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Pragmatism

You probably have a better idea about how to do something. But will it work? You’ll never know until you try. When you do give it a go, you may find that getting there requires a lot of compromises along the way before your dream is realized. Or, perhaps, you’ll simply give up – blaming your own inability to make it happen or blaming the world for being so darned unfair.

Both experiences are simply part of human nature meeting reality. We’re all idealists at heart, at least in a certain sense. Only a few people have the skills necessary to make those dreams a reality and much of the time they have to keep their eyes on the prize. A dream is one thing, but getting there requires wide-awake attention.

That is why an open, democratic political system can’t live by rigid ideology alone.

The ultimate pragmatist, or just a jerk?

The ultimate pragmatist, or just a jerk?

“Pragmatic” has become a dirty word lately. It’s often used to describe people who have little or no moral compass – people who will do anything to advance their goals, usually personal ambition. Talk about pragmatism usually focuses on Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, or any number of other politicians who earned a reputation in at least some circles for being essentially amoral.

That’s utterly unfair and denies the origins of pragmatism. The idea originated in the 19th Century as an alternative to Idealism, the latter forged by romanticism and sometimes hardened by Marxism, at least in political terms. A better definition is an evaluation framework which holds that “An ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.” In other words, it’s about making things work.

In times of great change, democratic societies often develop a strange attitude towards pragmatism. You’d think the “try anything” spirit would prevail when people are scared or hungry, but often the opposite is the case. People overwhelmed by change usually crave strong leadership and a commitment to a plan – something that is going to work. Idealism, or at least the belief that rigid ideology is the way to go, actually increases when it is least desirable.

That has always been the appeal of socialism. Many nations have tried to define their markets so tightly that they wind up incapable of functioning, always with the best of intentions. That’s happening right now in Venezuela, where first the currency, and with it order, is collapsing and inflation is making everyday life more and more difficult.

Oh, Boris, what did you do?

Oh, Boris, what did you do?

Sometimes the ideology is forced on people from the outside for various reasons. Austerity became the one true path in Europe when the European Central Bank refused to allow a gentle transition away from the troubles some nations experienced. The result is that Europe continues to languish with little to no growth while much of the rest of the world is moving ahead. A more extreme example was the “Shock Therapy” forced on the Russia in in the 1990s, which my colleague at Mint Press Jeffrey Cavanaugh has written about brilliantly. It didn’t bring them democracy and freedom – it was at the heart of the decline into a mafia state.

Rigid adherence to an ideology, rather than a dream, is the reason for these totally unnecessary failures of public policy.

I’ve seen this reflected in the personalities of the kids I am privileged to mentor in the Robotics League. Next year’s Team Captain and Co-Captain are a great pair – one is a visionary, the other has a fantastic attention to detail. Between them are the skills to realize a goal. Having both sets of skills in one person is incredibly rare – and such people should be given access to the resources to do great things. For most of us, however, a team dynamic committed to common goals is essential to bring all the needed talents to bear on a project.

The advancement of rights defines us like no other nation

The advancement of rights defines us like no other nation.

In all the cases where a rigid adherence to ideology has failed the problem comes down to a lack of understanding of strategy versus tactics. A goal, clearly stated, can and should be understood by anyone. A strategy is the roadmap from where you are today to that goal. Tactics are what advance you along that map – and not the strategy itself. Progress along the path may illuminate the terrain in ways that show your strategy has serious flaws, but those can be carefully adjusted.

Similarly, a long-term focus can be difficult to maintain when people are hungry or scared in the short term. Getting people to the point where they can think in the long term and accept a strategic plan is also very difficult in times of great change or peril. It’s hard to think about tomorrow when getting through today is damned difficult.

But pragmatism itself is not amoral or flawed. It’s about making dreams a reality. To be pragmatic about pragmatism itself, perhaps a democratic society has to demand a clear statement of the goals and a strong moral compass that can mark the limits of where any given path might lead. But it is the only way we’re ever going to get from hard times and back to good times again.

Ideology itself? It’s only useful to the extent it can be shown to work. And there have been some big failures of it lately.

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13 thoughts on “Pragmatism

  1. Cavanaugh’s discussion of the Russian situation and “our” role in causing it is excellent.

    • Yes, it is. That’s what started me down this line of thinking. All that we see unfolding now is the direct result of this rigid ideology dressed up like a plan – when it really wasn’t.

