The Problem with Pragmatism

Recycling a comment I made on this post by Bobvis:

The problem with pragmatism is that it's just not practical. Ideal pragmatism is great--freed from ideological constraints, you can just do what works!--but ideal pragmatism isn't an option.

What we actually get is real-world pragmatism: People's beliefs about what policies produce the best results are driven more by ideology and cognitive bias than by actual evidence. And those are just the people who at least make a good-faith (if weak) attempt at intellectual honesty. Those with vested interests in certain policies may deliberately present evidence skewed in favor of their side. In short, we get something not entirely dissimilar to the system we have now.

The weakness of a principled approach--that it leaves no room for discretion--is also its strength, since discretion is as likely to be used for ill as for good. More likely, I'd say. An electorate with a knee-jerk anti-government reflex is likely to produce better policy than one laboring under the illusion that it's enlightened and pragmatic.

The best approach, I think, is to give liberty the benefit of the doubt in all cases, much as we do for criminal defendants. Only intervene where there's a strong consensus that it's absolutely necessary. For example, if I were writing a constitution, I would require a 4/5 majority in the legislature to pass a new law, and require only a simple majority, or perhaps a 2/5 minority, to void an existing law.

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For example, if I were

For example, if I were writing a constitution, I would require a 4/5 majority in the legislature to pass a new law, and require only a simple majority, or perhaps a 2/5 minority, to void an existing law.

Amen to that. I think libtertarians need to realize that it's not specific politicians or parties that are the problem. The problem is a set of design flaws in the Constitution itself that gives it a statist bias. Mencius Moldbug at Unqualified Reservations and Nick Szabo at Unenumerated have written extensively about this.

What do you mean a statist

What do you mean a statist bias ? A constitution is by definition statist. The very idea that a piece of paper and a piece of institution is going to restrict what the government does is in itself ridiculous.

The reason why the US constitution has not been a complete failure is that many US citizens take it very seriously. The government is more or less careful with the constitution because it knows it will offend people who believe in it otherwise. Notice then that it is a power struggle between some people and the government, and not some inner institutional check and balance that operates. The same could happen without any constitution between the government and, say, a religious group, and conversely, in many countries no one care about the constitutions, and it is changed whenever needed to accommodate new laws, when it is not widely ignored because simply crazy (the French constitutions for example includes the duty to work, the right to get a job, the duty to take care of the environment, etc)

Not sufficient

"The government is more or less careful with the constitution because it knows it will offend people who believe in it otherwise."

I'm very offended by lots of laws and that really doesn't place a check on government either. One that really gets my goat is the law that allows the government to charge property with crimes thus avoiding established rules of due process. They are even abusing ones that I find dubious like eminent domain.

Despite all my offense these interpretations and laws are still on the books. I don't consider it being "more or less careful".

I think because (like the 2/5 rule just stated) the founders were not careful enough about their wording in some cases. They just assumed certain things. The sentence (or sentence fragment) "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.[1]" is insufficient to establish the proper rule. So what about private property for private use? What is "just compensation"? Is that current prices or what the guy originally paied for it? Does the "public use" have to be "in kind" or can it be anything construed as public, such as establishing a more lucrative tax base?

I think that taking of private property for public use should have the constraint of being an emergency matter, that compensation must be at market prices, etc. I wouldn't however leave it to those short sentences. What is an "emergency situation"? What is a "market price".

For market price I would add an additional constrains. I would require that, 1) First an anonomous offer to buy must be turned down. 2) That if the public use is expected to raise property values then the owner be compensated at the higher expected price. 3) That on the contrary if it is expected to lower prices that the owner be compensated at current prices and that anyone else being effected by the lower prices be 1) Made an offer at current prices or given compensation for lower prices. Of course all in terms of current prices, nor in terms of inflation adjusted past prices (since price inflation is impossible to calculate).

One would also need to establish all sorts of other criteria to prevent governement abuse such as we have seen here on Long Island. One such abuse is where the government takes a property of some government crony and pays way too much for it, therefore milking the taxpayers.

