Friday, June 10, 2011

Deciphering Paul Krugman

Tibor R. Machan

It is hardly ever explicit in Paul Krugman’s columns except that he has made it clear that he is a pragmatist and finds all ideologues off base. But what is an ideologue to Krugman? Someone who invokes principles as he or she thinks and copes with the real world. That’s, however, infantilism for any serious or radical pragmatist.

Both President Obama and Professor Krugman have made it abundantly clear that they consider ideological thinking misguided. Serious, radical pragmatists regard such thinking as unfounded—a species of foundationalism, something to be avoided since it involves imposing on the messy world an order it doesn’t have.

The foremost architect of this radical pragmatism was Harvard philosopher C. I. Lewis. In his massive work, Mind and The World Order (Dover 1941), he lays out the case for the view that even logic is something we invent and do not learn from studying reality. (Another famous proponent of this line of thinking was Columbia University philosopher Ernest Nagel—he made out this position in his famous paper, “Logic Without Ontology,” reprinted in Readings in Philosophical Analysis, edited by Herbert Feigl and Wilfrid Sellars. [New York: Appleton-CenturyCrofts, 1949]. More recently the late Richard Rorty, a very famous academic philosopher from Princeton University and several other prominent places, defended radically unprincipled thinking. I don’t know if Krugman and Rorty had been philosophical pals but it would not come as a surprise to learn that they had.)

One thing all this implies is that when one reads Paul Krugman one cannot criticize him tellingly by pointing out that he is inconsistent—e.g., that his serious scholarly work doesn’t jive with what he writes in his columns, or that last week’s column contradicts this week’s or last year’s this morning’s.

That Krugman does not announce this to the readers of his columns in The New York Times and articles in other publications, such as The New York Review of Books, is perfectly understandable. Most readers tend to have respect for logic—it is one way people tend to judge others, trip up prevaricators in law courts and criticize the scientific and scholarly work of those who write and speak out on vital topics. On innumerable occasions many will find a political candidate, president, or international figure criticized for being inconsistent. But that assumes, for Krugman, an ideology of consistency which radical pragmatists see as entirely artificial.

From very early on in the history of human thought it was accepted that logic is the first device to be used in aiming for understanding and in offering criticism—all of Plato’s Socratic dialogues adhere to this. Students at colleges and universities are constantly chided for being inconsistent. Everyone is, in fact. Except by serious pragmatists, at least the radical variety of them. And the reason isn’t very complicated to grasp.

Pragmatism grew out of a disenchantment many philosophers had with principled thinking. Indeed, throughout most of the history of philosophy the effort to come up with a solid, principled viewpoint hasn’t always met with welcome reception. Reasons for this vary but the result is that at least for the better part of the late 19th and early 20th centuries many philosophers not only gave up the idea that logic is a good guide to thinking about the world but they went on to develop what they called alternative logics. This was a big debate back then and many pragmatists took the side of those who rejected classical logic except as a kind of human invention, like the rules of chess or baseball.

When one understand this—and the story is, of course, more complicated in its details—one can also understand Professor Paul Krugman’s way of thinking about public affairs: The ideologues are clueless, thinking that their well thought out theories will help with that task. They will not, or so Krugman & Co., including our president, believe. And at the level of punditry they will not bother to explain this, try to defend it, but merely dish it out in whatever forum will feature them.

Yes, of course, pragmatism is not all that prominent, especially in the West, since most of Western thinking is influenced by Socrates, Plato and, especially, Aristotle, all firm proponents of the importance of a solidly grounded science of logic. Many others throughout human history have followed suite, one or another way, except for a few such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Sartre. But even these at least had respect for logical thinking, as they understood it.

Not so with the serious pragmatist Paul Krugman. And readers of him need to keep this in mind.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Weiner Paradox

Tibor R. Machan

What is most puzzling about the scandal with Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-New York) isn’t how stupid the man has been and apparently managed to be to the last moment before he came clean (enough). What is really puzzling is why in the face of repeated scandals and corruption across the world and this country, there are well educated folks who continue to be confident that if only one hands a problem over to politicians and their appointees, all will be fine.

I have never believed in the innate stupidity of human beings. Free will disproves that idea. Some are, sure enough, very stupid and nearly constantly so; others are stupid periodically; while yet others have managed to keep their sanity and focus without fail. But judging by history and current affairs, it comes down to my favorite graph, the bell shaped curve. At one extreme are the truly mindless; in the middle are most of us with our vacillating mental acuity, while at the other extreme are those utterly rare cases of people who never let up, are always aware and in focus.

If my bell shaped curve accurately reflects the distribution of willful mindlessness versus mindfulness in the human species, the likelihood of having a fully sane political order is minimal. At best now and then throughout human history moments or perhaps brief eras of upright political affairs can be expected. And why? Because the kind of nonsense exhibited by Weiner, Schwartzenegger, et al., just will never be purged from our midst.

So does that mean that politics must always be a failed undertaking? It would seem so, at least as politics is understood today. What people tend to expect from politics is something that had been explicitly promises by those who defended the ancient regime, monarchies, empires and such, namely, that problems in society need top-down solutions because only those at the top are smart and good enough to be trusted.

