Episode 38 of the Remnant Podcast is a discussion between the host, Jonah Goldberg and guest Russ Roberts from Econtalk. I strongly recommend this series and I encourage you to read Goldberg’s latest, The Suicide of the West, and Liberal Fascism (2008).
In the latter Jonah criticizes the philosophical school of Pragmatism that lay an intellectual base for the Progressive movement. Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey and William James were leaders in the field.
Why would anyone object to pragmatism? Politics has a way of turning virtues into vices, and occasionally the reverse is true. The difference begins in recognizing the difference between pragmatism with a little ‘p’ and Pragmatism with a capital ‘P’.
With a little ‘p’ pragmatism is synonymous with ‘practical’. With a capital ‘P’ is becomes a philosophy that creates a way of approaching a range of social issues departing substantially from the meaning of ‘practical’.
Pragmatism with a capital ‘P’ is considered the anthesis of ideology. The philosophy of Pragmatism looks at the world through the eyes of experience and pure rationality. Traditions, beliefs and rituals are suspect. Pragmatists believe that we can rationally discern all we need.
Hayek viewed the market as an unmanaged collection of knowledge. It was possible for a brilliant man to know more than anybody, but it was impossible for him to know more than everybody. Reason, while respected, is incomplete and often overstated. Human systems and webs of relationships have far more nuances than can be readily observed and understood.
Pragmatism discounts the understanding that our observations are influenced by our beliefs, emotions, and our experience. It may appear irrational to fear terrorists more than swimming pools, since statistically you are more likely to die in a swimming pool accident. But if you add an emotional element to the definition of risk (Risk= Uncertainty + Outrage) then the choice becomes more rational.
With pure reason, man (proper and intelligent man, and I wonder who determines who meets this qualification) can make proper judgments on a case by case basis and thus has little use for rules. The value of consistency may be deemed irrational in a select case, and the long-term benefits of commonly understood rules may elude them.
For the Pragmatists central planning is good and the chaos of individualism is counter to the rationality of a planned economy. Pragmatism (capital ‘P’) became central to progressivism. In the absence of rules, compliance depends on enforcement of one’s will over another. It is the epitome of elitism.
Goldberg suggests that the intellectual counter to Hayek is not Keynes but William James, the most noted Pragmatic philosopher. Hayek believes the elite cannot know everything and James believe they can.
Goldberg clarifies ideology and ideologues. Pragmatism is considered the antithesis of ideology but fails to recognize that it has become an ideology. Ideological is not the same as dogmatic. Ideology according to Goldberg is checklist of priorities. Does this policy increase or decrease individual liberty, social equality, economic growth and progress? It does not require a dogmatic adherence.
We all have an ideology, a way of viewing the world based on our culture, family, beliefs, and our experience. Not all traditions are good, and progress requires removing some traditions. But before we destroy the wall we may want to be sure we understand why it was built.
Keynes observed, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” You do not understand an ideology until you can articulate its flaws. This requires first understanding that you have one.
An ideology that eschews ideology is still an ideology; and not a very good one.