Sunday, August 30, 2015

On Extremists, Moderates and Polarization

I recently saw a website run by a self-described "flaming moderate", a term which strikes me as second only to "libertarian liberal"1 as the most bizarre self-description one could imagine. Taken literally it indicates one who would fight tooth and nail for the right to not feel very strongly one way or the other, something I can't imagine existing in reality2. In reality, these self-proclaimed moderates are not what their name would imply. Instead, they are quite simply the newest face of pragmatism. They roundly denounce "extremists", by which they mean any position based on a philosophy, consistently applied, and instead argue fora political approach based on expediency and whim, dubbing it "practical". As I hope to show, if there is one thing such a philosophy is not, it is practical3.

I suppose there are three ways we can view political questions. First, we can assume politics (and by extension economics and other areas relation to human decisions, what von Mises dubs praxeology, the science of human decisions), is governed by rules, by regularities, and thus various approaches can be dubbed successful or not successful in terms of achieving various goals, and maybe even that certain goals are more or less possible to achieve through political ends. Second we can assume that there are certain better and worse ways to achieve various ends, but they are not connected by any patterns or regularities and can only be determined by trial and error. Finally, we can assume there is no better or worse means of achieving ends and politics amounts to little more than the imposition of one individual's decisions upon another. In short, we can adopt a principled, a pragmatic or a cynical approach to politics.

The principled approach used to be the most common, probably from the earliest part of the age of reason (and even before, as most medieval metaphysics postulated regularities imposed upon the universe by God4), until relatively recently. The founding fathers were clearly politicians who adopted a principled5 philosophy, as we can see from their arguments in favor of the new Constitution. They clearly believed there were approaches to politics which produced better and worse results, principles which existed apart from specific political systems, and which encompassed the whole of political activity.

In other words, by the lights of modern moderates, they were extremists. Men who believe there is a right and wrong way to do things, a proper and improper choice, and argue that any other approach will produce inferior results. As I said, extremists.

Pragmatic approaches, on the other hand, of necessity deny any general principles. How could they do otherwise? If there are general principles, then pragmatism makes no sense. Why adopt a trial and error approach? Why shift from choice to choice? Why do any of the things pragmatists do if there are general principles? It only makes sense to adopt a "try it and see" approach if we cannot know anything with certainty. Thus, to be a pragmatist, one must deny the existence of any general principles, of any unifying theories, as the existence of regularities would make their philosophy pointless.

On the other hand, pragmatists do still believe in answers. They might argue there is no unifying principle, no overall approach which will give us all the answers, but they do believe there are better and worse ways to accomplish various lesser aims. In fact, some even adopt a half-way approach, bridging the gap between true pragmatists and principled thinkers, arguing there may be answers which unify several problems, basically still denying there is an overall principle, but allowing for the existence of smaller unifying principles.

Looked at in this sense, perhaps it is best to argue that pragmatists are not so much their own philosophy, but rather a kind of mid-range, those who stand at various points on the spectrum between the principled thinkers, those who believe there are rules governing all of politics and the other end, those who deny any principles at all.

And who are those at the other end point? I have dubbed them the cynics.

Cynics are, for lack of a better description, those who deny any principles at all. Not only is there no unifying principle explaining how best to manage a state, they deny that even specific questions lack any answers. In their eyes, the whole of politics is nothing but a struggle for power, the imposition of one's will upon others. To them, what decisions are made is irrelevant, it makes no difference, one answer is never better than another, one approach no more or less effective. All is simply about who decides.

Unfortunately for cynics, and even pragmatists, experience shows that a truly cynical approach fails. Politics is more than simply forcing obedience. Nor is this even contested by most. Truly cynical approaches, absolute indifference as to means, is rarely found among any but the most unsophisticated and brutish dictators. Thanks to centuries of experience, as well as the lessons of economics and other related disciplines, everyone agrees there are decisions which produce definite outcomes. There are regularities. And very few deny this. Even the most die hard pragmatists admit the economy does have rules governing its behavior, they may disagree about the specific rules, but not the existence of rules. Likewise, they agree that people in general react in certain ways to certain decisions, making the response to various actions -- making certain allowances -- predictable. Thus, it is a fool's game to think a state can be run without any thought as to the consequences.

