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Pragmatism

My team, 2491 No Mythic, is competing in the North Star FIRST Robotics tournament.  I have to resort to a repeat, but it’s a timely one that gets to the heart of this week’s posts.

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, as documented in this brilliant piece.   It didn’t bring them democracy and freedom – it was at the heart of the decline into a mafia state.

Another example is “Supply-Side Theory“, or the belief that improving access to capital is always the ticket to prosperity.  Even a lefty like me has to admit that it probably was the right emphasis in the early 1980s period of stagflation, but is it the best thing to do now?  Not when there is a shortage of demand, but there are those who insist it is the only way to go – regardless of the evidence that show it doesn’t work today.

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. This 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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14 thoughts on “Pragmatism

  1. I would go with “war criminal” to describe Kissinger, but I see your point. However, good leaders are guided by basic principles even if its nothing more than basic decency and fairness. We could use a return to that.

      • Mr. Hare,

        My distriguished colleague Sauder is mistaken to label Mr. Kissinger a war criminal.

        US military actions in Laos and Cambodia were legal.

        I accept that Mr. Sauder does not see the usefulness of U.S. military action in Vietnam. I don’t share his opinion however.

        US policy was to assist our friends, the South Vietnamese people, in resisting communist attacks.

        North Vietnam at some points denied they had soldiers in South Vietnam, a laughable lie.

        I request Mr. Sauder to provide further details on his charges against Mr. Kissinger so I can evaluate his argument.

        Respectfully,

        Harry

      • I was only positive about his second point. I kind of missed the part on Kissinger.
        I have never had a strong opinion about the Vietnam era. I could ask my Dad, an antiwar Republican. But I only remember strong arguments on both sides.

  2. Yes, but ‘whatever works’ is in the eye of the beholder. If the plan is to screw the working people then things are working just fine. We have the best government money can buy – is that ‘pragmatic’?

    • See above. 🙂 If we do focus on a truly representative and functioning democratic republic, I think the problem with money in politics is obviously a top priority. So yes, we do have values to express – but we still have to be pragmatic in how we exercise those values and define the goals that they compel us towards.

  3. It’s true. Pragmatically I look at adjectives and adverbs to judge bias in articles. I worry about blind faith on the Right and cynical pragmatism on the Left (“a lie or slander is venial if advances the agenda”)

    We declared ourselves a nation of inclusion, not excellence. That will be our legacy after Pragmatism. I think it was de Gaulle who preferred myth to reality to hold together a nation. Pragmatically.

  4. No, I am not willing to go this far. Some morals have to guide us when we deal with other people / other nations. Compromise is one thing & we all have to get along the best we can. But to leave it up to purely pragmatism is going to always be a recipe for disaster.

    • As I have it defined here, there is plenty of room for morality in pragmatism. It is simply about how those values are realized, which is to say that a pragmatic person puts them into action.
      Pragmatism is more like technology than science. It’s the reduction to practice that counts. Values tell you most or all of what you do.

  5. Pingback: Winds of Change Blow Both Ways | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

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