‘Pragmatism’ in Politics has Become a Useless and Abused Concept – The Chief’s Thoughts

Pragmatism, as the word is commonly used today, is meaningless. Everyone and their cat is a ‘pragmatist.’ It is more often than not a simple and fallacious appeal to the status quo, with the invoker of ‘pragmatism’ essentially saying they are right because what they believe is the order of the day. In my many political debates, on- and offline, I have never come across a single individual who embraced or even acknowledged the fact that they are not pragmatic. The reason should be obvious: Everyone believes that the ideas they have adopted are perfectly practical, or that they aren’t bound by archaic ideology – instead, everything they do is based only in ‘reason.’

I am well aware that there is a whole philosophy devoted to pragmatism; but that is not what I am referring to here. This article concerns the modern-day (ab)use of the term in political discourse by some simply to establish themselves as somehow more reasonable in a policy argument. Much more constructive engagement will flow from simply making an argument, instead of throwing accusations of dogmatism at one another.

Everyone is a pragmatist

If you want to get into whether or not something is practical, move away from the ad hoc invocation of practicality. It is meaningless because it depends entirely upon your own interpretation of the circumstances at play. Instead, go back to principles, where the answer for whether something is practical or not usually lies. The labor theory of value is the best example of this, as nobody has since value subjectivity burst onto the scene, been able to prove that the value of a product is in fact determined by the labor expended on making it. The ‘economic’ principle itself underlying the labor theory of value has been proven wrong by another, superior principle of economics. In other words, it is by its nature and by virtue of principle, not practical.

When someone calls themselves a pragmatist – usually to distinguish themselves from their opponents who are invariably ‘idealists,’ ‘purists,’ or ‘fundamentalists’ – I advise skepticism. This is because labeling oneself a pragmatist is sneaky; the invoker calls themselves what every person considers themselves to be, in other words, it is as if they are not saying anything at all (after all, if everyone is a pragmatist, then nobody is a pragmatist – the word loses meaning). What the invoker is usually doing in reality, however, is attempting to hide the worldview or value set with which they are actually approaching the issue in question. Make no mistake, everyone has an approach to things, and pure pragmatism is not one of those. How we decide what is and what is not pragmatic is informed by our valued-based approach.

The ‘reason and evidence’ fallacy

There can be no denying that reason, as the distinguishing characteristic between human and animal and the tool we use to establish and enjoy our liberty, is a crucial feature of libertarianism. It is, however, not central to libertarianism. There are values which outweigh it.

If, by applying your reason, you come to the conclusion that violating the liberty or private property of others who have done you no harm is justified, would you doing so become justified? Furthermore, your justification will always be informed by some value. Perhaps you wish to violate the liberty or private property of another to ensure the environment is protected, or to ensure someone’s dignity is not violated. But it would surely not be justified, because non-aggression and the delimitation of individual spheres are the central tenets of libertarianism, regardless of how much ‘reason’ you use to justify tyranny.

‘Reason and evidence’ is no substitute for living according to a set of values demanding peaceful co-existence. Without those values guiding one’s application of reason, other, often unspoken values will take the lead. Reason and evidence cannot be one’s primary values, as they are not values – they are tools. Values preexist and permeate the use of the tools. And whether one consciously wants it to or not, there is always some or other value doing exactly that. I believe we should be transparent with those values, rather than hiding them behind the veil of pragmatism.

The fallacy in action

In May 2017 Dan Calabrese wrote an article titled “Justin Amash is not a Republican; he’s a libertarian Paulbot fraud” published on Herman Cain’s website. In it, Calabrese wrote:

“I know a lot of conservatives consider themselves ‘libertarian-curious,’ and think it’s admirable that libertarians are ‘consistent’ in their opposition to government. But all that consistency really means is that they don’t use their brains. If it’s government, they’re against it. They don’t give any serious thought to whether something is beneficial or useful. They just oppose everything that has to do with the public sector, regardless of its merits.”

(my emphasis)

This article reeks of useless pragmatism and illustrates how ‘reason and evidence’ cannot be a substitute for a peaceful libertarian value system.

What Calabrese is in essence saying is that libertarians (and Justin Amash) are dogmatic – we blindly follow the dictates of our principles rather than perceiving reality. In other words, we are mechanical in our pursuit of ideology, as opposed to the enlightened application of one’s mind to the issue at hand which the Republican Party is apparently dedicated to. Calabrese continues:

“Conservatives should favor limited government, which doesn’t try to do too many things, but does the important things very well. That is more or less the philosophy of the Republican Party.”

At the end of the day, however, all Calabrese’s article comes down to is “I disagree with Justin Amash and libertarians.” He makes no argument of any consequence, for instance, why a ‘conservative’ policy is more ‘beneficial or useful’ (to who, by the way?) than the corresponding libertarian policy. Calabrese simply has certain values which he believes libertarians do not share.

Let’s take something conservatives are often in favor of: Medical aid for the elderly.

Without inquiring into the morality of State aid for the elderly, why, exactly, is it more ‘useful’ to give them aid than not? On what basis is this ‘usefulness’ determined? Surely, a conservative will eventually relent and argue that it is moral, that a society must look after those who cannot look after themselves. Or the conservative might argue on utilitarian grounds that State care for the elderly will produce the most prosperity. In so doing the conservative will expose their values (‘compassion’ or utility), rather than naked ‘reason and evidence.’ It is not ideology versus pragmatism, but the value of caring for the vulnerable versus the value of privatizing welfare. (These values need not necessarily conflict, but in this argument, they do.)

Recently, albeit in the South African context, I made an argument against zoning regulations in Johannesburg. In my libertarian view, government has no inherent right to dictate that certain property must be ‘residential,’ ‘commercial,’ or ‘industrial.’ Only voluntary contracts can legitimately bring about such a regime. However, some of my peers, behind the veil of pragmatism, argued that there should be zoning regulations.

After some probing, however, it became clear that they wanted certainty for current property-owners. In other words, zoning regulations are justified because when property owners bought homes in residential areas, they were guaranteed that no factories or shopping centers will be built right next door, thereby decreasing the value of their property. And, thus, clearly, there were values at play. The value of privatization of municipal districts came up against the value of protecting the value of property. It was not ideology versus pragmatism. It was two ideas versus one another, the superiority of either of which can only be found in principled argument.

Conclusion

Show me a pragmatist, and I will show you an environmentalist, a socialist, a political egoist, a cronyist, or, in almost all cases, someone who wholeheartedly buys into the statist paradigm.

When someone identifies themselves as a pragmatist to you, you shouldn’t be hearing “I am a pragmatist.” Instead, what you should be hearing is “I am either trying to hide a set of values which I hold from you, or from myself.” Probe them, and their values will become evident. At that stage, it should be clear that it is not an argument of ideology versus pragmatism, but principle versus principle, and value versus value.

Rather than engaging in a perpetual pissing contest with who has a better ‘grasp of reality’, pit your values against one another and make arguments. Let the better argument prevail.

This post was written by Martin van Staden.

The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.

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Martin van Staden is the Editor in Chief of Being Libertarian, the Legal Researcher at the Free Market Foundation, a co-founder of the RationalStandard.com, and the Southern African Academic Programs Director at Students For Liberty. The views expressed in his articles are his own and do not represent any of the aforementioned organizations.

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