Friday, May 07, 2010

The Fatal Allure of Pragmatism

Tibor R. Machan

Just a little background: pragmatism is America’s only home grown prominent philosophical movement. It was formulated by the likes of Charles Peirce, John Dewey, C. I. Lewis, Sidney Hook, and others, including the most radical member of the team, the recently deceased Richard Rorty. In America’s community of jurists, several major pragmatists stand out, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and, today, Richard Posner and Cass Sunstein.

From knowing that these people are pragmatists it isn’t a simple matter to tell what kind of political philosophy and public policies they champion. Indeed, with a pragmatist you can never tell. That is why it is such an alluring general philosophy—no one can hold you responsible for anything since a cardinal feature of pragmatism is the rejection of all principles. This is ironic, since among major countries America is the one most clearly associated with a set of principles, as identified in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights of the U. S. Constitution. For the country, then, to have developed the pragmatic approach to law and public policy is a tragic contradiction. All of the fundamental ideals and principles that America is known for is rejected by pragmatism and pragmatists. They take them to be myths or, as one major contemporary pragmatist recently emailed me, as pure BS!

So what is afoot here? Throughout human intellectual, including political history the great contributors have mostly attempted to find basic principles of justice and good community life on which to rest the institutions of society. The very idea of the rule of law rests on principles that aren’t mere personal preferences, arbitrary intuitions, wishes, hunches and such but something stable so citizens can tell in the main (though not in detail) what to expect and what will be unacceptable. To want this is to want a coherent enough philosophy of community life but for skeptics it amounts to wishing for the impossible, some kind of ideology that has no firm relationship with reality. Pragmatists have concluded that such an aim is hopeless—no basic principles are available at all, as far as they see it. So what is left? Well, nothing much outside one’s personal hunches, preferences, desires, wishes and such. None of this, according to them, is true or right but at best widely shared. But that, too, isn’t a requirement in pragmatic thinking. Whatever works, is the motto of the pragmatist—a phrase that was recently used by Woody Allen as the title of a movie in which he seriously promoted the idea.

Problem is, sadly, that “whatever works” is hopelessly vague. When something works, it does so because it helps promote a valuable goal. Exercise works if it makes one fit, diet works if one manages to lose a few pounds, the engineering strategy of lowering a massive box on to the gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico works if it manages to contain the flow. So what is left unaddressed by “whatever works” is what a policy is supposed to work for and why that instead of something else.

After all, corruption works for those who want to garner illicit gains! Lying works for those who want to deceive, etc., etc. Which simply says that depending on what one aims for, anything might work. There is no check on any policy this way, nothing that renders it successful or not. Whatever works is a blank check, a ticket with which any kind of conduct may be excused however vicious, harmful, fruitless it turns out to be, since anything can work for some purpose and if no standard (principle!) can be identified for distinguishing sound from unsound purposes, then whatever works is just an empty gesture, a wave of the hand, toward the real thing, namely a solid standard of right and wrong.

Any political candidate who proclaims proudly that he or she is a pragmatist must, therefore, be watched very carefully because the pragmatist ploy is, ultimately, a ticket to unchecked power, a world in which trickery, muscle, and such are the arbiters of acceptable policies, never mind whether the rights of citizens are being crushed in the process.
My Pitch for Some Solid Selfishness

Tibor R. Machan

Hardly anyone will dispute that most folks who chime in about ethics consider selfishness wrong. There have been exceptions in history and some of the most prominent ethical philosophers, such as Socrates and Aristotle, can even be said to have been ethical egoists or at least ones who championed the moral virtue of prudence as a vital one for living a good human life. But after some significant changes in how human nature began to be understood, being selfish or self-interested--or even prudent--started to be scoffed at, treated as a moral liability, not worthy of praise but of blame.

Of course, even after this, using one's common sense showed that being selfish is what most of us are, normally, routinely, and quite benignly. When folks awake in the morning they proceed to begin to take good care of themselves before reaching out to help others, for example. (Just as that announcement would have it on air planes, first help yourself and then others in case there's loss of oxygen.) But apart from such common sense support, selfishness gets little respect (other than perhaps from psychotherapists who usually don't advise their clients not to care about themselves!).

So while selfishness is widely opposed by such official moralists as priests, ministers, politicians, and pundits, most people will choose to be selfish instead of selfless. And by this they do not intend to be mean toward others, only to put themselves first on the list of their priorities. And in that spirit, even if in opposition to the moralizers, I want to give support to the virtue of prudence or even selfishness (something only Ayn Rand had the courage to affirm in her book by that title). I am not interested here in developing a full blown morality or ethics only to point out that in times of virtually daily disaster stories from all corners of the globe near or far, it is a very good idea to keep being focused on what will benefit one's life, how one can stay well and happy rather than distressed and frightened.

