Sunday, 21 December 2008

Pragmatism; or, why I'm always right

Via Randy Barnett at the Volokh Conspiracy, there's a good piece at National Review Online on the universally acclaimed principle of pragmatism:
"When people praise a policy or a politician as “pragmatic,” they’re often simply praising themselves for being open-minded. They are projecting a false pretense of objectivity, premised on the conceit that they are utterly free of ideology while their opponents are mired in prejudice. In fact, a so-called pragmatist’s support for a policy indicates only two things: that he agrees with the policy’s goal, and that he believes the policy is likely to achieve the goal in an efficient way. But these are precisely the controversies at the core of every old ideological dispute: Which goals should we strive for? And what is the best way to achieve these goals? Pragmatism as a catch phrase does not displace those ideological questions, but does a great deal to obscure them. It is, to borrow from Kant, a vain delusion and a chimerical vision of mankind. Which, on second thought, might explain its popularity in the age of Hope and Change."
The commenters at VC so far seemed to have missed the central point of the essay. It is not to criticise those who pragmatically endeavour to achieve certain ends, in which context the paradigmatic area of foreign policy is mentioned. Rather, it attacks the vacuous notion that describing a policy as pragmatic is sufficient to discredit all opposition to it; or, correspondingly, dismissing a positive proposal on the grounds that it is ideological or extreme.

A similar sentiment was raised a few days ago at Against Politics on the oft-heard criticism by George Soros, Joseph Stiglitz et al, that classical liberals are obsessed "market fundamentalists."

"A major problem with the phrase market fundamentalism is that it simply assumes that to be reasonable one cannot advocate the most extreme position on an issue. But as many historians can point out, views that would have been considered extreme or fundamentalist hundreds of years ago have become mainstream in contemporary society. Furthermore, with some creativity any position can be phrased to be a middle of the road view. “Surely you agree that shooting political opponents is the moderate policy between not prosecuting them at all and torturing them.” Finally, the pejorative use of fundamentalism can backfire at progressives. With similar arguments, conservatives can argue that liberals hold fundamentalist views on other issues such as human nature and society (all nurture, no nature).

But perhaps the biggest problem with the accusation of market fundamentalism is that facts or arguments have been made irrelevant in favor of appeals to reasonableness. Does it even matter if there are logical, empirical, or moral arguments to prefer markets over government? One argument to generally prefer markets over government is that for a voter the cost of being irrational is close to zero. Another argument (and observation) is that we should get better results from competition than from monopoly, even if both mechanisms are not perfect. And last, but not least, logical and epistemological arguments favor the presumption of liberty, and thus markets over government."

[emphasis added]

This is the most pernicious aspect of the use of 'pragmatic' as a generic term of approval. The "appeal to reasonableness" disguises the fact of the diversity of ends people have, in favour of some pretended universal common end. It reduces vigilance against creeping violations of liberty by framing them in the context of statesman-like acts of necessity, taking as an unchallengeable given the objectives - normally "social justice" or "progress" - which the policy is necessary to achieve.

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