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The Pragmatic Conceit
Nice column on The Pragmatic Conceit--A new empty wave on NRO by Stanford Law student Anthony Dick. Here is a taste:
To the extent that it performs any conceptual function at all, pragmatism seems to boil down to the more mundane concepts of flexibility, open-mindedness, and deliberation. A "pragmatist" might be said to be someone who, though inevitably laden with policy prejudices, is willing to put them aside and adapt to new situations as needed. But if this is all that pragmatism means, everybody would self-describe as a pragmatist. Nobody thinks failed policies should be continued when circumstances demand a change. But there will inevitably be disputes as to when policies have truly failed and when circumstances really demand a change, and those disputes will inevitably break down along ideological lines. Pragmatism cannot provide any neutral way to resolve our disagreements, because it cannot magically transform people into objective, dispassionate, non-ideological truth-seekers.

It is of course still possible to criticize someone for being too rigid and unreflective in his positions, but those charges are quite serious enough on their own without muddying the waters by plopping in the vague and misleading concept 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.
pmorem (mail):
We are reasoned and pragmatic. They are fanatics and ideologues.

It's all about which person you're speaking in.
12.20.2008 5:54pm
Curt Fischer:

To the extent that it performs any conceptual function at all, pragmatism seems to boil down to the more mundane concepts of flexibility, open-mindedness, and deliberation. A "pragmatist" might be said to be someone who, though inevitably laden with policy prejudices, is willing to put them aside and adapt to new situations as needed.


This text here seems to be setting up a huge straw man, although I confess I did not read the full article. When I hear someone described as a pragmatist, I don't necessarily equate that with flexibility, open-mindedness, or deliberation. To me a pragmatist is someone who accepts that he cannot change most things about world and is likely to have a more reasonable shot only at making minor changes in some small area.

Take Ilya's recent post on the ineffectiveness of the capital-L Libertarian party as a means for advancing libertarian ideas. Isn't that a pragmatist view? I can't think of any ideological reasons he would be opposed to the Libertarian party. Likewise for party members.

Or take the blogger poll that David Post linked to about whether card-check voting would pass. A lot of bloggers felt it wouldn't, in large part because pragmatist impulses in stressed economic times would push card-check voting to the back burner for many of the politicians and special interests. Does that make any of the politicians or special interests involved more flexible, open-minded, or deliberate in their views on card-check voting? I don't think so. It just makes them more likely to accept certain aspects of their current reality, even though they may not like them.
12.20.2008 6:17pm
Huggy (mail):
A pragmatic solution is a compromise. Mr. Dick in the quote above doesn't seem to recognize that.
12.20.2008 6:21pm
LM (mail):
This piece reflects a common, though certainly not universal misunderstanding among ideologues that pragmatism is an opposing ideology. Ideology consists of norms and other beliefs that inform policies. Pragmatism is both a strategy for implementing policy and a meta-ideology about the relative importance of implementing one's policy and the effective operation of whatever function the policy applies to. A pragmatist and an ideologue can share the same ideology, but they're likely to have different ideas about how to, and how important it is to realize it. When that happens, some ideologues perceive the pragmatist's position as one in opposition to the ideology. Thus the cognitive dissonance among ideologues on both sides (though for now mostly the right) that Barack Obama could be a sincere liberal while also honestly intenting to govern pragmatically, i.e., non-ideologically, taking advice from all quarters.

And all this is separate from the notion of adapting and modifying one's ideology in continuous response to empirical feedback about its efficacy.
12.20.2008 6:32pm
wm13:
No doubt, the word "pragmatic" is used with different meanings, and maybe sometimes with none. But that doesn't make the word inherently meaningless. One meaning is as an approving description or synonym for "results-oriented." That is the sense in which Judge Posner describes himself as "pragmatic." That is, courts should establish those legal principles which will maximize social benefit, and manipulate legal doctrine as needed to achieve that result. A pejorative term for the same thing would be "unprincipled."
12.20.2008 6:33pm
LM (mail):
Intenting? Help.
12.20.2008 6:34pm
Curt Fischer:
Huggy said what I meant and used way, way fewer words to do it. Thank you Huggy!
12.20.2008 6:36pm
Der Hahn (mail):
An ideological politician pisses off people you like.

An principled politician pisses off people you don't like.