If this realization is fatal to the cynical position, it is no less so to the pragmatists, but they somehow manage to ignore this. If there are rules, if there are principles, then there are regularities, there are rules. And where there are rules, they can be known. Thus, it makes no sense to pretend we can ignore the rules, that we can adopt a try and see approach, or that we can follow the rules in most cases then break them when we want. As I have argued many times, if one allows for one exception, then one allows for them all. Thus, if one says he values freedom, but makes an exception to prevent some behavior he finds unpalatable, he has effectively allowed every exception. He cannot pretend his single rule is "common sense", and thus violating the rules does not matter6.

Having said all of that, let me now turn to the "extremists" and make one observation. In a way, I can see the reason the pragmatists and other "flaming moderates" find the extremists so objectionable. And oddly, it is a problem the moderates often share as well. That is the tendency of those who have strong feelings about their philosophy to imagine those who disagree are not just wrong, but actively evil. I call it, after a particularly odious example of this error, "the worst person in the world" error. And oddly, while it is common to extremes who find sinister motives in their opposite numbers, it is also common to moderates who find something evil in those whose beliefs they find extreme, as well. It seems that we not only cling to our beliefs with exceptional strength, but even our lack of strong beliefs. And those who do not share that lack are every bit as threatening as those holding opposing views.


1. See "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 23, 2012)",."The Libertarian Left", "Liquid Ice? Female Father? That's Nothing!", "The Failure of Wikipedia", "Copyright as Politics", "Some Libertarian Analogies", "Revelation From Bottom Feeding" and "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons".

2. In truth her self-declared position was an echo of that I heard so often in the late 1980s. "A fiscal conservative and social liberal/libertarian," a pretty close translation to our era of the 80s mantra "a Republican on economics and a Democrat on social issues." (See "Economic Versus Social") Of course, while that declaration, then and now, often sounded like a call for libertarian, hands off policies, in truth it all too often became just another guise for pragmatism, as the site in question demonstrated, following her self-description with many additional paragraphs on the virtue of pragmatic approaches.

3. My earlier writings critical of pragmatism, practicality, common sense approaches and all the other names for this political philosophy without a philosophy can be found at "Common Sense, Guns and Regulations" , "The Lunacy of 'Common Sense'", "'Seems About Right', Another Lesson in Common Sense and Its Futility", "A Look at Common Sense", "Res Ipsa Loquitur", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revisited, Again", "The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data", "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Keyhole Thinking", "Impractical Pragmatists", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, An Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency", "No Dividing Line", "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Questions of Law and Questions of Fact", "The Rarity of 'Common Sense'", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship" and "The Problem with Common Sense Solutions".

4. Moslem theological philosophy has a long running dispute between those who accept God created an ordered universe, and those who believe everything happens only because it is God's will, and any apparent order is simply a side effect of the decisions he makes. (I over simplify, but that is an overly brief precis of the argument.) Christianity never really encountered this argument. While Aristotelean philosophy came somewhat late to Islam, and found itself in conflict with preexisitng philosophical trends, Christianity had embraced Platonic thought from early in its existence -- not to mention that predominant Jewish thought also had a strong Platonic tone at the time as well -- so it was taken as a given that Creator and Creation stood apart from one another. Thus Christianity almost from its inception accepted the premise of an ordered word with deterministic behavior.

5. By saying their approach is principled, I do not mean to imply it is more ethical or somehow more elevated. The term is being used here simply to mean they embrace an approach founded on consistent, all-embracing principles, as opposed to the pragmatic approach.

6. That is the other face of pragmatism. Not just those who think they can find rules at random, there are also pragmatists who think they can follow rules most of the time, but then allow for some "common sense" exceptions when the rules don't support their beliefs. This is every bit as dangerous as the other form of pragmatic thought.

NOTE: Sorry about some of the links. I cut and pasted from another essay and got links pointing to my old blog on, which no longer work. Since I am hoping to also post two other articles from my archives and link to those as well, I won't be fixing them immediately, but will fix them sometime tonight (2015/08/30). Sorry for any inconvenience.

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