Radical Pragmatism

4 Jan

The turn of the New Year spurs a certain amount of self-reflection, a review of fundamental assumptions and beliefs, perhaps a re-examination of perspectives and intellectual bedrock. Left unanalyzed (or re-analyzed), one may be surprised to accidentally discover that the label they cling to (Democrat, libertarian) and the honest expression of their beliefs have diverged. Additionally, the bloggy nature of new journalism eliminates a fourth wall between writer and reader. I am allowed (or expected) to share, and you often seek, that bedrock as the subtext by which you will judge the rest of my writings. 

That’s a long way of saying I write some articles for you and some for me, like this one, so I steady my own sea legs before undertaking another expedition of writer’s observation in 2011, and because my medium is electrons and not paper, you are welcome to come along on the ride looking over my shoulder. 

Image by Paul Klee at BBQChickenRobot.com


While discussing the impact and motivations of Wikileak founder Julian Assange, Chris Smith made the following comment about my detached perspective that the leaks are not ground breaking, the Information Revolution has not begun, diplomacy is not over, and Wikileak/Assange boosters are merely being duped by a self-promoting charlatan: 

I guess that’s why it’s fun to be a raging centrist, you don’t have to take a stand on anything, you just get to argue that everyone else is a radical. 

This evoked greater soul searching than perhaps Chris intended with a social media comment throw-away line. 

A great strength of our country, and a major stabilizer to its government, is the presence of only two political parties. But a natural assumption and lie that this arrangement produces is that on each policy topic of import there are but two perspectives. Further exasperating the divide, on the national stage, and in the national conversation, the elimination of north-eastern Republicans and southern Democrats fully aligned ideology and political party in a less than historical way. Not only are there only two legitimate and plausible policy positions, but they have grown further apart. Failure to chose between them and align makes you uneducated, uninformed, or part of the spineless, unprincipled mushy center. If you cared about Progress, you’d pick a side: its the only way to get anything done in this country. 

A realistic response that is increasingly less true. Not only do independents and unaffiliated voters now outnumber registered Republicans or Democrats, but the liberalization of information and organizing power of the internet has made non-party movements, such as the Tea Party, more influential, for good or for ill. I find the overall trend encouraging, as perhaps it will finally allow for non-party solutions, mirroring my own philosophical movement. 

In the year and a half that I have been writing for WNYMedia as the Reasonable Republican, I find myself having less and less in common with “my” party. It is harder and harder to defend tactically, politically, or ideologically. However, Democrats have made themselves no more endearing in that time either – quite the opposite.  A little voice has until now always whispered to choose a side in the name of Pragmatism. Now Pragmatism’s council is shifting as well. 

Serendipitously enter the story of William James on NPR’s On Point Radio yesterday morning. That I have not prominently used him as a touchstone before, in my policy and political writings, says more about my shortcomings than his eloquence and historic influence. In the nineteenth century, James advocated for (at that time) poorly connoted Pragmatism, a philosophy that he saw as epitomizing plucky, practical America. Free of class and caste and history and religious dominance, the American experiment was uniquely positioned to take advantage of unbiased scientific, measured, empirical solutions. James eschewed Idealism because it was divorced from reality – it made the intention of an action more important than the actual effect. Pragmatism, on the other hand, provided the holistic assessment of the fruits of one’s labor, no matter the source or feeling behind it. Its extreme practicality and novelty gave it an American flair – it could promise a better human future more than any other philosophy because its search for Truth would produce real implemented benefits. In other words, Progress. 

In applying Pragmatism to politics and policy, the rediscovery of a Third Way is hardly new philosophical ground, but it is rhetorical ground rarely tread, and has few modern champions of (popular) note. Most commentators and pundits (and Nobel prize winners?) applaud themselves for their hard ideological lean. In searching for writers who vocally seek a vigorous pragmatic way, one is left with Tom Friedman, who while loud and less than humble is hardly held in the highest esteem. Charismatic intellects of note (or those seeking employment as a columnist) rightly forsake the solitary wilderness and non-categorization of a new way. The best discussion about Wikileaks we could be having now would concern intelligence reform, and examining how much we classify, and where it is shared, rather than simply worshiping and condemning the messenger (a self-reinforcing process). Little of such talk rises to the media surface. 


