A healthy male adult bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people's patience.
- John Updike
I love Russell Baker. I subscribe to the RSS feed for the New York Review of Books, in large part so I can track his pieces there. His latest is a review of several new books about FDR, the first 100 days of his administration. There were two big lessons for me. Fascism was in the air. Of course we all know about Hitler and Mussolini. But I didn’t realize that in the U.S. there was a big push for Roosevelt to adopt dictatorial powers, working on legislation with Congress would be just too slow so he should do it all himself. Fortunately that didn’t happen. Congress gave Roosevelt what he wanted and he produced a whirlwind of programs with the alphabet soup labels.
The other bit I learned is that going into the Presidency FDR was essentially non-ideological. There was an imperative to do something, really to do a bunch of things. But what those things should be and what grand idea would give coherence to the lot of them, that was a different matter. Roosevelt didn’t have that grand idea. Instead, he had a sense of experimentation. Try a program. If it worked, keep it. If it didn’t, get rid of it and try something else. This was Pragmatism but without the trappings, certainly not the Liberalism we associate with FDR today. Roosevelt brought in a Brain Trust of Washington outsiders. They constructed the programs. They defined Liberalism, but really that was a consequence, not a prime cause. Unemployment was over 25%. Hoover’s economic orthodoxy proved toxic. Something else clearly was needed.
Nowadays we seem in the habit of putting politicians into political boxes – Republicans in the Conservative box and Democrats in the Liberal container, the folks in one box with vitriol for their rivals in the other. William Kristol in his last column for the NY Times, treading gingerly as he can, nonetheless can’t avoid casting the Obama Presidency as a new test for Liberalism, whether it can claim the future. Why is this a helpful lens with which to consider the Obama White House? If his regime does something unpredictable, does that mean Liberalism is moving in a new direction? What possible benefit is there in labeling such new policy as Liberal except to create a visceral negative reaction to it from Conservatives. In a similar fashion, Paul Krugman in his analysis of Republican opposition to the fiscal stimulus package, castigates the Conservatives for being obstructionist. He doesn’t venture to try and see it from their point of view. But if pressed Krugman would be forced to admit that government programs initiated to jump start a sputtering economy have a tendency to remain in place well after the economy is on the road to recovery, when the stimulus is no longer needed. Then aren’t we implicitly having a long run argument about the appropriate amount of Federal Government spending while we’re working through the stimulus package? If so, shouldn’t there be some critique of the program based on purely long term views? Putting the opposition into a box blocks the argument when we should be encouraging it.
Sometimes I wonder if I believe in my own writing and when that happens I try to test what I’ve said. After completing the previous paragraph I did a Google search on “the benefits of ideology.” Midway down the first page of hits I found this recent piece by John Santore from The Huffington Post which, in turn, references this piece by Christopher Hayes from The Nation. Both are worth reading on this topic. We need values on which to base decisions and to determine whether outcomes are good, even if otherwise we claim to be pragmatic. In toto those values constitute an ideology. I agree. And sometimes deeply held ideology serves are as an appropriate counterweight to bereft ideas and morally bankrupt policies. That too is true. But I don't think it enough and I don't believe it fully explains away pragmatism as Obama (and FDR) intended to use it.
As a rule most of us don't fully articulate the set of principles that make up our core beliefs. Even if we do, such an articulation is not a commitment. When a real situation arises where the principle applies and we understand that it does apply, our behavior serves to test the principle. Sometimes belief in the principle drives the behavior. Other times not and what we may discover is, in fact, the belief is in a somewhat narrower principle. We may say, for example, we believe in some of The Ten Commandments, particularly, "Thou shall not steal." But we may cheat on our income taxes nonetheless. How can that be reconciled? Perhaps with a response like, "There is no harm." The narrower principle then is, If there is an obvious victim then thou shall not steal, but if there is no apparent victim then go ahead and worry only about the chance of getting caught, not the moral imperative.
Because we don't fully articulate our principles we may find a different issue in practice. Two or more of our principles may be in apparent contradiction or may suggest opposite forms of behavior. We are forced to rank order the principles so one may trump the other and lead to a clear decision. But we may surprise ourselves in that ordering and find it depends on experience, not on prior disposition. In Carl Sagan's book Contact, the space travelers (in the movie there was only one, the character played by Jodie Foster, but in the book there were several) have no evidence whatsoever of their trip through a series of wormhole "tunnels" to Vega and other points galactic, so though atheists themselves and people whose deepest beliefs are founded in science, they nonetheless feel impelled to ask others simply to trust them on their word in spite of the lack of evidence. Sagan has constructed a delicious irony which is why Contact is such a good story. The extraordinary experience and power of that experience trumps the prior held belief in all things science.
Then too there is the possibility that our principles are insufficient to determine a course of action and to judge whether outcomes are good or not. As an adult watching a parent or a parent-in-law go through progressive deterioration due to the onset of dementia, the inability of the parent to see reality and cope with it trumps any sense of rightness in the decisions on how to manage the parent's care. Expediency, not normally a fundamental principle, ends up the driver.
Let me make one other point on this topic, a point that Santore and Hayes would subscribe to. It is different to say that we each base our decisions and evaluate outcomes on the basis of an ideology than to argue that there are a small finite number of ideologies (conservative or liberal) within which our beliefs must lie. If there is substantial diversity of such ideologies but we are nonetheless to get along then compromise becomes an ordinary practice. It is well known that there is no equivalent to Duncan Black's Theorem about the Median Voter when there is more than a single dimension (left-right) where voters can express their preference which can lead to instability in outcomes or to manipulation by a Machiavellian Prince (or a Committee Chair) that others would deem unfair. A willingness to compromise, in this sense, can be seen as a commitment not just to get things done but also to a commitment in fairness of the process. I believe that is a value which many if not all people subscribe to. It also means that one wants to look at outcomes over time, not just at a single incident, and see if those outcomes "average out" in some rough way and as a whole trump the gridlock that opposing rigid ideologies often produce, but with that criteria it also makes sense that what looks like absolutely disasterous decisions should be blocked ratherthan negotiated to fruition, because the ill consequences will never average out with other more successful outcomes..
The quintessential decision in this regard is the Iraq War. The problem is not that no WMD were present and hence that we should not have gone in at all. The main question is whether we should have anticipated Civil War soon after liberation, a repeat of Yugoslovia after Tito, and then as a consequence the U.S. Military involvement would extend for upward of six years. If so, then the pragmatic approach would be to argue for staying out. This would not be an ideological decision. It would be a straight cost-benefit analysis. Jeanne Kirkpatrick,certainly nobody's idea of a dove, publicly embraced but privately was against the War for these very reasons.
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Tip: YouTube displays low-quality video by default; if you want your viewer to see high-quality video, add &fmt=18 to the end of the URL when you send it to them.Likewise, here is a link to explain how to get the higher quality in an embedded video. The video below is the same one I had embedded in the Google Presentation yesterday, but it is a lot sharper in view.