New Libertarian Politics 1 of 3: The Importance of Pragmatism

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Libertarianism has come to a point where it must embrace pragmatic solutions like never before.  The stakes are high: the possibility of nuclear war, technology that could liberate the earth or otherwise lead to permanent tyranny, the cusp of a potentially unprecedented economic disaster and the resultant social chaos.  These issues demand the sound guidance of libertarian wisdom for Earth to make it through the coming challenges successfully.  Humanity needs libertarian wisdom, even if it refuses to agree with libertarians.  If humanity rejects our ideology, it remains paramount that we still use our ideas to save humanity – and ourselves.  This means that libertarians must be willing, but also able, to act pragmatically to employ our wisdom in support of our values.

This article is part of a series about potential new approaches to political activism for the libertarian movement.  These solutions can be thought of as a pyramid.  At the top is the most visible and politically active of the approaches, but also the narrowest in scope.  At the bottom is an approach with unlimited potential and variability, but it is also the most diffuse and oblique of the approaches relative to political power.  This article discusses the approach which represents the top of the pyramid.  It is a very narrow approach, and represents the smallest portion of the action and activism the liberty movement should be engaging in.  It is my suggestion for how libertarians should engage with electoral politics.  In some cases, libertarians may choose to completely abandon electoral politics.  I suggest, if we do engage, that our approach be fundamentally pragmatic.

Any libertarian embrace of pragmatism must be framed carefully within clear philosophical guidelines.  I am proposing a new principled pragmatism for Libertarianism.  Consider that the worst offenses of the state are wrapped in the flag of principles.  Libertarian theory provides a moral basis to claim that the state itself has no moral legitimacy.  No state policy, no use of coercion, can be justified by invoking principles.  Therefore, assuming libertarians could accommodate coercive state policies for reasons of the practical outcomes they effect, any slightest deviation from the proposed outcome would be an excuse to denounce a policy.  When libertarians critique policies from the vantage of our ideological principles we are condemned by people who don’t agree with our ideology for being ideological.  But, if policies are critiqued only on the basis of their practical ineffectiveness, it creates a public discussion about the state which takes a significant amount of oxygen out of the state’s fire.

In embracing pragmatism, the goal is not to reject principle.  Principles, knowing them, and having them, provides the means to act pragmatically.  Pragmatism begins when we enter the space which requires a conscious acknowledgment of having moved beyond our principles.  That may sound like the horrible expediency of a leftist or modernist, but this is not what I’m proposing.  I propose that libertarians keep our traditional libertarian principles, and that we live and teach them in our personal and local lives.  I only propose that we discover the limits where our principles can’t apply, and there, only there, be willing to engage in pragmatic activity.  Specifically, the limits of libertarian principles are where other human being refuse to agree with them.  The value of pragmatism is that it represents a conscious acknowledgment of moving beyond principle, and removes from our activity any sense of conviction.  Pragmatism allows us to act in the difficult middle, without setting us up to cause more harm than good.

Pragmatism comes into play when disparate groups of people with sets of values whose common premises get “lost in translation” need to come together to reach a common understanding.  For example, American left-liberals almost seem to live in a different universe than American conservatives or libertarians.  Their political preferences are grounded in an understanding of historical and economic fact that differs substantially from their counterparts on the right.  This means that sometimes it seems as if nobody can come to a mutually satisfying political consensus in America.

Of course, one solution is to seek understanding.  Couldn’t we just have a debate about history and economics and bring up the facts to harmonize our worldviews?  Surely, in light of factual evidence we could all come to believe the same way in the end?  We would all change our opinions if their base premises were to be factually invalidated, wouldn’t we?  Keep dreaming.  This is where pragmatism comes in.  We have to assume that even with the most vigorous amount of persuasion, not everyone will ever come to a mutual understanding of the “truth”.  So what do we do?

If I know that I must compromise with people whose values differ from my own because what they believe to be true is incompatible with what I believe to be true, then I must choose to be pragmatic.  Libertarians, with our strong emphasis on principles, are loathe to compromise our values.  Our entire philosophy and its principles already represent an emphasis on compromise.  A deviation from our principles could almost be thought of as deviation from compromise itself.  Our philosophy seeks to draw private property boundaries, to enable us to live and let live.  But our own “fatal conceit” is that enough people in human society will agree that compromise itself is a prime value for them to accept libertarian values.  More recently, some have assumed that sequestering ourselves into little communities will save us from the interference and scrutiny of the state and its sycophants.  It’s a very moral proposition, but I have doubts about its practical efficacy.

