T
H
E

L
I
B
E
R
T
A
R
I
A
N

E
N
T
E
R
P
R
I
S
E


I
s
s
u
e

33


THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 33, September, 1997

Pragmatists vs. Ideologues

Achieving A Free Society: Good News and Bad

By George H. Smith
cathylz@lamar.colostate.edu

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

PART ONE

         In recent months, at least four major books have appeared by libertarian writers. The first is a brilliant history of the Civil War, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, by the economist and historian Jeffrey Hummel. The second, Libertarianism: A Primer, is by David Boaz, vice-president of the Cato Institute. Boaz also edited the third book, The Libertarian Reader, a superb anthology of readings from ancient and modern texts. The fourth book, What It Means to be a Libertarian, is by Charles Murray, co-author of the controversial best-seller, The Bell Curve.
         To old-timers like myself, who began our libertarian careers in the 1960s or before, this contiguous publication of four books by libertarian writers is at once remarkable and encouraging. As a college student in the late 60s, I recall how difficult it was even to find older libertarian books in print, much less new ones. Since then, however, each decade has witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of such books, and we may confidently expect this trend to continue.
         My optimism is based not merely on the quantity of libertarian books, but also on their quality. Of course, we have long been blessed with first rate minds, such as Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman, Thomas Szasz, and Ayn Rand, but their numbers were few, especially when compared to our adversaries. During the Sixties and Seventies, the publication of a libertarian book was a major event, and it was fairly easy to read everything that came out.
         Today, I am happy to say, it is virtually impossible to keep abreast of libertarian publications, especially if we include -- in addition to books -- magazines, journal articles, newspaper columns, and the seemingly omnipresent voice of libertarians on the Internet. If we add to these the tremendous growth and influence of libertarian organizations and think-tanks, such as the Libertarian Party, the Cato Institute, the Institute for Humane Studies, the International Society for Individual Liberty, and so forth, then we have incontrovertible proof that the libertarian movement has made remarkable progress in the last two decades.
         So much for the good news. The bad news is that America continues its accelerated march down the road to serfdom, with both Democrats and Republicans leading the way. I needn't elaborate on our descent into democratic despotism for this audience. Even a brief listing of tyrannical trends and political horrors would require far more space than I have here.
         Instead, I want to discuss how it is possible for the good news and the bad news to coexist simultaneously. How is it that the quantity and quality of our work has improved so dramatically, while at the same time the social and political situation is continuing to deteriorate at an alarming rate?
         One explanation is that ideas and principles really don't matter all that much. According to this view -- which unfortunately is accepted by a sizable percentage of libertarians today -- we should descend from the ethereal clouds of abstract arguments and moral principles to the solid ground of pragmatism. Most people, we are told, aren't interested in hearing about rights, the proper role of government, and the like, so we should stop confusing politics with philosophy and adopt a pragmatic strategy instead, based on the wise maxim that politics is the art of the possible. Or, to shift metaphors, we must trim our ideological sails if we are to navigate successfully through the treacherous waters of politics. Here we have the perennial debate between ideologues and pragmatists. I say "perennial," because this debate, in one form or another, has surfaced in every radical movement -- past and present, religious and secular, libertarian and socialist. Throughout history various radical movements, which began with purity of principles, have run into a wall of indifference and hostility; and, as the frustration builds, some activists have invariably called for a strategy that is more pragmatic and less ideological. I don't say that all such pragmatic turns have proved unsuccessful in the short run. But I do say that any successes based on pragmatism have tended to be highly vulnerable and short-lived. A political change for the better, when not based on general principles, can easily be reversed (and usually is) by its political opponents within a relatively short period of time.
         To understand the reasons for this, we need to explore the relationship between theory and strategy. Knowledge in this area is essential if we are to understand the current relationship between the good news and the bad news, and what we can do to turn our good news into even more good news.

THEORY AND STRATEGY

         Some libertarians vigorously defend their own strategic vision without bothering to reflect on the theoretical implications of strategic pronouncements. This can lead to immense confusion, since there is no way, apart from the use of theory, that conflicting strategies can be evaluated. How do we know whether or not a particular strategy has been effective in accomplishing its stated goals? Given the immense complexity of social causation, what role, if any, can empirical observation play in the validation of a given strategy?
         Let's suppose for example, that the Libertarian Party presidential candidate fares poorly in the next election, and let us further suppose that some libertarian pundits, who work from different strategic assumptions, offer various explanations for the disappointing results. Here are some likely possibilities:

  • The LP radical: "I told you so; our campaign was too conservative."
  • The LP conservative: "I told you so; our campaign was too radical."
  • The LP ideologue: "I told you so; we don't talk enough about ideas."
  • The LP pragmatist: "I told you so; we talk about ideas too much."
  • The LP sore loser: "We would have done better if my candidate had been nominated."
  • The LP sore winner: "We would have done better if everyone had united behind our candidate."
  • The LP opponent: "We will never do much better, because freedom cannot be won by political means."
  • The LP Jesuit: "We did far better than we should have, if you consider the demographics."

