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.