What then, should we throw up our hands and give up on the world?  No!  If one side of an argument wants to compromise, and the other doesn’t, must the two conflict?  Traditionally, yes.  But libertarians are smarter than that.  There is such a thing as one-sided compromise, in which the compromiser can still receive benefits from their willingness to avoid conflict.

Shouldn’t we be the ones leading efforts at compromise?  What we need is a key, a method or mode of compromise that allows us to do it without abandoning our principles.  This is what I propose.  It is not an embrace of expediency, but a methodology of principled pragmatism.

 

Let us imagine an issue: schooling. Libertarians are completely against the idea of a state curriculum and public schooling. Liberals, on the other hand, believe in its absolute necessity.

To liberals, public schools serves three key imagined functions:

First, it provides equal opportunity, generating at society’s foundational level the conditions of justice they value. To them, differences in outcome are more tolerable if there is equality of opportunity.

Second, schooling is a necessary investment in what is considered a commons. We’re all better off if more of us are educated, but the education of the public at large is a commons, a public good that only the state can produce.

Third, without a common public education, we’re liable to splinter off into subcultures whose realities diverge so drastically that balkanization and violence would be inevitable. Public education is a liberal (”non-coercive”) way of keeping us together.

 

I don’t write this to defend the liberal point of view. My purpose is to lay out what it is that they believe. I’m also proposing that, hey, libertarians: we’re not going to convince the liberals that they’re wrong no matter how hard we try. If we’re pragmatic, though, we can deal with liberal concerns without abandoning our values.

 

Here are the liberal concerns:

1) Public education is a must, because it must guarantee:

2) equal opportunity

3) an educated public, and

4) a common, “liberal” (non-violent), political culture.

 

As libertarians, we can admit that left-liberal premises are deeply flawed, but that doesn’t mean we can’t “pay tribute” to the barbarians. What if there were ways to have all four of the above values as outcomes, but in ways that were more effective than the dismal unionized (and unequal – hello property taxes hypocrisy) school districts that liberals constantly defend? Maybe libertarians could be the voice of reason. Moreover, what if these “other ways” also laid a foundation for a freer, more dynamic and diverse mode of education for the nation? What if it moved us in a direction closer to the ideal of libertarian principles? This is the essential argument for pragmatism.

 

The process of pragmatism would be as follows:

1) Bring our principles to the public forum, with the intent to persuade.

2) Find the limits of common understanding in the public forum (where principles aren’t compatible).

3) Discern the pragmatic outcomes the other “sides” desire, ignoring their principles except where awareness of them is strategically necessary.

4) Propose the most effective means of achieving those outcomes, without the baggage of ideology.

5) Find compromises that also practically advance society in the direction of our preferences.

6) Where policies don’t achieve the stated outcomes, contest them from a pragmatic, not ideological, vantage.

 

Here’s how this applies to education:

1) We argue that state propaganda in schools has led to horrible wars and is much more harmful than whatever supposed “Balkanization effect” might occur without it.

2) Next, we learn that liberals won’t budge. In effect, they fear Southern religious conservatives and their independence from liberal propaganda. Here’s where we could try and overpower the liberals through politicking and a coalition with conservatives. In my view, this is a bad idea. Politics is war by other means and engaging in coercive, competitive politics is a dangerous path.

3) Instead, let the two sides reach their own equilibrium – then come in as deal makers. If the equilibrium has room for pure libertarian principles, all the better, otherwise, be the agent of compromise.

4) Whatever political leverage libertarians do have, we can use to give either side what they want, but

5) Gaining concessions that favor our preferences, and

6) Demanding explicit statement of desired outcomes, requiring policies to reasonably achieve those outcomes.

 

The key is to continue to try and persuade on outcomes by appealing to their unbudging values.  Win them with pragmatism.

“You want equal opportunity? So do we. But look guys, these public schools are hurting kids. What if we had public charter schools – they’d still be sanctioned by the government, we’re not trying to abolish public education like those conservatives – the empirical data shows that these charter schools can work. And hey, maybe we could also make a little room for more homeschooling and some private charters if a few people want to do that too?”

You just might persuade some liberals with the right amount of concessions made to their worldview, enough that they might concede to bits of ours. The key is that we aren’t conceding to their principles. We are making concessions to their desired outcomes. We are saying: “look we’ll give you what you want, we don’t agree with why you want them, and we just want a little something too.”