For one thing, "follow my old recipe"--to quote Socrates in a similar discussion--when it comes to checking out the daily news. Once having gotten through the half hour or hour long newscasts--via TV, radio or some other source--and having perused the newspapers and magazines, all of which have a pretty predictable tendency to be filled with reports of horror and misery, one should spend maybe at least a half hour checking out TV's best offering, namely, the Travel Channel. I do.

The Travel Channel, you see, reliably reports and depicts only good things happening everywhere. Be it Iceland or Greece, from which only bad news has emanated lately, or California, Louisiana or New York City, when the people from the Travel Channel go there they will unfailingly bring their viewers good news. This would be news of wonderful beaches, great hotels, opportunities for quirky adventure, the best cuisine, outstanding shopping, health and fitness options and similar positive things everyone can use, or at least use to learn about, when the official news reports from every mainstream source give us virtually nothing but heartache.

I have for a long time assumed that the practice of official news outfits of any sort is to try to scare us to death, to make us pay attention by telling us that we are all doomed, no matter what, no matter who one is. The politicians, of course, love this because they can then proceed to offer their magic to have it all fixed for us in a jiffy, never mind that it is mostly lies and more lies.

So there is, as I see it, a severely negative bias in the news. Just consider, as a test, that even if there is a horrible plane crash someplace or a bomb scare, thousands of other places are safe and millions and millions of people get to where they wanted to go without a hitch. But this is never mentioned on "the news," perhaps understandably. But it does produce major distortions in reports of how the world is doing.

So as a corrective, one needs the discipline and personal initiative to seek out some good news, some antidote to all the reports of crises. A little of this is achieve when one encounters advertisements, of course, since ads also focus on what is good about life, hoping that this will stimulate some interest in the products and services being offered for sale. The bottom line, though, is simple. Make sure that you know of good stuff, that as much as possible you make room for it in your life.

This is my pitch for rational selfishness today, even while I know that it is not the full story. But I recommend that it be a significant portion of it for everyone.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Judge Andrew P. Napolitano's Lies the Government Told you, Myth, Power, and Deception in American History (Thomas Nelson, 2010) is a great book on applied libertarianism. I highly recommend it. While firmly grounded in the principles of the American Founding, the work surveys a great many concrete areas of contemporary American law to see how loyal it is to those principles. Much to learn here, indeed.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Folly of Fairness

Tibor R. Machan

So Bill Gates sold me some software when he was still in that business. He was then immensely rich, certainly compared to me. I was not compared to him. How unfair, you say? But Bill took his gains from this trade and used it to feed starving African children, while I used the software I bought from him to do something utterly trivial on my computer, like writing a dull column. Now was this a fair trade? Impossible to tell.

Trade is never fair--the entire notion of fairness is very difficult to apply to trade as would be the idea of blue or funny. When I purchase something I look for what I want and can afford, while those from whom I am purchasing stuff want me to pay the price they think the market will bear. So long as we both do this of our own free will, because this is what we want to do, not because some thug is standing behind us threatening to beat us up if we don't take his orders, we take part in free trade.

But what would show that we are taking part in fair trade? Frankly, I cannot even imagine, honestly! Fairness occurs when someone lives up to a promise made to several people, like a professor promises students that all the tests will be graded by the same criteria. Unless this is what the professor does, he or she will be unfair. Fairness will happen if the promise is fulfilled to those who received it. If, however, one is traveling on a highway, how would one be fair? How would one be fair if one went shopping in a grocery store? Buying the same number of items from each shelf? The same amount of meat as fish? None of this makes any sense even though it may appear fair.

If a rich country's citizenry sells its products to those in a poor country and both do this because that is what they choose to do, this is free trade but is it fair? Maybe those in the poor country would have preferred to shop from someone else, not those from a rich country. Would it have been fair if they could do that? Very doubtful that that is what amounts to fair trade. Suppose China subsidizes the farms of its citizenry and they can now sell their crop for less than they could without the subsidy. If non-Chinese purchase the crop, is that fair? Are customers supposed to know the history of how the crop came to cost what it does? The subsidies may be wrong, a rip-off but unfair? Why?

