presumably the recovery would have been quicker and cleaner had the Roosevelt Administration not undertaken a number of ill-advised policies: attempting in 1933-35 to erect cartels across a broad array of business sectors (an attempt scuttled by the Supreme Court), erecting (with less interference from the courts) a system of production controls and cartels in agriculture, enacting a high minimum wage, promoting industrial unionism and its attendant rigidities, and levying payroll taxes.

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        • I take it then, that you’re critical of the Roosevelt administration’s constant messin’ with various and sundry elements of the economy?
          What was the root cause of the recession-depression and how best should it have been handled…what was gummint’s role both in triggering and in correcting the economic downturn/collapse?

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  18. Pragmatism is a fine stance for anyone to take, but it’s all a bit vague. WVO Quine is the philosopher who most influenced me once I got back in school after the military. His school of pragmatism has gone out of fashion but he makes some interesting points about the nature of knowledge. Nobody has seen an electric wave: we conclude electricity is a wave and describe it as such, though its wave-like nature remains undetectable except through instruments. As such, there are practical limits to what we can actually “know”, but no such limits apply if we’re willing to trust the instruments. In that sense, we’re all at the mercy of the instruments and the validity of our sources.

    Pragmatism is the round trip from theory to observation back to theory again. Our knowledge can only be as good as the theory which makes it back alive. We believe in the wave theory of electricity for this reason: no other theory has any explanation for what we see on the instruments. Though ideological dogma might seem the worst of all possible approaches to public policy, it’s really all we’ve got. The locally-much ballyhooed Oakeshott had a good deal to say about this, delineating the polarity of public policy along the axis of Faith and Skepticism. The Skeptic is the great tester, but what shall the Skeptic test, if not ideals?

    Pragmatists must not feel overly sorry for themselves. If Pragmatism is non-threatening, it is also a great reduction to the Worst Common Denominator. Insofar as Pragmatism in all its forms sees a problem which needs solving, its solutions are inevitably short-term: by definition they cannot be otherwise. Bertrand Russell says in Power:

    The reality of what is independent of my own will is embodied, for philosophy, in the conception of ‘truth’. The truth of my beliefs, in the view of common sense, does not depend, in most cases, upon anything that I can do. It is true that if I believe I shall eat my breakfast tomorrow, my belief, if true, is so partly in virtue of my own future volitions; but if I believe that Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March, what makes my belief true lies wholly outside the power of my will. Philosophies inspired by love of power find this situation unpleasant, and therefore set to work, in various ways, to undermine the commonsense conception of facts as the sources of truth or falsehood in beliefs… This gives freedom to creative fancy, which it liberates from the shackles of the supposed ‘real’ world.

    Pragmatism, in some of its forms, is a power-philosophy. For pragmatism, a belief is ‘true’ if its consequences are pleasant. Now human beings can make the consequences of a belief pleasant or unpleasant. Belief in the moral superiority of a dictator has pleasanter consequences than disbelief, if you live under his government. Wherever there is effective persecution, the official creed is ‘true’ in the pragmatist sense. The pragmatist philosophy, therefore, gives to those in power a metaphysical omnipotence which a more pedestrian philosophy would deny to them. I do not suggest that most pragmatists admit the consequences of their philosophy; I say only that they are consequences, and that the pragmatist’s attack on the common view of truth is an outcome of love of power, though perhaps more of power over inanimate nature than of power over human beings.

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    • “The Skeptic is the great tester, but what shall the Skeptic test, if not ideals?”

      Results?

      I should point out here that I am actively encouraging embracing the small “t” truths you might find in a particular ideological approach. This is quite different than embracing The Truth – which makes the pragmatist I try to be neither a True Believer nor a nihilist. I find truth in Liberalism’s acknowledging that the poor and disenfranchised are at times unfairly “held down by the man;” but I stop well short of concluding that financial success necessitates the suffering of others. Likewise, I acknowledge the Capitalistic truth that money motivates, but recognize that it only does so to a point: I have had the honor of knowing and working with a lot of successful men and women over the years, and I can tell you flat out that if you raised their personal income tax rate by 10% or 20% or dropped it by 15% next year you would see neither an increase of decrease in their personal productivity.

      I believe ideology has a necessary place in public discourse. I just think that it should not be the deciding factor in decision making; pragmatism should be.

      “Pragmatism in all its forms sees a problem which needs solving, its solutions are inevitably short-term: by definition they cannot be otherwise.”