I have written several times in the past that Pragmatism and Conservatism are fine bedfellows due to the latter’s keen eye for reality as it is, not as Liberals or Libertarians wish it was. Liberalism overly drifts into the aspirational (inspirational?), and Libertarianism has become a haven for misanthropes. Unfortunately, political Conservatism lately is more in the business of provoking and then salving fears, rather than applying practical solutions. To admit my own bias, I have been suspicious of government based action, but for pragmatic reasons: the government is historically bad conducting many of its charges. While it uniquely succeeds in tasks involving things (raising armies, massive infrastructure construction, promoting and conducting scientific research) it often fails at tasks involving people (schools, social services, jails). If only executive power could wax and wane based upon performance, and greater responsibility was earned through the effectiveness of actions. Sigh.

Pragmatic good government has two foes: Democrats and Republicans. Democrats are too beholden to public sector unions to institute meaningful reform, and Republicans are too ideologically blind to consider the government the solution to anything. Democrats rightly ask how Republicans should be allowed to reform government (or even be in charge of it) when they hate it so much. Republicans can rightly respond that Democrats love government because it fills their campaign coffers and patronage pits, and they are not any less intellectually bankrupt as to how to make it more effective and efficient.

What new way, then? What passes for pragmatism now is middling bi-partisanship, the centrism of Chris Smith’s comment above, the antithesis of the soul of James’ work. Instead of applying tested and researched solutions, in Washington each side simply gets half of what they want, with no overall plan or method. This year’s tax cut debate in the lame duck session of Congress is the perfect example. The Democrats revel in their intentions of helping the poor, the Republicans in there success of getting their way. That the rich should pay more taxes is a feeling in search of confirmation, not a policy plan based on the merits. That no one’s taxes should be raised is an ideological bias with think-tanks bankrolled to prove it. No coherent policy has been implemented. The country is worse off than before. What should be done?  

I give you Radical Pragmatism. 

Cold hearted and secular Pragmatism, ironically, is left as the only morally justifiable philosophy for solving civic problems. If you wish to reduce the scourge of childhood poverty, for example, and that alone is your aim, you should care little whether government or religious or private organizations do the heavy lifting. Yet Republicans and Democrats, and Liberals and Conservatives, will because of chosen bias sort through only one set of solutions (the best government program, for Liberals), placing the ideological over the practical. The best, most effective solution for reducing child poverty may lie at the far, safe and well populated end of a political spectrum, but I doubt it. It hasn’t been found there yet. But I will wait for the evidence to instruct so. 

Pragmatism, therefore, is Progress, and the term Progressive should be taken back from Liberals, who would only seek one government created version of it. Radical Pragmatism is the creation of a voice to advocate for such Progress, competing in a political-party-produced clamor.

27 Responses to “Radical Pragmatism”

  1. Ray Walter January 4, 2011 at 4:12 pm #


  2. Mike In WNY January 4, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    I must strongly object to your characterization of libertarians. There is no other group that places as much emphasis on humanity vs. authoritarian control of our lives. It is because of our unwavering belief in our humanity, combined with logic and empirical evidence, that we know the path which would yield optimal life experiences for anyone willing to build on their individualism.

  3. Brian Castner January 4, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

    @ Ray: I wonder if Gene Chaas, national treasurer and Buffalo resident, is a WNYMedia reader?

    @ Mike: Sorry, you certainly put the most emphasis on authoritarian control, but you aren’t interested in a solution that strecthes further than the individual. Humans are social creatures who live in social constructs of varying size. Libertarians are more biased against pragamatic solutions than any other group I know. And I call you (collectively, not individually) misanthropes because 98% of comments I read here from you guys are negative. Everyone and everything is wrong except a tiny cluster of ideas no one has endorsed but your small group. That I object to.

  4. peteherr January 4, 2011 at 8:36 pm #

    Interesting. I find myself getting a little more pragmatic each year too. I am troubled by the lack of grey area in the world today. I was recently questioned about my Catholicity because I am a Democrat. Democrats believe in abortion, and them gays, and promiscuity so I shouldn’t call myself Catholic. When I worked a Congressional campaign a few years ago I was tasked at going through databases of registered Democrats to get info. Do you know how many priests and nuns are registered Democrats? More than a few. Wonder if they’ll get into heaven? I am getting sick of the labels. I don’t buy into everything the Dems have to offer, but I see ideals that are way more in line with my values than the GOP, who continually give me reasons not to return to my conservative upbring.

    Proof of my pragmatism? I even turn to Ray Walters for his opinions on things.

  5. Ethan January 4, 2011 at 11:49 pm #

    hm…. I’m not sure I can digest and regurgitate so quickly; I just read this, too:


  6. Christopher Smith January 5, 2011 at 12:48 am #

    As usual, a lot to chew on and a lot to debunk. I wish there were more hours in the day…I hope to spank this massive ideological turd of a post later this week. Good stuff!