In the end I'm not sure anything will be sufficient when the government is not voluntary, and ours isn't. Then again I don't believe in the opposite either, I don't think there is any such thing as voluntary establishment of law.

Despite all my offense these

Despite all my offense these interpretations and laws are still on the books. I don't consider it being "more or less careful".

That's because it's just you and a handful of people who are offended / believe it's wrong. The constitution more or less works in the US because many people believe it's morally wrong for the government to trample the constitution, that's merely it. It's not a self enforcing piece of institution.

I like it. I can see the

I like it. I can see the T-shirt slogan now: Principle over people and profit!

One quibble with the math, though. Let's make new law require unanimity, and repeal automatic upon the motion to do so.

No such thing as Democrat or Republican principles

Commenting on a quote from the linked blog:

There aren't many Libertarian pragmatists because Libertarians are nowhere close to needing to handle actual power. It is easy for Libertarians to be principled because it comes with no costs. A principled Republican or Democrat, however, actually has to deal with the consequences of her beliefs because they stand a good chance of being implemented.

There are a lot of "mixed", "loose", "middle of the road", "semi-mainstream" self-described libertarians who aren't doctrinaire and who differ in particulars from what one might call radical libertarian doctrine. I think for example that Instapundit has described himself as libertarian, and he never struck me as Rothbard-pure or anywhere near.

At the same time, libertarianism is organized around an actual idea, the idea of individual liberty - or at any rate a coherent package of ideas. It deserves to be called an ideology. In contrast Democratism and Republicanism are not ideologies. The Democrats and the Republicans are political parties and each party is a mixed bag, a non-homogeneous collection of different groups with different ideas who have gathered together under one flag in order better to win elections. There is no set of ideas around which the parties are organized, much as they might like to think there are. A libertarian is necessarily principled (though, as mentioned above, not necessarily dogmatic about it) because libertarianism is defined by principles. In contrast it is virtually a requirement of good Democrats and good Republicans that they support the mixed bag that is their party, and therefore it is virtually a requirement that they avoid (or misconstrue or engage in doublethink about or otherwise defuse) principles, which can interfere with keeping the heterogeneous party together. Too much principle has the effect of fragmenting a group, especially a vast and heterogeneous one.

This, by the way, is "pragmatic" only in the sense of keeping the party together and winning elections with a diverse lot. It is not "pragmatic" in the sense of actually doing the non-catastrophic thing. It is "pragmatic" in the sense that it is "pragmatic" for a government to support ethnic cleansing because it's popular with the majority group. It is "pragmatic" in the sense that it is "pragmatic" for a government to run its economy into the ground through a series of policies that have popular support.

Brian Macker

"For example, if I were writing a constitution, I would require a 4/5 majority in the legislature to pass a new law, and require only a simple majority, or perhaps a 2/5 minority, to void an existing law."

What do you mean by "law" here with regards to the constitution? Are you saying a simple 2/5 minority could overturn the Second Amendment, and remove other laws restricting the goverment?

I get the spirit of where you are trying to go but you need a hell of a lot more than one sentence to cover all the constraints and possibilities. For instance you have to make a distinction between laws that grant government power and those that establish rights. How you make politicians abide by any of these rules is beyond me. They don't even obey the ones we have.

Pragmatism is impractical

I tend to agree with much of the above. In addition, the more philosophical "Pragmatism" of William James and Richard Rorty suffers from an analogous problem.

In philosophy, as in lawmaking, the problem is that the only way people can choose what works, is if they know what works. And just as soon as you think you have a clue what works, or doesn't work, then, from that moment on, you're using a theory, and not merely stabbing blindly in the dark.

I think one of the main attractions of "pragmatism" is the understandable feeling that people should be more ready than they usually are to abandon a theory that isn't working in practice. Great. But, of course, not working is very good evidence that the theory is not only merely "impractical," but also isn't true.

This is important because the main motive to the "Pragmatism" of James and Rorty was their firm conviction that it's impossible to refute the skeptical claim that nobody can ever know what's true and what isn't. But if that were the case, nobody could ever know what works and what doesn't.

And neither could they determine what it really means to "work," unless they also had some notion of what really is good.

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problem with pragmatism.

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