    • I don’t know that I would call him a “pragmatist” – he is so passive, as you pointed out. Perhaps there has to be a statement of action or actual movement towards the goal as part of the definition.

  2. Cavanaugh’s essay is weak in some points.

    He suggest that the United States should have given Russia economic aid, but he doesn’t say how the aid should have been targeted. No discussion of how the aid would have been used strategically or operationally.

    Another mistaken notion is that Eastern European nations should not have been incorporated into NATO. The ones who joined are free nations and if they see benefits from NATO, they are to wise to have applied for inclusion. The reason some Eastern European and Baltic nations like being in NATO is that it provides defense against Russian expansionism. Anyway some of these nations didn’t appreciate being behind the iron. curtain anyway. These nations wanted to subtract themselves from Russia.

    Freedom and democracy in Russia is up to the Russian people. They are responsible for their political system.

    In terms of economics, there were some people who were excited about Russia, even using new terms like BRICs. Those people can go pee in their pants now. : )

    That’s why I try to avoid the hype and am not “excited” about positive predictions for 2017. No one can predict the tuture.

    • Your criticism of the lack of details is warranted, however in an article it’s important to focus on the topic at hand. There’s only so much that can be said in 1000 words.
      Russia was in such dire straights right after the fall it was unreasonable to expect a fast leveling with the rest of the world. Whatever was to go down had to be a lengthy process. Perhaps they’re in the best possible process for the long haul, but I doubt it.
      And I do agree that the Baltics, in particular, were desperate to run under NATO cover for fairly obvious reasons.
      I dunno, how do you build a nation more or less from scratch? I still think Malaysia is doing a pretty good job, although they are not exactly an open society – yet.
      As for the BRIC hype, I’m with you there.

  3. “The command administrative system in the Soviet Union controlled the overwhelming share of all productive activity. But the experience of war communism, and the repeated attempts to mobilize and inspire workers and intellectuals to work toward the objectives of the Soviet Party and State, showed that the detailed planning and administration of commands were rather ineffective in dealing with the consumption, career, and work-choice decisions of individuals and households. The variety and variability of needs and desires proved too vast to be effectively managed by directive central planning and administrative enforcement, except in extreme (wartime) circumstances. Thus money was used to provide individual incentives and rewards, realizable through markets for consumer goods and services and the choice of job and profession, subject to qualification constraints. But prices and wages were still extensively controlled, and the cash money allowed in these markets was strictly segmented from, and nonconvertible with, the accounting funds used for measuring transactions in the state production and distribution sectors. This created serious microeconomic disequilibria in these markets, stimulating the development of active underground economies that extended the influence of money into the state sector and reallocated product from intended planned purposes to those of agents with control over cash.

    The command administrative economy proved quite effective at forcing rapid industrialization and urbanization in the Soviet Union. It was effective at mobilizing human and material resources in the pursuit of large-scale, quantifiable goals. The building of large industrial objects, the opening of vast and inhospitable resource areas to economic exploitation, and the building and maintenance of military forces second to none were all facilitated by the system’s ability to mobilize resources and focus them on achieving desired objects regardless of the cost. Moreover, the system proved quite adept at copying and adapting new technologies and even industries from the Western market economies. Yet these very abilities, and the absence of any valuation feedback through markets and prices, rendered the operation of the system extremely costly and wasteful of resources, both human and material.

    Without the ability to make fine trade-offs, to innovate and to adjust to changing details and circumstances largely unobservable to those with the authority in the system to act, the command administrative economy grew increasingly inefficient and wasteful of resources as the economy and its complexity grew. This became more obvious, even to the rulers of the system, as microeconomic disequilibria, unfinished construction, unusable inventories, and disruptions of the “sellers’ market,” together with a burgeoning second economy (Grossman, 1977), grew with increasing rapidity through the 1970s and 1980s. These consequences, together with the repeated failure of partial and incremental reforms to improve the situation and a growing gap in technology from the levels of the developed West, inspired the radical economic, and indeed political, reforms of Mikhail S. Gorbachev that soon afterward brought an end to the Soviet Union and its command administrative economy.”

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  5. If what you are talking about is a goal orientated government I am all for it. We seem to drift along most of the time without a real plan. But we can’t forget the moral obligations to the world no matter what. Whenever we do what we want like put up a dictator it always comes back to bite us in the butt later. Look at Afganistan and how we armed the Taliban. That seemed “pragmatic” at the time I’m sure.

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