      I agree with this. But I disagree with the unspoken flip side of this argument. The tenants of any dogmatic ideology can be used to find a solution to a problem. But those are temporary as well; further more, they tend not to be the universal solutions their followers make them out to be. I think there is wisdom in recognizing that a solution may be temporary, may not work at all, or may work only under certain circumstances.

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      • I’ve had to give some thought to this response, though in truth I’d given up on it after Schilling’s snarky response. Gosh, I sure wish I was as smart as some of y’all around here. In point of fact, it’s only in the fovea, a tiny region near the center of the eye, that we see anything but in black and white.
        It’s an important distinction which leads me to Quine and his epistemology. My own theories of perception and integration are also naturalistic: unless you’ve had enough anatomy to know, or been trained to shoot in the dark as I was, wearing a blindfold for at least 15 minutes before going on picket duty in the dark, the fact that the human eye does not see much in color, even in broad daylight may have completely escaped you until this moment. Predators have forward looking eyes, to range prey. Prey animals have eyes on the sides of their heads for a wider angle of vision to detect predators. The human eye is built for fast response, analysis and reduction. Most of the back of our heads is dedicated to vision.

        Quine points out the chief problem with empiricism: it does not ask why we ask. Why do science and philosophy matter so much? Why do we feel the necessity of creating abstractions to explain the world and yet leave our own rationale for explaining so little examined? Science isn’t a religion but it’s constantly in ferment with quixotic theories scribbled on the blackboards of the whole world.

        Any lawyer will tell you your worst witness is an eyewitness. The best witness is the evidence technician and he’s only impeachable if the chain of custody has somehow been compromised. Quine attempts to give us the perceived world on a scientific basis and largely fails, not because philosophy lacks the rigor but because we simply can’t manage the stunt. Spock the Vulcan might, but we humans can’t parse away the ideologies which underlie our own versions of truth, both upper- and lowercase T.

        I have my own theory of abstractions, based on where Quine went astray with language. I am a linguist. I’ve been writing AI software for robots and machine intelligence for almost three decades now. There is no Truth. There are only truth tables and shades of grey problems. Quine wanted to put up some genetic basis for language. Well, maybe there’s some genetic component to language but the most vocal creatures are the birds. We use language because we grew this great big forebrain and that happened because we didn’t have wings or stingers or claws or carnassial teeth or good eyes or noses or anything of that sort, not even the ability to outrun our predators. We were a tree dwelling hominid that learned to substitute flint tools for claws. Learned. Abstract learning was the key to our dominance as a species and the fastest way to communicate that learning was first with spoken language then with symbols, so we could keep records, especially tax records, which appear in great abundance early on. The most efficient method of survival is a working civilization to give us a framework for specialization.

        My Zojirushi rice cooker has enough AI to make perfect basmati or sushi rice or brown rice and can keep it in fine shape for days in there. But it will never ask why it is doing so. It is in the questioning where truth is framed, in the endless hours of testing and formulation of the rules engines which govern that rice maker and washing machine and camera and game characters and the feedback loops and a hundred other applications of AI. Popper gives us truth testing via falsifiability, but only a taste tester will validate if the rice is properly cooked.

        Gnothe seaton is not written into the human genome.

        General Atomics, the makers of the Reaper UAV, offered the USAF an auto-land option for a drone if telemetry contact was lost. No, no, said the Air Force, we want to land our own drones, we are pilots, manly dudes. We don’t want an autonomous system, that’s for Navy and Army weenies. So the USAF lost contact with a drone over Afghanistan, had to scramble a human flown jet at great expense to shoot it down lest it fall into enemy hands. The missile whacked it, the telemetry back to Creech suddenly came back live and the drone driver had to crash his vehicle into the side of a mountain. Great going, USAF: the drone could have flown itself back home and would have if you’d bought the auto-land package, engineered for that exact possibility.

        Man is idealistic, not because he’s adopted some external framework, but because he formed that framework himself. People are never pragmatic: the capacity of the human mind for self-delusion is damned near infinite. We question the world and build tools to test it, to overcome what we do not understand, guided by our hopes and fears, knowing a series of seemingly great small decisions can put us in the trick bag for the long haul. That’s why we’re idealists, not pragmatists: even the wise cannot see all ends but only the wise know it. They are not guided by the fad-du-jour. They are guided by principles which transcend the tidal follies of the human heart. We subscribe to civilization and its dictates and dogmas because civilization both protects and empowers us and if in the course of accepting that protection we must surrender some of our personal autonomy, we didn’t have all that much autonomy anyway. We’re individuals, with unique strengths and weaknesses, not generalists. We can only contribute to and benefit from society to the extent we can communicate those contributions and dial 911 on an as-needed basis.

