Pragmatism vs. Your Freedom and Time

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I seem to be taking issue with Glenn Reynolds a lot lately -- and linking to The Ayn Rand Lexicon quite a lot, as well....

What has me shaking my head over at Instapundit this morning is the following post:

Somehow, the following observation from Robert Heinlein seems quite apropos.

"If you are part of a society that votes, then do so. There may be no candidates and no measures you want to vote for ... but there are certain to be ones you want to vote against. In case of doubt, vote against. By this rule you will rarely go wrong."

"If this is too blind for your taste, consult some well-meaning fool (there is always one around) and ask his advice. Then vote the other way. This enables you to be a good citizen (if such is your wish) without spending the enormous amount of time on it that truly intelligent exercise of franchise requires."
The more things change... [minor edits]
I'm not wild about it, but don't have huge problems with the idea of voting against specific measures when in doubt -- if your implicit premises are that (a) the government should be only in the business of protecting individual rights and that (b) most new measures proposed today will curtail that protection.

Regarding candidates, that bit of advice very quickly goes out the window. For example, I don't want socialized medicine or theocracy. Whom do I vote against in an Obama-Huckabee election? I see capitalism much more likely taking the blame for the inevitable disaster if Huckabee enacts socialized medicine than if Obama does.

So I vote for Obama, but I'm not really voting against socialized medicine because I can't (unless I also regard it as more likely to be blocked by Republicans in Congress under Obama). And, as I have mentioned before, I did not vote at all for President in 2000. So both "voting against" and voting at all are questionable rules of thumb.

It is really with the last paragraph I take issue. Again, as cracker-barrel wisdom, it has some surface plausibility since most political activists these days are waging a foolish and all-out (but often, well-meaning) war against freedom. But notice two things about the quote.

First, it supposedly requires an "enormous amount of time" to decide how to vote in an informed manner. Second, why must one necessarily seek advice on how not to vote from a "well-meaning fool". Why not solicit advice from some wise soul who has carefully considered the options available in a given election? This cynical quote makes it sound as if attempting to analyze politics by means of rational principles is a futile waste of time and, as such, beneath contempt.

While it is not necessarily easy to decide how to vote in today's elections, this situation is a result of cultural trends in our society at large and it is both abnormal for and dangerous to a free society. As I have argued before, the massive government involvement in our daily lives we see today -- a direct result of the dominance of altruism and pragmatism in the culture -- both over-complicates the decision process and reduces the importance of one's vote.

What is worse is that this needless complication functions much like the appeals to "science" by global warming hysterics in the sense that it distracts everyone from the only real political issue at hand, which is: "How can I vote in such a way as to best insure the protection of my individual rights?"

In other words, ordinary voters, already suspicious of principles due to the cultural penetrance of Pragmatism, are confronted by a mountain of minutiae each election, and advocates of increasingly loony and dangerous political crusades as examples of principled people. The temptation is well-nigh irresistible to throw one's hands up and vote in the cynical way prescribed by Heinlein, if at all.

This is too bad, for if there is one way to preserve freedom from "well-meaning fools", as well as to save time in evaluating mountains of data (often by deciding whether a given mountain is worth considering at all), it is by recourse to principles of political philosophy.

Heinlein has it half-right that figuring out how to vote requires an "enormous" amount of time. It does take time, it is true, to master the principles on which our nation was founded. However, once one does this, these principles greatly simplify how one approaches any subsequent election, even in today's context of massive government intrusion. Anyone who thinks that each election requires enormous amounts of study before one can vote intelligently does not understand the cognitive role of principles.

Ayn Rand very nicely sums up the time- and life-saving value of principles as follows:
A principle is "a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend." Thus a principle is an abstraction which subsumes a great number of concretes. It is only by means of principles that one can set one's long-range goals and evaluate the concrete alternatives of any given moment. It is only principles that enable a man to plan his future and to achieve it.

The present state of our culture may be gauged by the extent to which principles have vanished from public discussion, reducing our cultural atmosphere to the sordid, petty senselessness of a bickering family that haggles over trivial concretes, while betraying all its major values, selling out its future for some spurious advantage of the moment.

To make it more grotesque, that haggling is accompanied by an aura of hysterical self-righteousness, in the form of belligerent assertions that one must compromise with anybody on anything (except on the tenet that one must compromise) and by panicky appeals to "practicality."

