The Corner

Extreme Apriorism Vs. Pragmatism

Look at this random email that just landed a few minutes ago:

Mr. Goldberg,

Let me preface my question by letting you know that I consider myself somewhat of a ‘Rothbardian’ – I am a traveler in the philosophical tradition of Mises, Rothbard, Rockwell, et al. Anyways, in a past blog entry by yourself, you criticized Mises of “extreme apriorism.” This may be a fair criticism, but my question is this: what is the difference between the pragmatism of Dewey and the ideas of Kirk? Kirk, Buckley, and many others of the “New Right” since the 1950s have criticized ideologues and others that stick to various philosophical ideologies. (I would agree with Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn here, in that ideology can be bad or good – obviously a position that Kirk and many conservatives do not agree with.) I guess what I am asking is the clear difference between being ‘pragmatic’ in the Leftist sense and being a ‘non-ideologue’ in the conservative sense. If one is not grounded in an ideology, doesn’t that make one a ‘practical’ and ‘pragmatic’ individual? Clearly, the ends of a philosophical outlook between Dewey and Kirk would be light-years apart, but what about the means? Aren’t both advocating that ‘extreme ideologues’ (whether of Marx or of Mises) are dangerous and that only practical compromise should be the way of politics? I hope this makes sense and I look forward to your answer. Thank you for your time.

I’m assuming the reader is referring to this six-year-old post. Just for the record, my own views on Von Mises (and Rothbard!) have changed a bit since those wild times of 2003. As I’ve said many, many, times: writing my book has made me more libertarian or, if you prefer, more anti-statist. I say that just so we don’t re-start a big fight I don’t want to have.

That said, I think the question, while a bit hard to penetrate on the first read, is a great one.

What is the difference between the anti-ideology stance of the pragmatic left and the “practical” right?

A few thoughts:

First, I don’t think the Right is as anti-ideological as it once was. Kirk used to cite H. Stuart Hughes’s line that “conservatism is the negation of ideology,” but I think that sentiment isn’t so widely shared anymore. Conservatives haven’t abandoned respect for the small-c conservative temperament, but the definition of conservatism as being “anti-ideology” isn’t so apt anymore (it made more sense Jacobinism and ideology were interchangeable terms). The notion that ideologies can be good or bad is (and accurate or inaccurate), I think, the dominant view on the right now

That’s because we live in an ideological age, and as I believe Thomas Sowell once wrote, it takes an ideology to beat an ideology. The horrors of 20th-century collectivism forced its opponents to take a whole bunch of once-disparate ideas and weave them together into a unified and relatively coherent ideology called conservatism. That was, for example, Frank Meyer’s great task with fusionism.

Regardless, I would say the differences between the Right’s anti-ideologism (what an awful word!) and the Left’s are pretty profound. As I’ve been shouting around here for a very long time, Dewey’s pragmatism was not non-ideological. It was, in fact, profoundly ideological. The great con of the Pragmatic progressives is that they claimed they were opposed to ideology when in fact they were seeking to replace the dominant laissez-faire ideology with their own collectivist one. They claimed they merely cared about “what works” but that was, quite simply, a huge lie (or, to be more charitable, a massive example of self-delusion).

The core of the Deweyan position was the individual, or a few dedicated experts working closely together, could have all the knowledge they’d ever need to run vast swaths of society. Indeed, these experts would know better how to run things from some far away command center than would the individuals on the ground. The fact that the experts didn’t have a personal stake in their decisions was supposed to be a sign they were more qualified to make important decisions, rather than less qualified. Centralized economic planning? No problem! Just trim away the fat of ideological thinking and let the wonks collect their data and apply their knowledge and everything will work out fine.

The Right’s anti-ideologism is entirely different. Whether you want to call it Burkean or Hayekian, the basic idea is that experts can never have enough knowledge to successfully plan societies, save in the crudest and (hopefully) most temporary ways (such as during war mobilization or natural disasters). It’s not merely a question of whether people can be smart enough, it’s that they can never know enough. The accumulated wisdom in institutions, rules, traditions, customs is much greater and more complex than anything a single person or small group of persons can comprehend, never mind master. Von Mises and Hayek demonstrated this point numerous times when it came to things like pricing. Prices seem very simple, but are astoundingly complex. Soviet planners certainly had the brainpower to set prices, and they had plenty of data. And, as an added bonus, they had the ability to imprison or kill people if they didn’t play along. And yet, they were still very, very bad at setting prices.

In short anti-ideological conservatives like Kirk put their faith in the ability of society to take care of itself. Meanwhile, capital P pragmatists like Dewey had contempt for any society left on autopilot. The Deweyans believed in “mastery” over mere “drift.” Mastery, in turn, requires “experimentation” as Dewey (and FDR put it) which means letting social engineers experiment with the lives and livelihoods of citizens.

The conservative position may have its flaws and force us to, in Burke’s words, “bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes.” But it is a position of true humility. The Deweyan view is one of astounding arrogance. Indeed, it holds that it’s okay for social engineers to commit the occasional experimental crime in the name of ameliorating some trivial infirmity.

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