The power of this approach lies with its volatility, that is, dynamic flexibility. The second a proposed solution fails to achieve the measurable outcome it was meant to, not only could we abandon it, but we’d be left with a powerful argument against it.  If we support a school reform and it doesn’t work, no one can claim our reasons are related to ideological obstinacy.  We’d be diverging from competing ideologies on the basis of good faith, not on the basis of ideological conflict. It would be tough to keep the public’s faith when discrete, specific outcomes are empirically falsifiable.

 

This sort of approach could even work with war. Any war would be a horrible idea, but what if a war required:

 

1) A clearly defined set of goals.

2) A clear authorization to use force in pursuit of those goals.

3) A clear process for evaluating the achievement of those goals, and

4) A means to revoke the authorization to use force should the goals not be achieved.

5) Or, a need – at least – for discrete new goals to be set if the war is to continue.

 

A libertarian politician could say: “Hey, I’m against any war, and all war, but my caucus is a distinct minority and the national security state – which I oppose – is a thing that’s not going away anytime soon. So, here’s the deal. Me and my caucus won’t vote ‘no’ against a war so long as the above five requirements are met. I’ll raise holy hell, and make it my central purpose to oppose a war if they’re violated.”

This method won’t stop all wars, or even make a dent in many bad wars. However, it would cast a lot of our foreign policy in a new light wouldn’t it? That’s the essence of pragmatism – moving beyond principles in order to focus on outcomes. You can argue day and night about principles, but bad outcomes are harder to defend.

Libertarianism is well suited to pragmatism.  It’s not just a matter of it being a good strategy.  It’s not even a matter of our philosophy’s predilection to compromise and mutually beneficial deal making.  Really, libertarians have good, but non-conventional ideas.  Our understanding of economics and politics is rather sophisticated and, I believe, in many cases in advance of the mainstream.  Bringing those ideas into the policy realm – all else being equal – would be a good idea by itself.

What I recommend is that Libertarianism begin to conceive of a role for our movement in politics and electoral politics using this pragmatic method. I have to be clear that I’m not recommending that we make this our single-minded purpose.  There are many avenues of activism besides electoral politics. If we do engage in politics, I recommend this is how we should approach it.  We should probably not have a libertarian party, which is only a money hole, a sink, a black hole for energetic activism.  We probably shouldn’t count on another Ron Paul, that is, someone who vaguely straddles the line between conventional and libertarian principles.  From now on, we should only engage in electoral politics if and only if we do so with a purely pragmatic strategy.  One reason is that there is value for preserving the purity of our principles from the rot of politics.

I believe that past libertarian efforts to engage in politics have failed.  A “Libertarian Party” is meant to enact as policy libertarian principles.  This is an irreconcilable contradiction, and we must abandon this counter-productive path.

Some politicians, such as Ron and Rand Paul (in particular the latter), have employed the sort of pragmatism I’m referring to.  Not insisting on libertarian principles has helped Rand Paul take meaningful stances on privacy and more.  And yet, I’d criticize Rand.  His pragmatism borders on expediency, in that he “pretends” to be a conservative Republican.  He may actually be that, but assuming we had a pure libertarian who was “lying” for pragmatic sake, this contradicts what I propose.  I propose a principled pragmatism, and that means you absolutely cannot concede to the principles of the other side even if you have conceded to their desired outcomes.

Instead, let me propose a new approach with a new name: “New Liberalism.”

Libertarians could form the core of a “New Liberal” party. The premise of this party is that we would acknowledge that politics and government are areas where there are no inherent principles. Principles and values are held and expressed at the personal and local levels exclusively. New Liberalism seeks to maximize where possible the freedom of individuals and localities in the face of central power of both government and business. These are general platform principles, not philosophical arguments.  The anchor of this movement lies with the principles of the individual participants, and the glue of unity between them is a compromise pragmatism.

That is, the only principle of New Liberalism is this: to the extent politically achievable, power should devolve to communities and individuals.  Otherwise, New Liberalism would declare that no government policies whatsoever ought to be defended on the basis of principle.  New Liberalism’s policy platform would be that we need to do what is pragmatically optimal to achieve whatever outcomes are compromised upon by the various parties, and that New Liberalism’s basis for compromise is any outcome that moves in the direction of devolution of power over time.