I just have no clear clue as to what fair trade or even fairness is supposed to be. I can understand fairness as it works in my family--get each of my children a suitable birthday gift (though not the same--that would be silly)--and even in my neighborhood--I will not refuse to give a little help to those on my right versus those on my left. But already this is stretching it. Why is it fair if they don't need the same measure of help?

Somehow fairness has come to be a big deal yet clearly in the natural world it isn't. Is it fair that the lion can devour the zebra but not vice versa? Nor are we even close to being fair in our interaction with nature. Is it fair that we put pretty flowers in our homes but leave the weed outside? Is the demise of thousands of fish when a whale is feeding fair?

Is it fair that some women are cherished for their aesthetic appeal while others admired for their sharp wit and yet others get no love at all? Is it fair that some rock bands get featured on national television programs while others never leave their small towns?

As anyone can see, fairness is a mess and insisting on it is futile in all but very restricted contexts. Nonetheless politicians and pundits and theorists of all sorts keep harping on how people are being unfair, how countries are engaging in unfair trade, how some people's good looks or brilliant minds gain them fame and fortune while others get very little, etc., and so forth.

All this stress on fairness produces confusion, envy, and resentment.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Egalitarian Straitjackets

Tibor R. Machan

In numerous areas of human life treating people in nearly exactly the same way may make sense. Thus, for example, when you go to your dentist, you are probably implored to floss--and so is everyone else who visits dentists. Other doctors, too, will prescribe practices one should adopt, such as eating nutritiously, exercising, getting regular sleep and so forth, which virtually all other patients are also told they will benefit from. Although at this point diversity starts kicking in quite evidently. We don't all need the same number of hours of sleep; our age difference will invite different diets, forms of exercise, and so forth. Men and women require different diets, too. The dosage of medication we need to take in cases of illness also varies widely. And all this is in an area one might think needs to be approached uniformly. But no, variations begin to emerge in our lives at nearly every point. Even at the level of our similar DNA, individuals differ sufficiently that each of us has a totally unique measure which today serves to differentiate us as finger printing used to in the past.

But once we got to such areas of human life as what kind of career suits us, what kind of significant other will promise greater happiness, where we will enjoy our vacations most, what sort of apparel is most attractive for us to wear, what it the kind of weather that suits us best--in these and innumerable other areas variety is the rule. No wonder they say it is the spice of life!

So when one runs across those who have enormous faith in centralized planning and economic regulation, one is facing people who are, to borrow a term from the late Austrian economist and libertarian Murray N. Rothbard, in revolt against nature. And this holds for nearly all aspect of one's economic life, including the sort of financial instruments we should utilize as we prepare for our future. Yet, when the great variety of such instruments is confronted by enthusiast of government regulation, based in large measure on their explicit or more likely implicit embrace of egalitarianism, what they want to do is cut out the variety and implement, by force of law and regulation, a wholly unnatural uniformity.

In financial aspects of one's life, as in many others, there are innumerable ways to go. Some people are adventurous for a while, then more conservative, based on not only such facts about them as the size of their family, the circumstances of their career, their hopes and plans for the future, etc., but also on personality and style. Some folks I know are fabulous speculators who also realize the hazards of going about their financial affairs that way; others do some speculation and some conservative investing; others give very little thought to all this, may even find it too bourgeois to fret about such things and proceed to live on the edge and would not have it any other way. Not unlike it is with other aspects of their lives!

Are some of the variations in all these approaches people take to different aspects of their lives unwise? You bet they are. But very few can tell--one would have to be an intimate for that kind of knowledge about a person. And even if one knew how a friend or pal or neighbor ought to carry on about his or her finances, all that is available among civilized people is to offer advice, suggestions, maybe a bit of nudging. But for adults it is up to them how they ought proceed about such matters, with a little help from their friends.

Sadly when the likes of Goldman Sachs executives are drilled by a bunch of self-important petty tyrants in our government, these folks are not really prepared to answer the bullies unleashed at them. Most of us know about all of the above implicitly, without writing it down, without articulating it, even when we are smack middle of the businesses which address it. That behind all the government regulation hysteria lies an old fashioned political and social philosophy the implication of which is, well, the kind of society they are trying to impose in North Korea--where even the public symbols wreak of equality for all (what with all those blue pajamas on display during mass parades)--does not seem to make such difference to the enthusiasts. They just follow their sentimental desire for all of us to be placed under the same rules, for all of us to submit to a one-size-fits-all policy in every sphere of our lives, with them at the helm implementing it all.

Maybe this is what the Tea Party folks sense better than all the intellectuals at our universities and prominent newspapers and magazines and just don't want to accept as the norm. I am with them on this, all the way.