A pragmatic politician pisses off people you don't care about.
12.20.2008 6:40pm
TerrencePhilip:
No doubt, the word "pragmatic" is used with different meanings, and maybe sometimes with none. But that doesn't make the word inherently meaningless. One meaning is as an approving description or synonym for "results-oriented.

Well said, wm13. Some people are clearly more inclined to stand on what they consider important principles, and some are more inclined to occasionally disregard principle in order to accomplish their ends. "Pragmatist" is a useful term for such people. If it becomes overused as a buzzword, well, it can join the club.
12.20.2008 6:43pm
David Welker (www):
I also think pragmatism can be contrasted with the idea, associated with ideologues, that top-down reasoning can answer most questions.

A pragmatist is going to be skeptical (although not in all cases) of top-down rules which are said to be universally applicable.

I think in contrast to pragmatists, ideologues can be described as rigid and usually less intelligent.

It is not that there is something wrong with ideology. But, there is something seriously wrong with ideologues who are so conceited as to think they have reduced all the answers to life in a few simple top-down rules.

It is not the pragmatist that is conceited. It is instead the ideologue that possesses an arrogant conceit. As if they know everything.
12.20.2008 6:52pm
frankcross (mail):
Well, the above posters have slapped this down pretty well, but I would suggest, in a political context, that pragmatism has meaning as follows:

A leftwing ideologue would attempt to maximize the utility of leftwingers, without regard for the utility of rightwingers.

A rightwing ideologue would attempt to maximize the utility of rightwingers, without regard for the utility of leftwingers.

A pragmatist would attempt to maximize total utility (combining that of right and leftwingers).
12.20.2008 7:08pm
LM (mail):
David Welker,

I wouldn't necessarily call the certainty of ideologues "conceit." In some cases it seems to be that, but in others it looks more like just insufficient humility, i.e., ignorance of how much more there is to know, rather than an inflated sense of their own importance or worth.
12.20.2008 7:11pm
pmorem (mail):
A pragmatic solution is a compromise.

That presumes that there is some kind of overlap between various sets of "solutions". That's not always viable.

For example, it is currently fashionable in some "pragmatic" circles to advocate the elimination of certain genetic traits I possess. As best I can tell, any acceptance on my part of diminshed future numbers of my kind eventually leads to our elimination.

Is there any basis for compromise there? The only one I can see is MAD: I won't try to eliminate your kind if you stop trying to eliminate mine.

Anything less than the fanatic position is acceptance of eventual defeat.
12.20.2008 7:15pm
corneille1640 (mail):
David Welker,

It's not that the article calls pragmatists "conceited." It's more that the author is inveighing against the "conceit" of pragmatism. By "conceit," I think the author is referring to the "frequent appeal to the idea of" and not to the notion that pragmatists are "conceited."
12.20.2008 7:16pm
Marko (mail):
Let me get this right. We are seriously discussing something written by A. Dick?
12.20.2008 7:29pm
Joshua:
Barnett: Nobody thinks failed policies should be continued when circumstances demand a change.

Wrong. Those who believe a policy (failed or not) is an unmitigated good in itself, even if only because it's Doing Something(TM) about a perceived evil as opposed to doing nothing, will cling to it like a barnacle on a ship's hull. The War on Drugs, anyone? Indeed, the "nobody" Mr. Barnett has described is actually short definition of a true-believer.
12.20.2008 8:32pm
Joshua:
Correction: The quote was from A. Dick (fittingly enough), not Mr. Barnett. Sorry for tarring you with that brush, Randy.
12.20.2008 8:34pm
LM (mail):
You didn't just tar him with "that" brush. You tarred him A. Dick's brush.
12.20.2008 8:46pm
MQuinn:
Dick's article is problematic for several reasons, but one error in his article is greater than the rest...

Dick sets up his article as an attack on the supposed exclusivity of ideology and pragmatism. Unfortunately, Dick falls to realize that the comparison that should be at issue in his piece is not one between ideology and pragmatism. Instead, the comparison that should be at issue in Dick's article is between pragmatism and partisanship. No one with whom I am aware has argued that pragmatism transcends ideology, because it doesn't. Instead, use of the word pragmatism implies that one is not partisan. That is, that one will abandon a political position given evidence that the political position is faulty -- which is something that partisans are notoriously hesitant to do.