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    • “Nobody has seen an electric wave: we conclude electricity is a wave and describe it as such, though its wave-like nature remains undetectable except through instruments. ”

      Unless you are blind, you see “electric waves” all goddamn day.

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  19. > 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.

    +1

    I haven’t read the whole thing (and it might take me a while to catch up).

    I note one major omission.

    > 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.

    … and the system must be able to maintain that state, or a reasonable delta thereof, regardless of the sociopolitical conditions on the ground.

    More if I ever come back to reality. I just ate about 10 lake perch and drank too much beer. Up the Universe!

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    • This appellation game has turned into a dog’s breakfast. “Liberal” with scare quotes for Yglasias and Ezra Klein, CC? No scare quotes necessary: the meaning is clear in the context of 21st century America. They’re liberals.

      “Pragmatism” here seems to be a claim that one’s ideas are all valid, effective and just downright good, based on cold quasi-scientific observation and diagnosis of man’s estate. But this of course already assumes that the relief of man’s estate is the greatest good, and by this we mean his material estate.

      But this in itself would be an ideology: materialism, utilitarianism, the variants of “modernity.”

      Even if this is not so, then for example, the proposition that liberty is man’s highest good would again be an ideology. One can make the contrary historical case that what man needs foremost is order, if not safety and security, without which liberty is hollow.

      Or does one “pragmatically” choose between them when they’re in conflict? But how does he choose, by what standard? The classical liberal ideal of “ordered liberty” is oxymoronic, afterall, and therefore must seek a “pragmatic” balance. So what does “pragmatism” really tell us, and how does it differ from wisdom and prudence, which are virtues hailed for virtually all of recorded human history?

      And in a less rigid sense of the word, what is the difference between pragmatism and mere expedience? Was Churchill’s stand against Hitler “pragmatic”? It seems not, to me. Whatever it was, I favor it over “pragmatism.”

      Was it “liberal”? Again, the same reservation. And if it was “conservative,” which in my view fits best, then good on conservatism.

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      • Well, I would describe pragmatism as a system where theory is derived from successful practice and each practice is considered independently. This is in contrast to ideology, which usually derives practice (policy) from theory and tends to look for core similar traits across policy areas.

        If you read Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Mike Konczal, and James K., they usually put practice ahead of theory instead of deriving practice from theory, and they often emphasize that this is exactly what they are doing at the meta level. This often manifests as empiricism.

        I’d consider writers like Freddie deBoer, Jason Kuznicki, or Lisa Kramer to be less pragmatic (I still think they’re great writers). Their ideological arguments usually manifest as ratiocination.

        I’m not making a value-judgment here. I’m just calling it like I see it. There’s obviously a lot of gray area: one writer can be both pragmatist and ideologue, an argument can be both pragmatic and ideological, and eventually everything has to go back to subjective values. But there’s no doubt that there are significant differences in approach to solving collective problems.

        As for calling Klein, Yglesias, and Konczal “liberals” (with quotes) I don’t think it is at all clear that they are “liberals” in the sense that the word is commonly used. When most people hear the word “liberal” they usually think of somebody who has a lot of faith that the government can solve problems and believes in radical redistribution. The pragmatic liberals I mentioned do not believe this as much as the term implies, so I stand by my use of quotes as necessary.

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        • CC, I’m trying to hang with ya here on this appellation thing. You write:

          eventually everything has to go back to subjective values

          This is my core argument, which contemplates Klein or Kuznicki.

          By what standard does a “pragmatist,” an “empiricist” like Klein or whoever adjudge something “works?” [I give these men credit as thinkers for argument’s sake, which takes good faith—Ezra Klein should be booted from adult conversation for his comments on the Constitution. Konczal I’ve read a little of: he tries.]

          This was my first category, the modernist “relief of man’s estate.” But this is an ideology as well, for it defines “what is good” by material criteria—safety, security.

          It has a patina of empiricism, but it begins with its own assertions and values: What is good?

