The emptiness of Obama's pragmatism
Policy devoid of clear ethical theory creates a nation without principle, and a nation without principle is a nation on stilts.
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Obama has governed so far as though Pragmatism 1 entails Pragmatism 2. He presumes that policies forged by reason, evidence, and "unbiased" expertise (Pragmatism 1) – those policies that "work" – will garner the support of all reasonable members of Congress and thus bridge partisan divides (Pragmatism 2). He bases his belief in the possibility of national and political consensus on this faulty argument.Skip to next paragraph
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Consensus has not emerged in Washington because disagreement exists over the definition of Pragmatism 1. What "works" for liberals doesn't work for conservatives. Did Reagan's policies "work"? Did Clinton's?
The most divisive public policy issues are not that way because liberals and conservatives solve math differently. Economists cannot specify the rights and duties of citizenship. The deeper partisan disagreements are ethical and philosophical. Liberals and conservatives have conflicting intuitions and moral arguments about how we ought to distribute the burdens and benefits of a free society.
Such fundamental disagreement helps explain why Chief Justice John Roberts's bid for more unanimous Supreme Court rulings has faltered. And it sheds light on the Republicans' vigorous opposition to Obama's pragmatic agenda, which they see as a liberal plan to radically reshape American society.
For Obama and other Democratic leaders to be the harbingers of a lasting American liberalism, they need to unite their pragmatism rhetoric with real moral argument about the meaning of rights, freedom, and equality. They need to prove that their understanding of what works is connected to what is right and just beyond mere assertion. The same applies to conservatives.
Both political perspectives require people to sacrifice personal interests, economic or otherwise, for the sake of other people's interests or rights. People assent to such obligations not because they "work" for their personal interests – or not only for that reason – but because they believe it's morally beneficial or required. The Reagan revolution was enduring because he grounded his program in principles that were independent from his specific policies, such that they could apply to changing conditions.
In order to engender a durable political movement, Obama ought to ground his policies in ethical theory that the people can endorse. This requires delving into that purely philosophical realm eschewed by Pierce, Dewey, and James. Our Founders did not fear such theorizing, and at this critical juncture in our history, it seems we must jump in once more. What is the purpose of government? What rights and obligations do citizens have, and why? How should we distribute society's resources, and why?
It cannot be too much to ask our leaders and parties to present and discuss coherent answers to these questions. Washington's priorities are backward: Many there can discuss the details of a specific environmental regulation, but very few can speak lucidly on the details of these foundational questions.
Through a straightforward moral discussion, partisans may come to understand that the other side has good intentions, but different intuitions or reasoned arguments. And this realization – more than any graph detailing the future benefits of X,Y, or Z policy – might lead to the more civil discussion that Obama aims to lead. At the very least, such discussion would enable us to shun the hopelessly partisan ideologues as irresponsible and unreasonable.
Pragmatism, planning, and expertise are necessary. Abstract moral arguments alone won't lift America. Relying entirely on Pragmatism 1 to justify one's policies, however, is disingenuous and short-sighted. Policy devoid of clear ethical theory creates a nation without principle, and a nation without principle is a nation on stilts.