New Liberalism can support “Constitutionality” in the US if it’s pragmatic and helpful in the long run.  On the other hand, New Liberalism would have no attachment to petty mythological “Constitutionality”.

For example, why can’t Massachusetts have gun control?  It’s not my problem, because I don’t live there.  The vast majority of people there want it.  Only the incorporation principle of the 14th amendment – not an originalist position – forces “blue” states to obey the 2nd amendment (which is meant to apply only to the federal Congress).  I would be very upset if Texas, which very much is against much gun control, were to be forced by the federal government to enact it.  Pragmatically, giving an inch might mean the other side taking a mile, I concede.  But, if there’s no threat of that, why couldn’t Massachusetts have their strict gun laws?

Would New Liberals honor the Constitution?  Hell no!

Libertarians know that, first of all, the US Constitution is dead as a doornail.  The skeleton of rights guarantees remaining – such as free speech or due process rights – are “nice”.  But they’re on flimsy ground, and the federal government has long been structurally top-heavy.  New Liberals would support free speech and due process everywhere all the time, where possible, but we would not support these rights on the basis of them having been granted by dead British colonial aristocrats on a piece of paper.  Moreover, libertarians know that the US “republic” itself is a loathsome nationalist cancer, a centralization of powers many of the framers, in fact, sought to avoid.  Libertarians, as New Liberals, would not exactly be “Constitutionalists” the way protest GOP voters are.

This is the essence of pragmatism: the real world is so horribly out of tune with our basic moral and political values, that trying to harmonize the two is a lost cause.  Instead, it’s a fight to achieve – and solidly achieve – that which realistically advances our interest.

New Liberalism, therefore, would never countenance the idea of policy based in principles. New Liberalism would never accept the idea that “national public education creates equal opportunity, and the principle of equal opportunity is a national priority.” There are no national priorities! However, if there are those in society who desire the outcome of equal opportunity through national public education, well, then New Liberalism wouldn’t mind acquiescing to practically effective policies that work towards that outcome – if it advances in some capacity the freedom of individuals and localities over the long run.

Again, this should be the only mode of engagement with electoral politics that any libertarian should bother with. It supports both left-wing anti-establishment goals, and even the right-wing localism proposed by libertarians at the Mises Institute. It also contrasts radically with the “cut all the taxes on my business, but don’t stop bombing brown people” politics of the Beltway Koch-funded “libertarians”. And it shows how pointless the idea of a “libertarian party” is.

Pragmatism doesn’t only mean getting along with other ideologies. Libertarians know the deep state and power elite play a huge role in politics. Why can’t we bargain with them? Why can’t we make deals with corrupt businesses and unions.  They’re going to lobby for cheese anyway.  I’d rather pay Lockheed Martin $4 trillion to build a boondoggle Moon base and space station, then kill people in the Middle East.  I’d rather a government program with a explicit paycheck tax to fund the healthcare of the poor than a sneaky bureaucratic web that greases health insurance company palms in exchange for ostensible universal coverage.

Don’t make a deal with the devil, they say. But these people aren’t The Devil, even if they might be devils. They’re just people, operating in a complex political “market” that manages violence and wealth. They have discrete interests. Their power, even when vast, isn’t unlimited. Let us deal. Some of these power brokers, though stubborn and infinitely arrogant, might be at least a little sincere. We shouldn’t compromise our principles to them, but our pragmatic deal-making could and should include them.

I am one who believes that “our country” (the USA) should make deals and not war. Deal with the Taliban, stop trying to kill them all. We should have dealt with Hitler, fighting him hardly saved millions of Jews.  And how many millions more were killed by the war and its aftermath?

So why not deal with the power elite? They’re “Hitler” in our own country. They’re not good, but are we going to win if we fight them? How about accept them for what they are and bargain for gains, and trust that “we’re right” and will prevail in the long run because ours are the better values?

In addition to the “practical” argument, I believe we are philosophically obligated to be pragmatic.

True pragmatism means doing something because it appears to temporarily work, rejecting that which appears not to.  You can’t die or kill for pragmatic values.  You can’t attach a higher purpose to pragmatic solutions.  You can’t pull wool over someone’s eyes assuring them that your pragmatism is leading to a better world.  Pragmatism doesn’t mean realism, it does not mean expediency.  It means choosing an action that appears, among the set of what is practically possible, to best advance one’s values.  In other words, the pragmatism I’m advocating has to do with a deep understanding and pure commitment to our own principles, and identifying where and when society is unable to deal with those principles. It does not mean having principles of convenience.