But there is nothing as impractical as a so-called "practical" man. His view of practicality can best be illustrated as follows: if you want to drive from New York to Los Angeles, it is "impractical" and "idealistic" to consult a map and to select the best way to get there; you will get there much faster if you just start out driving at random, turning (or cutting) any corner, taking any road in any direction, following nothing but the mood and the weather of the moment.

The fact is, of course, that by this method you will never get there at all. But while most people do recognize this fact in regard to the course of a journey, they are not so perceptive in regard to the course of their life and of their country. ["The Anatomy of Compromise," Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, 144, bold added]
There may indeed be a certain smug satisfaction one can feel for a moment after considering Heinlein's quote and sharing his contempt for a body politic riddled with "well-meaning fools". However, that satisfaction will quickly disappear when one considers that without principles of some kind, one cannot even tell who the fools are! Are those who would have the government ration fuel for the whole economy in the name of capping carbon dioxide emissions fools? Or are those who doubt whether global warming is happening? Or those who hold, as I do, that the government should not impose fuel rationing at all, regardless of what the science eventually says?

And as if that is not enough, consider that Americans have scorned politicians almost since the inception of the Republic. Heinlein's advice sounds like it could have come from straight from the mouth of Mark Twain or any other of a number of cynical literary figures who hated politics. Many of us have functioned on that level for generations. And yet, we are steadily losing our freedom with each election. Obviously, this approach isn't working.

So many of us are so busy feeling smug about leaving things up to well-meaning fools that we are suffering the consequences. I counsel that we take Heinlein's advice exactly one more time, and only just long enough to regard him as a well-meaning fool. I advise voting in the exact opposite manner as he: Learn about the principles on which freedom depends, vote in accordance with them and, just as crucially, help get these better ideas into the political mainstream.

-- CAV


Burgess Laughlin said...

"I seem to be [...] linking to The Ayn Rand Lexicon quite a lot, as well...."

For good reason. I have found the ARL to be the most important one-volume resource for Ayn Rand's philosophy as contained in her writings and the writings of a few people working under her editorial supervision. (Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, is an excellent way to see the integration of her philosophy as a whole once the reader has investigated all his own special interests in the philosophy.)

The rigorous structure of the excerpts (definitions first, applications later) and the thorough cross-references are two of the very helpful features.

I prefer my print copy for most of my work. It allows me to write notes in the margins, or even insert whole sheets between the pages. Thus the volume is cumulative. However, the online version is very helpful for quick reference and for copying text.

Gus Van Horn said...

I bought a copy of the ARL long ago and it has been my most important reference since I started blogging. In addition to no longer having to enter text by hand when I want to quote from it, I like the fact that I can hyperlink to it. This is a great way to get people who might be inclined to do so to browse through it.

I seem to recall that Ayn Rand joked that when the ARL came out that people could look up "baby" and see that she doesn't advocate eating them for breakfast. Now, thanks to the Internet, even more people can do this!

Charlie said...

Great post, Gus.

In other words, ordinary voters, already suspicious of principles due to the cultural penetrance of Pragmatism, are confronted by a mountain of minutiae each election, and advocates of increasingly loony and dangerous political crusades as examples of principled people.

This was exactly what I was thinking as I was reading the post. Not only has Pragmatism seemingly taken over, the flip side is that a nutcase theocrat is held up as a man of principle. People are rightly suspicious of government, and when a politician who spouts dogmatic lunacy is held up as a principled idealist, people seem to say "well, if THAT's what it's like to have principles, I don't want any part of it!"

As a result, someone with actual principles who tries to argue a point rationally is greeted with suspicion. "Wow. He keeps refering to individual rights... doesn't he know that there are no absolutes and nothing is black & white?"

I still have no idea who I might vote for. All the candidates are so despicable, I don't know that I can stomach voting for any of them. If I vote at all -- because if I vote republican my vote will be meaningless (I live in MA) -- I'll likely go for the candidate most likely to create gridlock in Washington. Because if no laws can get passed, at least they aren't making things worse.

A friend actually said jokingly that if he were to run, he'd run on the platform of "For every 1 law that is passed, we'll revoke 5 old laws". Wouldn't that be great?

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Charlie!

WRT voting, join the club!

We're at the point where your friend's joking suggestion would almost work. Bleh.