          Kuznicki values “liberty” foremost. This is a value as well. I understand your distinction between empiricism and rationalism; it goes back to the early days of the Enlightenment.

          According to your telling here, Kuznicki asserts a priori that liberty is good. But except for certain social issues, his libertarian position is no more than empiricism: man is best when he is free. The poor get a better deal on a bus from DC to NYC if the gov’t doesn’t stand in the way with licensing fees, increased overhead, and regulations that amount to nothing more than theoretical “good.” More people work and provide for themselves when labor-for-wage is as unregulated as possible.

          If we must reduce it, a bad job is better than no job atall, for the individual, and for the community, state or nation as a whole. [There are exceptions and extremes of course, but let’s aim to keep it within the bounds of reasonableness.]

          I’m running long, but the “rationalist” is not merely a pontificator—if it turned out that man is not better when he is free but when centrally ordered [the communist scheme], then “ratiocinations” like Kuznicki’s would be mere fantasy.

          Libertarianism as limned by its contemporary admirers may be unworkable, since not all men are capable of governing themselves and thus a state is necessary, but its core dynamic is not just an a priori argument, but sustained a posteriori as well. The free man and the free society are superior to the serf and his master.

          I believe this addresses your core objection, if I have read you carefully enough. As a formal critique, I would still submit that the more logically valid empirical argument is not inherently more true than the “ratiocination” one. Empiricism is necessary limited to the data at hand, but there is seldom enough data to solve the human equation. Ratiocination, rationalism—“philosophy” if you will—attempts to account for the whole. I dropped a clue about the abominably brilliant American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who “invented” pragmatism, and was obliged to rename it “pragmaticism” after lesser minds like William James appropriated CSP’s original term. For CSP, “pragmatism” was an approach to knowledge, not a course of action. My poor puddin’ head can barely describe him let alone apprehend him, but I think this bears fully on the discussion. What I do know is that empiricism is only as good as its data, and I trust our social scientists no more than our politicians.

          Were I be forced to choose among them all, I must cast my lot with Mr. Lincoln, the rationalist.

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          • Tom, I agree with Patrick re: your indepth analysis which was brilliantly executed and fun to read.
            One query.
            I would argue that Mr. Lincoln’s invasion of the South (his response for their breaking away from the Union) was both illegal and unConstitutional. How or rather why, do you pay him tribute/honor re: ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ when, in fact, he destroyed the ‘liberty/freedom’ (for the white Southerner) located in the principles of the olde Republic in his tyranical actions while laying the ground work for the modern American statist regime? And, yes, African chattel slavery is bad.

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          • Tom, this is a good comment, worth lots of discussion since it gets to a central issue in the pragmatic/ideological divide. For my part, however, I think your objection can be answered (we’ll see, eh?). You say that

            Empiricism is necessary limited to the data at hand, but there is seldom enough data to solve the human equation. Ratiocination, rationalism—”philosophy” if you will—attempts to account for the whole.

            I think this comment can be criticized on two counts that are relevant to the context introduced by Christopher. One is that to support the distinctions Christopher is suggesting (I would say accurately describing), one need not make and rely on distinctions between two traditional and opposing philosophical camps: rationalists and empiricists. At root, both those projects “attempt to account for everything”. The rationalist holds that certain truths can be gleaned independently of experience, but in a particular way: that a priori ratiocination can reveal matters of fact (as opposed to logical necessity). The empiricist rejects this claim, and rightly so, in my book. (That’s an interesting discussion in it’s own right, btw.)

            The other way to criticize your analysis of the view Christopher presents is that this view is not committed to the broad generalizations you’re applying to what is otherwise purely descriptive. That is, your criticism of the phrase “eventually everything has to go back to subjective values,” it seems to me, begs important questions in its own right: that “subjective values” either are, or reduce to, ideological values. There has to be (I think I could argue this if necessary, but it seems somewhat obvious) a baseline of values, and minimally first order comittments based on those values, that are subjective (held by the individual) but ideologically neutral. These are the values presupposed by ideologues, and simply assumed without question. How those values take shape wrt lifestyle choices and community activity and policy may be ideologicaly determined, but need not be necessarily so.

            So, your suggestion that there is a slippery slope created by invoking the phrase “eventually everything has to go back to subjective values” is, to my thinking, incorrect. Maybe the best way to say is that there is a slope here, but it needn’t be slippery.