In order to defend this pragmatic approach, and also explain its nuances, I have to prove why politics and society is pragmatic by definition.  The epistemology of social interaction conforms to the epistemology of pragmatic philosophy.  The proof is simple enough.  I may personally believe in objective reality.  I would have my reasons for believing in the metaphysics I do, and would have a personal epistemology to get there.  However, I cannot transfer that process of discovering truth into the mind of another.  I can only translate it into discrete language.  It is now up to the other person to take the language I have communicated to them, receive it, understand it, interpret it, and only possibly reproduce in their own mind the same truth process I personally followed.  Two people are capable of communicating a common metaphysical world view, that is, one can convert the other to his worldview.  Moreover, it’s also possible to suspect with high probability that you and other people all experience a common objective reality.  However, these conclusions must, at best, be a pragmatic guess. The best confirmation of understanding you receive from others is also discrete language, which you then must interpret according to your own mental processes.  Put another way, without telepathy, the best we can do is guess what life and its experience might be for other people – assuming of course we are certain about the nature of our own life experience.

For the more grounded libertarian minds out there, what I’m saying is that even the best worded argument still has to pass from paper into mind.  There are plenty of jerks out there who simply will not take what you have put onto paper, and end up in their own mind with ideas remotely consistent with the ones you intended.  Indeed, raw stupidity is one prominent factor inhibiting understanding.  When I discuss these philosophical abstractions, part of what I’m referring to are simple phenomena like stupidity and bias.

What I am doing here is stepping to the side of the common conclusions of post-modernism and traditional pragmatism.  I’m leaving room for the possibility that both philosophies are objectively wrong.  However, I am acknowledging that the nature of social interaction – the communication of knowledge between people – conforms to the epistemological limits pointed to by anti-objective philosophies.  There’s just no way to communicate an idea to the rest of the world and guarantee that every person will come to the same understanding you have.  The best we can do is try and persuade.  If the other party is obstinate due to pure personal flaws, there’s nothing we can do to force their accession to our ideas.  Even if we use physical force, the best we can do is coerce their behavior or psychology.  We cannot create understanding through coercion.

The limits of our ability to understand each other purely is where I’m conceding that our human life conforms to elements of pragmatic epistemology.  The market, law, politics, governance, norms, human civility, culture – all these require a coming together of minds to reach mutual understanding.  Therefore human society, especially political society, is necessarily the product of a pragmatic process of obtaining knowledge.  This is even in a world in which you personally can become appraised of objective truth.

When I communicate an idea about oughts or norms to another person, I only hope they understand.  When they attempt to communicate understanding, we are both only hoping we understand each other.  These limits are why the legal profession is so lucrative.  There’s a lot of value brought from mechanisms that bring clear objective lines to human understanding.  Even so, the inanity of legalisms can often frustrate “normal people” who possess no malicious intent, but nevertheless get caught up in a dispute resulting from misunderstanding.

What we’re doing when we create social norms or political rules is that we are “guessing” what sort of standards best represent our values in the social environment.  It’s an act of pragmatism.  We don’t know that this law or that law perfectly represent the common values, but we are hoping that ourselves and everyone else involved all have developed the best possible mutual understanding.

Libertarians should recognize that social interaction necessitates pragmatism.  In fact, we’re the best ones to do so due to our moral commitment to non-coercion.  What matters is that we understand that pragmatism does not mean expediency.  Pragmatism is framed through our individual principles, and does not represent an effort to put them aside.


The next article of this series will explore libertarian engagement in politics outside of elections and state power.  That is, what can libertarians achieve through that dreaded left wing principle of collective action?  Since we hold the state to be illegitimate, then shouldn’t more of our politics orient to organization outside the systems of the state, than those having to do with the state?
The principle of collective action is an important building block in my proposed new direction for libertarian politics.  While our engagement in electoral, or formal, politics should be pragmatic, that pragmatism is counter-balanced by principled collective action.  Pragmatism should not apply to our collective action.  We should stand up for each others’ rights!  We should defend our principles!  Coming in part 2.

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Zachary Sorenson worked for the United States Air Force for six years as a Navigation Officer. He recently quit because of a principled opposition to war. He considers himself to be a Libertarian, and studied Economics at the University of Maryland, College Park. He would like to see the resurgence of a non-political commitment to peace for its own sake, across the spectrum of ideologies.