Basically, I think that Dick's article misses the mark, or is simply a strawman.
12.20.2008 9:00pm
Lan (mail):
Stanford Law's standards sure have slipped...
12.20.2008 9:03pm
Blar (mail) (www):
Of course there's no such thing as a perfect pragmatist who's free of all ideology and principles. But a politician can definitely have pragmatic tendencies, including:

- being especially concerned with what the actual consequences of policies will be, and willing to explore any evidence or arguments that are relevant to that question
- trying, when possible, to pursue goals that are widely shared
- trying, when possible, not to violate principles that other people care about (and not to act contrary to other people's goals)
- being willing to work to deal with a problem with anyone who is serious about that problem (according to your interpretation of the problem)

Zero days into Obama's presidency, he does seem more pragmatic than most politicians. We'll see if that holds up.
12.20.2008 9:30pm
byomtov (mail):
It is not that there is something wrong with ideology. But, there is something seriously wrong with ideologues who are so conceited as to think they have reduced all the answers to life in a few simple top-down rules.

I think this is exactly right. The notion that the world conforms, in Euclidean fashion, to the principles of any ideology is just wrong.
12.20.2008 9:33pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
In a legislative/policy (as opposed to judicial arena) I would suggest a practical division:

An ideologue and a pragmatist share values. It is possible, today, to achieve only 50% of them.

The pragmatist would grab the 50% and figure that is an improvement on the status quo, and he can get the other 50% later.

The ideologue will fall on his sword because anything less that 100% is a betrayal of his ideals and the pragmatist has sold out.

(This disregards situations where the two parties calculate their odds differently, a topic upon which reasonable and pragmatic people can differ).
12.20.2008 9:45pm
OrinKerr:
I think it is helpful to understand the current use of "pragmatism" in political discourse as a response to 8 years of George W. Bush. Bush tended to stick to his guns over time: He was not one to change his mind as contrary evidence developed. I think "pragmatism" is being used to signal a willingness to change one's mind and be attuned to the evidence not because such attitudes do not reflect ideology, but because such willingness is such a contrast to the approach of our current President.

On another note, am I the only one who had a difficult time taking the author seriously after he wrote, "Despite everything the One True Obama and his disciples have done for the theme of 'unity' lately . . . "? I realize that this is catnip to the converted, but it sure seems silly to everyone else.
12.21.2008 1:28am
Fub:
corneille1640 wrote at 12.20.2008 7:16pm:
It's not that the article calls pragmatists "conceited." It's more that the author is inveighing against the "conceit" of pragmatism. By "conceit," I think the author is referring to the "frequent appeal to the idea of" and not to the notion that pragmatists are "conceited."
I thought the author was using "conceit" in the literary critical sense, meaning an extended and complicated metaphor.

For example: I have tolled what I know, so I am Donne.

That is a dumb pun, a dumb metaphor and a dumb conceit in the literary sense, and arguably in the common usage sense of silly pride. Or maybe it's just two spelling errors.
12.21.2008 7:26am
Alan P (mail):

Nobody thinks failed policies should be continued when circumstances demand a change.


But that's just the problem isn't it. As we see all too frequently here, and just as frequently in other ideological sites of right and left, there is a pronounced refusal to acknowledge ideologically inconvenient facts. (i.e. the failures of Communism, the consequences of climate change, the inefficiency of markets at times)

As I believe it was Senator Moynahan who said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion; no one is entitled to his own facts"
12.21.2008 9:20am
ReaderY:
Pragmatism has a little bit more formal meaning than that: it implies judging merits with respect to whether or not desired outcomes (desired by subjective values) are being or will be acieved. This means that it doesn't believe either logical deduction from principles or value-free empirical observation are capable of offering meaningful answers to the problems that arise in living. Both are valuable servants, but poor masters.
12.21.2008 12:18pm
corneille1640 (mail):
Thanks, Fub, you said what I meant, only did a better job at it.
12.21.2008 1:40pm
Brian K (mail):
On another note, am I the only one who had a difficult time taking the author seriously after he wrote, "Despite everything the One True Obama and his disciples have done for the theme of 'unity' lately . . . "? I realize that this is catnip to the converted, but it sure seems silly to everyone else.

I agree. It's a pretty strong signal that the author has left the realm of reality and has stopped thinking. It also marks the author as an ideologue and hints as to why he is denigrating pragmatism so much.
12.21.2008 1:50pm

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