  7. LeoInTheSnow January 5, 2011 at 7:26 am #

    Re: punative taxes on the rich – The British did that during the sixties. After a few years, their billionairres pulled up stakes, packed their tents and moved away. Once the Brits realized their mistake and lowered taxes again, none of them went back.

    Pragmatism is unlikely from a crowd whose power is based upon advertisers and have no restrictions from lying like hell.

    I have to admit giving more than a general nod towards pragmatism in the past. Then, the ‘for the poor’ people decoupled human rights from China’s trade status, guaranteeing that a good chunk of the poor would stay that way forever. Since then, I am as pragmatic as it takes to always oppose them.

  8. Brian Castner January 5, 2011 at 7:49 am #

    @ Chris: This is an ideological turd because you provided the brain laxative that got it moving? I look forward to you agreeing with my characterization of conservatives and libertarians, but disagreeing with those of liberals, by which you will reinforce all my points in the end. I can’t wait!

    • Alan Bedenko January 5, 2011 at 8:52 am #

      I’m going to wrap this into the Buffalo, Ontario post that Chris wrote and advocate for the establishment of a regional parliament based on proportional representation, legislative/executive unity, and the resulting ease with which third parties can compete, and become influential through alliances and coalitions. Also, elections that last 3 weeks, max.

  9. Ethan January 5, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    Alan, you are _such_ an Anglophile.  I’m not much of a rah rah ‘Merkan, but we kicked those fools out of the country 200+ years ago for a reason.  And as much as I really do like Canadialand, I see their lack of initiative on getting the Queen of England off their money &c. as being pretty weak.  Yeah, you too Australiastan.

    Brian- I could definitely attack your preamble here–a great strength that reinforces a lie can hardly be said to be a strength, generally–but I guess I’m more interested in the Jamesian portion of the program.  But before I get into that, I want to take the time to listen to the NPR piece too, so… more to come later. 

    • Alan Bedenko January 5, 2011 at 11:09 am #

      The reason we kicked them out had to do with King George III and his parliament being unfair to the colonies. Canada and Australia are doing pretty well as independent nation-states whose continuing entanglements with HM the Queen are almost exclusively ceremonial.

  10. STEEL January 5, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    The pragmatic view is that if something needs doing that has no overt short term profit motive then the people will need to get it done with their government – including

    human rights
    food safety
    protection of the environment
    education of the poor
    regulation of the economy
    saving major industries being driven off a cliff by short term thinking

  11. Brian Castner January 5, 2011 at 2:20 pm #

    @ Ethan – Well, nothing is perfect, right? I think the overall intrinsic stability two parties provide, with no coalition governments needing to be formed and ministerial positions to hand out, outweighs the presumption (only) that there are only two solutions to every problem. Education fixes the latter. I don’t know what fixes the former.

  12. Mike In WNY January 5, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

    Brian, pragmatism involves the violation of morals and principals, of course I’m not pragmatic. Humanity can not realize its full potential while bound by the constraints of the Nanny State. The acknowledgment of a priori rights precludes the adoption of pragmatism.

  13. Brian Castner January 5, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    @ Mike: Pragmatism is providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people – I can think of nothing more moral. That libertarianism would deny the possibility of some good to some people by not considering policy solutions that conflict with their fairly arbitrary principals seems quite immoral.

  14. Mike In WNY January 6, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    Brian, I’m not aware of the arbitrary principals you attribute to libertarianism. The nexus is to allow all voluntary transactions that do not violate the property rights of others. That does not equate to denying good to anyone, rather it enables all individuals the opportunity to realize the greatest good.

  15. Brian Castner January 6, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

    @ Mike: The arbitary principal I attribute to libertarianism is that (practically) it eliminates from consideration nearly any policy proposal that provides a role to government. I have the radical notion that the government does have some role, and our humanity is not decreased when it is exercised (government is nothing but a construct of humanity, after all). Your last two sentences are incorrect because they rely on the assumption that if everyone pursues their own self interest, the greatest amount of good can be conglomerated. But I’m pretty sure John Nash won a Nobel Prize for realizing the greatest good is actually found when everyone pursues what is good for themselves and the group. Libertarianism provides no mechanism for considering the group, except as to how it affects your own property rights. And there are a lot of rights more fundamental than those that pertain to your petty and superficial property.

    • Christopher Smith January 6, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

      Brian, ever notice that most libertarians are attorneys or involved in the legal field somehow? I wonder if it has something to with libertarians relying on the judicial system to be the ultimate arbiter of justice. Their solution to offenses is usually, “Sue the offending party and hold them accountable”.

