Friday, May 30, 2014

Pragmatism Revisited

NOTE: These seventeen essays were reproduced from my now defunct former blog, Random Notes, as they are going to be cited in an upcoming essay. For the most part they deal with three subjects, "common sense" and pragmatism, organics and GMO foods, and the belief in the inherent purity and superiority of all things "primitive". A few are on other topics, but I think those three cover most of them.

I have started seeing posts arguing that Obama will be superior to McCain or Bush because "he isn't dedicated to some ideology" and "he will do what needs to be done'. Now, that description actually better fits McCain more than rather orthodox liberal Obama, but even if it were true, it is hardly an endorsement. Even should Obama shed the liberal orthodoxy he practiced in hsi past career, adopting "pragmatism" is hardly a good thing.

I have written before about pragmatism and tis shortcomings, so I won't go into that here, referring those interested to my essay "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", but I will make a few comments.

The big question is whether the universe is guided by absolute rules or is random. If it is guided by absolute rules, which is at the foundation of scientific thought, science being impossible without regularity, then there is a model which accurately describes the universe. That being the case, then there is a regularity, and some "rigid way of thinking" actually fits the way the universe functions.

So, being opposed to "rigid thinking" and "systems" is to be opposed to that which works. By pursuing "what works" without trying to figure out a fixed system is foolish. if the universe is regular, then there is some system which works in all cases, and we should look for that, rather than randomly flailing about trying various answers to see "what works this time".

If something works it works in all identical situations.

Sadly, it seems that this basic understanding is beyond many people, even so called conservatives. How often do we hear "I am for the free market, but the market failed in the case of..." That sort of "exceptionalism" is just a weak pragmatism, an admission the speaker doesn't understand economics. Either free market solutions work or they don't. If there are exceptions,t hent he theory is wrong and needs to be replaced. We can't have a theory that is "right except..." 

Well, that is nothing new. We have seen decades of free market Republicans who found thousands of exceptions allowing them to regulate the economy to death despite their professed love for the market. So why should I be surprised that members of either party express contempt for systematic thought?


Some claimed that an Obama victory would restore conservatives to control of the Republicans, but I don't buy it. As I said before, I think it will likely drive many in the party to the left, not the right

But even if it moves them right, that doesn't mean we will get a renewed dedication to the market. How often have you seen supposed conservative on Townhall calling for the government to intervene because the market isn't working? On the oil issue alone, I was criticized again and again for suggesting that oil companies had a right to sell oil on the world market, rather than the government forcing them to sell ANWR oil in the US. So we have enough in our own ranks who don't grasp economics, or at least want to be freed from its rules when it suits them. 

All of which makes me less than confident the Obama victory foretells a conservative renaissance.


I almost forgot, the other great harm of "pragmatism". The government is no longer predictable. Once the government abandons principle in favor of "what works" it becomes impossible to plan for the future, as the government's actions are not possible to anticipate. I addressed this briefly in my essay "Predictability".

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/11/05.

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