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            • So, your suggestion that there is a slippery slope created by invoking the phrase “eventually everything has to go back to subjective values” is, to my thinking, incorrect. Maybe the best way to say is that there is a slope here, but it needn’t be slippery.

              Mr. Stillwater, that we have a moral duty to the well-being of others is “rationalist,” not “empirical,” an a priori assertion. I’m not making a slippery slope argument atall.

              Of course a priori assertions beg their own questions. It was sort of my point in all this, that we all beg our own questions and this “pragmatism” is more chimera than substance.

              By all accounts, Richard Nixon was a pragmatist. Except when he wasn’t.

              Socrates, not a pragmatist atall.

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              • Mr. Stillwater, that we have a moral duty to the well-being of others is “rationalist,” not “empirical,” an a priori assertion. I’m not making a slippery slope argument atall.

                Tom, Rationalists don’t get to claim exclusive use of human emotions. Of course helping others is part of the empiricist’s framework – it’s a pre-ideological sentiment.

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                • Yah, thx for the careful reading, Mr. Stillwater. Hence Jefferson has to cheat with “self-evident” and “endowed by a creator.” Many attempts have been made since to uncheat the assertion, without much success.

                  And it’s not to say that we don’t use proofs from experience to fortify our a priori assertions. This is good arguing. The argument against the War on Drugs is not totally ideological: it’s much stronger outside “rationalist” rights-talk supported with “it doesn’t work.”

                  Come to think of it, this was the tactic in the whole “torture” thing. That we should not torture even if it makes us safer is a priori moral sentiment and by no means self-evident. Make “it doesn’t work anyway” stick and you cover your bases.

                  And John C. Calhoun argued that Africans were better off in the US than in Africa. We double-dip whenever possible.

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          • Tom, I have the same problems with empiricism that you have. But the problems I have with rationalism are generally more substantial. Empiricism is only as good as its data, and numbers can mislead and obfuscate just as words can (look at Rasmussen Reports). But No Certain Truths is kind of one of those things that just sucks about being human.

            The highest level of epistemic robusticity humans can manage comes if all available frameworks converge on a single conclusion, hence Churchill’s opposition to Hitler.

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      • Tom-
        A lot of good stuff here, so I might try to just respond to what I think is a distillation of your points in this thread of comments.

        Much of what you are saying hinges on a fallacy, which may be a bit of a strawman. As I said in my post (and many times since), I am not arguing for “a claim that one’s ideas are all valid, effective and just downright good, based on cold quasi-scientific observation and diagnosis of man’s estate.” All ideas are *not* valid, and there has to be a moral underpinning to your actions. I actually think this is something political ideologues and I are pretty much in agreement on.

        It is where this argument goes next that seems either disingenuous or sloppy: that notion that good, upstanding things are done by ideologues, while a pragmatist happily watches the world burn. You say that only an ideologue would have opposed Hitler, suggesting that a pragmatist would have ben happy to let him run amuck – even to the point of letting him invade your borders. What on Earth brings you to this conclusion? If I go back and reread what I wrote, I can’t find one thing I said that leads one here. Saying that you use different political tools to find best solutions to problems that support your fundamental core values is not the same thing as saying “any result, good or bad, is OK with me!”

        (Also, btw, if your going to give political ideology credit for Churchill’s fine acts – and I think you certainly should – know that I have to give political ideology the credit for the Third Reich as well.)

        I think your romantic vision of political ideology creating moral underpinning in public issues is out of focus with reality, and even the opposite of what happens in real life:

        Let’s say that you are a young man who believes in fairness, equal opportunity and honesty. To that end, you find the reality of corruption in our society extremely troubling, bad, and needing to be dealt with. That’s not so radical a thing, is it? Pretty basic, simple piece of uncontroversial morality.

        You decide to become a good citizen and you join a party (any one, doesn’t matter – which is kind of the point). You begin to believe their massage of X is *so* obviously right – why can’t everybody see it? What’s more, because you are so right, those guys in that ideology that competes for power, well let’s face it – they may not be evil per se, but aren’t they nudging us toward evil? What a bunch of douche bags.

        OK, I haven’t gone waaaay of the reservation with reality yet, have I?