  16. Mike In WNY January 7, 2011 at 9:46 am #

    Brian, the government does have a role. First, to protect the property rights of individuals. Second, to provide for the defense of our natural borders. Beyond that, most things can be handled by the private sector and voluntary transactions.

    When people act in their own best interest, they still must respect the natural rights of others. Voluntary transactions result in a win-win situations for the actors. The combined results of all voluntary actions will lead to an optimal outcome for the masses. It is only when that process becomes distorted through coercion that we see problems arising on a massive scale. Since a much smaller government is necessary in a libertarian society, there will be much more wealth generated and available to address needs such as poverty.

    • Alan Bedenko January 7, 2011 at 10:22 am #

      First, to protect the property rights of individuals. Second, to provide for the defense of our natural borders. Beyond that, most things can be handled by the private sector and voluntary transactions.

      Well, the constitution specifies many more things that the government is in charge of doing, and subsequent decisions by the Supreme Court have further shed light on what the constitution says about the powers of the government.

      We had a very loosey-goosey, weak central federal government for which you pine under the Articles of Confederation. That shit failed, and that’s why we have a stronger federal governmental system now.

  17. Mike In WNY January 7, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    The Supreme Court, thanks to Justice Marshall, granted itself a blank check to destroy States’ Rights in Marbury v. Madison. The enumerated powers granted to the Federal Government became meaningless at that point. The result is what we have today, FUBAR!

  18. Brian Castner January 7, 2011 at 3:23 pm #

    @ Mike: You said: “Voluntary transactions result in a win-win situations for the actors. The combined results of all voluntary actions will lead to an optimal outcome for the masses. Since a much smaller government is necessary in a libertarian society, there will be much more wealth generated and available to address needs such as poverty.”

    It is impossible to objectively prove that 1) people will always be able to conduct, or even know, the transaction that will yield the best for themselves, 2) the summation of everyone’s self interest provides the optimum result (in fact, I provided the evidence for the opposite, which you ignored), and 3) less government should provide more overall wealth. Those are all your feelings in search of proof. Pragmatism focuses on measuring real outputs, not having fuzzy feelings about the inputs, and what should work.

    @ Alan: Perhaps the Tea Partiers should have just read Marbury v. Madison at the start of the new Congress, since as Mike pointed out, the Constitution is all bunk anyway.

  19. Mike In WNY January 7, 2011 at 4:18 pm #

    Brian, the government certainly does not know what is best for us. The list failed programs and wasted money would fill volumes. The amount of time and effort necessary to fix that is a virtually impossible task. One person making a bad decision does not bode ill for everyone. It is much more efficient for people to learn from their mistakes and take the appropriate actions than to rely on a bloated bureaucracy.

    Pressures of normal group dynmamics will have an affect on individual decisions, thereby fostering actions that are not only good for the individual, but also good for the group.

    As far as increase wealth under a libertarian system, we have already seen the costs in terms of wealth consumption in our current system. It is only logical that once those costs are stripped away, the benefits will be there.

    • Alan Bedenko January 7, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

      The government is merely made up of people who are elected by the people, and who then hire other people to implement the policies and programs created by those elected people. It’s not some sort of dictatorial borg that just imposes random things on unsuspecting farmer-philosophers who were busy minding their own business.

  20. Brian Castner January 7, 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    Where did I say that government did “know what’s best for us?” Libertarianism relies on the feeling (only) that individuals will perfectly predict what’s best for them. Liberals do the same for government. Pragmatism has no bias before measurement, noting only that probably a mix of freedoms and restrictions is most effective for everyone.

    BTW, the codification of “pressures of normal group dynamics” is called government. Its not a magical outside oppressive force that sprung from the ground, as Alan points out.

  21. Mike In WNY January 8, 2011 at 1:20 am #

    Libertarians are not Utopians believing in perfection. We believe in freedom, logic and morality. There is no humanity when humane acts exist as a result of threats and force.

    • Alan Bedenko January 8, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

      Those “threats and force” are the properly designated law enforcement mechanisms which ensure that the laws promulgated by the people elected by the people to be the people’s representative lawmakers are properly obeyed and enforced. It’s what is generally accepted in any modern societal construct to make sure the will of the people is carried out. Naturally, under a democratically elected representative government, you have the right to compete in the marketplace of ideas and elect people who might promulgate different laws.

      Freedom from anarchy is something most Americans are down with.

      Interesting that the agrophilosophers who follow Austrian economic theory and anarcholibertarian thought can’t get a whole lot of people elected. Must be the state’s fault.

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