The Simpletons


Matt Welch's article about "do-something pundits" ("The Simpletons," December) raises a question: Why are people like Thomas L. Friedman and David Brooks so eager to say they don't have principles?

My answer is that for nearly a century John Dewey's pragmatism has had increasing influence over the public education system that produced people like Friedman and Brooks. According to Dewey, pragmatism is wise and moral because it eschews "dogmatism" and adopts a "scientific" attitude of "trial and error." 

Welch provides ample examples of the harm caused by pragmatic thinking. Dismissing any approach that relies on fundamental principles, whether in method or morality, means "anything goes." It opens the door to a respectful consideration of every statist proposal, allowing an endless array of empirical support in its favor while declaring that we should never draw a firm conclusion. Pragmatism is ancient philosophical skepticism given a modern makeover.

If it is unacceptable to summarily dismiss proposals that violate the Constitution, individual conscience, or respect for the choices of others, the only peaceful alternative is to debate them. That leads to the kind of endless examination of minutiae we see in arguments about the impact of ObamaCare. Utilitarianism becomes the default approach. Commentators on both the right and the left create a Google Cloud's worth of pixels discussing stats on the likely economic effects of this or that clause in the 2,000-page legislation. Few will stand up and say the federal government has no moral legitimacy even discussing how individuals should spend their health care dollars, no matter the general economic outcome. 

Likewise, progressives and many conservatives will argue until doomsday about the environmental impact vs. employment effects of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Few will declare the federal government has no business interfering in an activity that takes place entirely in Alaska. 

If you take such stances, you are apt to be tarred as an "ideologue," i.e., someone who has philosophical principles and adheres to them consistently. Ideology does not sound so bad when it is described that way, but it sounds terrible when it is equated with a closed-mindedness that ignores inconvenient facts. The false choice between a closed mind that rejects reality and an open mind that gives equal weight to all facts is nothing more than thinly disguised moral intimidation. 

Upholding that false alternative is one reason for the perpetual attractiveness of pragmatism to the statist. It greases the thin edge of the wedge of ethical subjectivism of the collectivist variety, and therefore utilitarianism.

That false choice is one reason pragmatism is so attractive to statists. It's the epistemology that animates the zombie of statism.

Jeffrey Perren

Sandpoint, ID

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