        Now, you are reading on a regular basis about corruption within the system. Every day really. You probably still have that fundamental set of values – the one that condemns corruption. But half of the time you don’t. Half of the time you are happy to support that corruption; it seems deserved, really. And even if you do semi-acknoledge that the corruption – reported in detail every fishing day – is real, you decide to aggressively support those of those that are obviously corrupt on the morally frail excuse of “yeah, well, do you remember when those *other* guys did something corrupt?” You’ll even start getting your news from a source that only reports on corruption done on the other side of the aisle, so that you can be outraged – OUTRAGED! – by corruption while continuing to support those that you well know are corrupt.

        You’ll know that corruption is there in your party, and you’ll hate corruption, but your brain will do gymnastics to let these things happily coexist in your head. Because, as I’ve said, political ideology makes you ignore reality when it does not support political ideology.

        I like the beauty of the words people use to talk about how ideology keeps us morally anchored. I just think it’s hogwash.

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        • I like the beauty of the words people use to talk about how ideology keeps us morally anchored. I just think it’s hogwash.

          Well, it’s circular, right? Ideology X based on values Y keeps us (our society) from embracing practices and policies that would destroy us. Why would not-X practices and policies of destroy us? Well, because they are not-Y, obv. QED.

          The problem, which you’ve been outlining (I think :) ), is that entire swaths of evidence are necessarily excluded from entering into this type of reasoning. There is no algorithm which takes the ideologue back to reality.

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          • “Well, it’s circular, right? Ideology X based on values Y keeps us (our society) from embracing practices and policies that would destroy us.”

            I get this, but I think what I am arguing is slightly different. The circular nature seems inevitable if you define morality as “conservatism,” or “liberalism.”

            What I am arguing (poorly, I think) is that political machinations are *not* morality, they are simply machinations. And while I think they start out with the intention of creating morality out of chaos, what eventually happens is that the demands of dogma force the original moral tenants aside in favor of the machinations. This is why either corrupt or legitimate actions that governing party “A” performs are easily identified as strongly immoral by party “B,” but then deemed strongly moral once party “B” regains power.

            “There is no algorithm which takes the ideologue back to reality.”

            I am not sure that I had mentally said it as well in the trip down my rabbit hole, but I like this statement and agree with it. Your words are much more succinct than the ones in my head, which are: Dogma seduces you into believing that it is The Truth; once you are a Believer any and all evidence that suggest Dogma may be flawed in certain situations necessitates an internal reconstruction of reality – because The Truth always trumps the truth to a Believer.

            (Again, your way is much better.)

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        • The problem with this rejoinder (not that it’s entirely wrong) is that you and Tom are positing alternative explanations for everybody.

          Most pragmatists aren’t morally ungrounded, you’re right on that score. The flip side is that some people get into politics due to an ideology and don’t go down the road you describe here.

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          • “The flip side is that some people get into politics due to an ideology and don’t go down the road you describe here.”

            This is true, and I did not mean to suggest that this happens to everybody. (Whether or not it happens to just about everybody who is in charge of steering your ship, however… I may have a biased and perhaps unrealistic opinion about that.)

            I was just using it as an example of how ideology doesn’t lead to moral anchoring.

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        • CC, pragmatism good, ideology bad. Pragmatic is clearly those of whom you approve, to the point of denying they’re liberals. This is indeed off the lingua franca reservation.

          My point about Churchill was mindful of the history: Britain could have sued for a separate peace after the fall of Fortress Europe. Hitler rather liked England, just as he hated France and wanted her brought to her knees. Who could say that cutting such a separate peace would not have been the “pragmatic” choice?

          And what is the difference between pragmatism [good] and expediency [bad]? One can apply either term in many or most cases, with approbation or opprobrium depending on your sentiments.

          The same applies to “ideology,” used here pejoratively. What is the difference between ideology and a philosophy, a set of principles, moral sentiments?

          The rest of your argument goes from bottom up, from low to high, so that to reach any concept of the ideal is impossible, and that the low but solid ground of the mean and mediocre becomes our highest aspiration. This is the death of philosophy of course, substituting “what is OK” for what is good and annihilates even the question of “what is best.”

          I do not think for a moment this “pragmatism” fits Yglasias, Klein, et al., in the least. Instead of calling them ideologues, I call them idealists, and there’s nothing wrong with ideals, as long as you keep one a posteriori foot on the ground, as all wise men do.

          “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”—RFK

          I do not think your collection of “pragmatists” would repudiate that sentiment for a moment. And neither do I think they should.