         Two implications of these conflicting accounts are worth mentioning. First, the empirical fact (the vote total) has no intrinsic meaning or significance apart from a strategic theory through which it is interpreted. Second, the strategic theory can neither be proved nor disproved by referring solely to the empirical facts, because a different vote total, whether higher or lower, can always be attributed to other social variables, whether known or unknown.
         The vote total, like all historical data, must be viewed through theoretical lenses before we can understand its relevance. As Mises and Hayek have argued, no historical fact can refute or confirm a social theory, because that fact itself must be interpreted with the aid of theory before its significance can be determined. Quoting Mises:
         "The epistemological and logical considerations which determine the correctness or incorrectness of a theory are logically and temporally antecedent to the elucidation of the historical problem involved. The historical facts as such neither prove nor disprove any theory. They need to be interpreted in the light of theoretical insight." (Human Action, 3rd ed., p.622.)
         All knowledge of particular social facts is necessarily historical; such knowledge refers to concrete events that have already occurred at a determinate time and location. If we follow Mises and Hayek, therefore, social data can neither verify nor falsify the theories on which we base our view of long-term strategy. This relationship between social theory and empirical data marks a fundamental difference between the social sciences and the physical sciences (where empirical data can be used to test theories).
         Methodological issues should be kept in mind when we formulate strategic theories and try to evaluate their successes and failures. By this I do not mean that strategy is, or can be, a science. (At best, it is an art.) But every strategic theory proceeds, implicitly or explicitly, from a view of social theory and methodology; and it is difficult to assess a particular view of strategy without examining its assumptions and presuppositions. In other words, it always helps to know what the hell we're talking about.

PRAGMATISTS VERSUS IDEOLOGUES

         Perhaps the most dramatic difference in libertarian thinking about strategy is that between pragmatists and ideologues. I offer these categories as "ideal types" or "pure forms" (to use the sociological terms of Max Weber and Georg Simmel). In other words, I have constructed these ideal types for the purpose of analysis, without suggesting that real libertarians fall exclusively into one category or the other. Most of us probably embody some features of both types, with a disposition to favor one over the other. Moreover, "pragmatist" and "ideologue" are relative terms; even the most practical of libertarian pragmatists is regarded as an impractical ideologue by the general public.
         Pragmatists typically pride themselves on their "common sense" and on their "realistic" view of the political world. Although they do not altogether deny the importance of theory and ideology, pragmatists believe that these have little application outside the immediate circle of hard-core libertarians. Libertarians may enjoy debating the fine points of theory among themselves, but this intellectual recreation cannot help us in the rough and tumble world of politics. The pragmatist sees himself as a problem-solver; he is going to roll up his sleeves and get something done.
         The pragmatist is especially fond of talking about "the real world" -- a place, he thinks, that ideologues rarely visit and know little about. The real world is the world of flesh-and-blood human beings, the domicile of the proverbial "average person," in contrast to the abstract world of the libertarian theorist. The pragmatist, however much he may disparage theory, often has a rather elaborate theory about how to change the world. If he has a background in business (which he often does), the pragmatist will wax eloquent on how libertarian ideas can be "packaged" and "sold." The average person, he tells us, doesn't want to hear about rights and the proper role of government; he is interested only in his family, his job, and his bank account. It is the pragmatist who likes to write and read books with titles like, How You Can Profit from the Coming Extinction of the Human Race.

[To Be Continued]


For six years, George H. Smith was general editor for Knowledge Products, a company that produces audio tapes on various aspects of libertarian theory and history. Among his 28 scripts were four on the US Constitution, narrated by Walter Cronkite, and four on the American Revolution, narrated by George C. Scott.

This article was first delivered as the keynote address at the Libertarian Party of California's state convention in Sacramento February 15, 1997 and is reprinted from the International Society for Individual Liberty's Freedom Network News No. 48 (March 1997).


A Juror's Creed: As an American juror, I will exercise my 1000 year old duty to arrive at a verdict, not just on the basis of the facts of a particular case, or instructions I am given, but through my ability to reason, my knowledge of the Bill of Rights, and my individual conscience.
-- L. Neil Smith


Next to advance to the next article, or Index to return to The Libertarian Enterprise, Number 33, September, 1997.