While few today advocate this view up front in the West, many still believe it. It amounts to what Jonathan R. T. Hughes called “the governmental habit.” That is to say, despite the fact that the theory is no longer convincing and history has completely disproved it, many people are still supporters of one or another type of statism, not so much from understanding but from a habit that has been cultivated--indeed woven into the fabric of society, including language--for centuries on end. (Just check how enthusiastic people still are about royal weddings and inagurations!)

What can politics offer but continued failure? A suggestion emerged from the works of classical liberals and today’s libertarians. It is that politics must be about no more than defending the rights of citizens. Akin to what referees and umpires are expected to do at games, politicians and their staff must confine their involvement with society to identifying and fending off those who would introduce coercive force into human relations. Politics, in short, must be purely defensive, never pro-active. So confined, it can serve the citizenry reasonably--though not perfectly--well.

The nickname his colleagues in Congress have given Dr. Ron Paul, namely, “Dr. No,” captures this job quite accurately. Just as referees at games must focus on what players must not do, not on what they need to do, so with politicians. This will not tax them too hard, they will not need to be angels or saints, just as no one expects that from referees. Sure, they will still need to have integrity, just as the cop on the beat does. But they will not be asked to produce any projects--that is what the players of the game do, what citizens do.

If this kind of politics were to develop--and it will take time to wean most people of the governmental habit--then the field will no longer seem so attractive to all those power-seekers, all those easily corrupted people who enter it all the time and get caught either with their hands in the till or their pants down.

None of this is the familiar Utopian thinking we find in so much of political philosophy and theory. That’s because this kind of highly constrained politics offers something minimal, not the solution to all of our problems in medicine, farming, business, the arts, the sciences and the rest of the fields of great importance to people which they need to address in peace, without the benefit of politics which specializes in the use of force. Only one problem will be laid at the feet of politicians, namely, keeping social life peaceful.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Elements of Discrimination

Tibor R. Machan

Most folks now consider discriminating against people because of their race, color, culture, age, sex etc. wrongful, unjust or unethical. At one time, though, being discriminate was deemed a good thing but that was when the idea was used to mean something like tasteful, discerning, even aware. But then it became something objectionable when people discriminated between others based on certain features that were irrelevant for purposes of deciding someone’s merits or worth as a professional or citizen.

Yet even now most folks have no problem with one’s having a favorite color, flower, ice cream, brand of car, hairdo, or apparel, etc. That means, of course, that in practice one will be drawn to these favorites while avoiding what one doesn’t find attractive or appealing--much of shopping pertains to picking favorites and avoiding what’s not favored. There is hardly anyone to whom this doesn’t apply and there is nothing wrong with it at all. This is so even when it is acknowledged that such tastes and preferences are quite arbitrary or subjective, not based on any sort of objective standards.

In contrast, it is also well and widely understood that when it comes to professional choices, it is indeed mostly wrong or unethical to let one’s tastes or preferences make a big difference. My dentist’s hair cut might not appeal to me but what matters is how good he is at dentistry. A teacher whose wardrobe is unappealing doesn’t lose points as a teacher for that. Nor is a student to be graded down for the color of his or her shoes. And the same thing holds across the board. (Of course, it is possible that someone’s tastes will clash with one’s own so drastically that one just cannot bear it!)

Now the same might also hold for race. There may be nothing amiss with preferring the skin color black to white or the other way around, so in personal matters this will be influential while in professional matters it should not be. One isn’t a racist for liking some skin colors more than others unless one lets this be a factor in judging people’s performance, worth, or qualification for citizenship. But otherwise acting on one’s preferences is no different from selecting favorite flowers or sofas and the like.

Yes, there are many areas in human relations when it is inappropriate to invoke mere preferences as one decides for or against someone. When one judges a competition in, say, technology or sports, all that may count is what is relevant while what isn’t needs to be left out of consideration. That is what justice demands. But life isn’t all about justice. It isn’t unjust for me to prefer tulips to roses, cabbage to broccoli, stake to fish or tall women to short ones.

All of this is pretty much common sense and widely acknowledge in practice even if careless rhetoric tends to go against some of it. (I am not considering here being judgmental based on religious or political convictions. Those can be well founded and need show no prejudice at all.) In dating, nearly everyone but a fanatic egalitarian will base selection on one’s preferences, tastes, etc., at least to start with. And few will feel any qualms about it--guilt for liking tall rather than short dates--although here and there one learns of some who do feel guilty for not preferring dates who are, say, overweight or speak with a heavy foreign accent.

The reason there is much concern about making selections based on race, color or sex is that such selections often concern hiring, promoting, including or excluding people who should be judged based on skill, competence, and other objective factors. In those matters reliance of tastes and preferences can be blatantly unjust, while in choosing a date it would not be.

A problem with getting all this wrong is that condemning those who act on their preferences often leads to people feeling guilty, seeing themselves as acting unjustly, as even harming people, whereas that’s not so at all. It is just that it is clearly wrong in certain cases to invoke one’s tastes and preferences, namely where what ought to count is the qualification one has for specific tasks or roles. But basing one’s preferences for other people on one’s tastes or preferences is entirely acceptable when kept within proper bounds.