          “Pragmatism” as used here and the stillborn “No Labels” movement to me are smokescreens for mugwumpery. Everybody has a philosophy: abjuring philosophy is a philosophy, “neutrality” is a philosophy. [Facile, but true.]

          http://www.ideasinactiontv.com/tcs_daily/2004/08/the-myth-of-libertarian-neutrality.html

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          • Tom, I can’t tell if we’re talking past one another, or I am bad at communicating what I want to say, or that we’re just not ever going to connect on this.

            Our argument so far, from my vantage point (note this vantage point may very well be wrong):

            Tom: Pragmatists have no moral underpinning, that’s we we need ideology.

            RTod: No, you can have a moral unpinning and be pragmatic in the way I am suggesting; also, lot’s of immoral people have an ideology.

            Tom: So you’re saying all ideology bad, all pragmatism good.

            This is not what I am saying. I don’t know how to get us out of this cycle.

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            • RTod, I’m saying that “pragmatism” as used here is fairly meaningless except in contradistinction to fanatical ideologues, arguing against the bottom of the barrel.

              And that Yglesias and Klein are liberals. ;-)

              Tom: Pragmatists have no moral underpinning, that’s we we need ideology.

              Take the burden of proof back on yourself with the opposite: “pragmatists need no moral underpinning.” For if they do, you’re admitting that they too have ideologies; if they don’t, you’re affirming they’re amoralists.

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              • “For if they do, you’re admitting that they too have ideologies;”

                Yes! I am. I also say in my post that they are necessary, and come from a positive start point- and that each ideology brings some truth to the table.

                I am also saying that we have to be willing, when we observe that our ideological world point does not quite bring the best answer, to be willing to admit that our ideologies dogma is not a Universal Truth and be willing to step away from it.

                (I wonder to what degree we are closer to agreement than either realizes and are having an argument mostly based on semantics.)

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                • I said my objection is formal. Pragmatism = wisdom, is what it boils down to. Whether Yglasias or Klein is wise, well, our mileage varies.

                  But they are liberals. ;-)

                  The formal discussion has worth, I think. “Ideology” is a term of violence in the end, a brickbat to discredit the other fellow’s ideas, ideals, and principles as irrational.

                  Or so sez the internet:

                  Ideology … is usually taken to mean, a prescriptive doctrine that is not supported by rational argument. [D.D. Raphael, “Problems of Political Philosophy,” 1970]

                  http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=ideology

                  Me, I get no red flags on ideology-as rationalism and a priori reasoning. Communism would have been great if it worked, I guess. On paper, it was flawless and we should all be farting through silk about now. Oh, well, on to the next big progressive idea.

                  [It occurs to me that “conservatism” of the Burkean stripe is the real pragmatism. Man has had far many more bad ideas than good ones: skepticism and resistance to radical change and seemingly bright ideas seem quite justified by experience.]

                  [But that would be an “ideology” too, I guess. So it goes.]

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                    • & my deep thx to the gentle and careful reader, RT. I often catch a flaw in an argument while setting it down or have it kindly caught for me if it makes it through the self-editing process. Joint inquiry is a creative destruction: my own first impressions seldom survive the vetting process here. I hit the Undo function often.

                      At my home blog, “ideology” just popped up and I was able to use the etymology. It occurred to me that “all men are created equal” is ideology, no more or less. I think we’re both good with that.

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  20. A QUICK PERSONAL NOTE TO ALL COMMENTERS:

    As the discussion here seems to be inevitably winding down in favor of newer hotter topics, I wanted to say a sincere thanks to everyone.

    My essay was long and ramble-y, and so the fact that *any* of you took the time to read it was a little surprising. That so many people challenged the post with well thought-out and lengthy responses was also pretty kick ass.

    Anyway, I didn’t want to let it pass without saying that I appreciate everyone’s input. You guys rock.

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  21. RTodd: “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.”

    I don’t recall too many such examples, perhaps because my hatred for the rich gets in the way.

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  22. On the off chance anyone is both still reading this post and still unclear why I think ideology leads people to abandon objective reality in defense of their Team and their dogma, I invite you to follow the comment section in Russell’s terrific post on the dust storm “controversy:”

    russellsaunders/2011/07/22/kudos-to-the-new-york-times/#comments

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  23. Tod – I so enjoyed reading this blog. You are an EXCELLENT writer. Please write more. And about more things. Anything and everything. Politics, Social Issues, Fiction, Non-Fiction…. KEEP WRITING.

    mbs

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