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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 TWO

         We also have the pragmatic activist who shares the businessman's disdain for ideologues and believes that he, too, has his finger on the pulse of people in the real world. Radical ideas and causes, according to this activist, will alienate our potential supporters, many of whom are disenchanted by traditional politics. Therefore, we are cautioned not to focus on unpopular issues, such as drug legalization.
         There are many variations and permutations of pragmatism, some of which are more sophisticated than the types presented here, but all share a dislike of abstract arguments and ideologues. When the libertarian pragmatist speak of "facts" and the "real world," he means the knowledge gained through experience and observation, knowledge acquired from specific events and circumstances. He begins with empirical facts (concrete people, specific actions, etc.) and then generalizes about strategy, based on what libertarians can realistically hope to achieve in the near future.
         This inductive process is based on the historical method. All facts appealed to by the pragmatist (assuming they are accurate) fall within the domain of historical knowledge. History is the study of past human actions; it is concerned with the unique individual event, not with a general pattern or theory. These historical events are what the pragmatists call the "real world" of facts.
         Ironically, the pragmatist sometimes places history in the same category as theory, relegating both to the ethereal world of the ideologue, scholar and academic. Yet, as Mises and others have pointed out, all human knowledge falls into one of these two categories. Knowledge of particular concrete facts is always knowledge of something that has already taken place; this is historical knowledge. General knowledge, on the other hand, does not refer to a specific time and place; this is theoretical knowledge. All knowledge refers either to specific phenomena that occurred at a determinate time and place in the past, or to general propositions that are abstracted from any particular time and place. The former is the sphere of history; the latter is the sphere of theory.
         The pragmatist commits himself to a strategic method based on history instead of theory. This is a plausible choice, provided the pragmatist understands the method he is using, especially its limitations. But this rarely happens. The pragmatist who disdains theory fails thereby to reflect on the theoretical premises and implications of his own method, which remain unacknowledged, unappreciated, and often ill-treated. I will discuss three aspects of this problem.
         (1) The failure to analyze methodological assumptions is clearly illustrated by the mole-like historical sight of some pragmatists who, in their search for empirical data, search no farther than their immediate range of vision. History, for the mole, is limited to what he has personally witnessed or at least to events that have occurred during recent decades. For the mole, history began a decade ago, possibly two or three, but rarely does the mole regard as relevant any event that is older than he is. His life and memory, it seems, just happen to overlap perfectly with the only period of history that he needs to know. By a convenient coincidence, all relevant facts pertaining to a free society and how to achieve it are confined to the same period of time during which the pragmatist has been interested in libertarianism.
         Given his commitment to the real world, the pragmatist should immerse himself in a study of the real world (i.e., history) and learn what factors have contributed to freedom over the past 2500 years. Modern libertarians are not the first people to value liberty, nor are we the most successful. Seventeenth and eighteenth century libertarians, for example, faced even greater odds than we do, yet they had spectacular triumphs in some areas, such as religious freedom. These successes were not accidental. Early libertarians were acutely aware of strategic issues -- witness the popular appeal of the Enlightenment philosophes -- yet most would be considered "ideologues" by the modern pragmatist. Indeed, the very word "ideologue" was apparently coined by the pragmatic Napoleon, who used it to smear Benjamin Constant and other French libertarians who refused to sacrifice principles to expediency.
         I agree with the pragmatist that we should be concerned with what will work in the real world. But this requires that we learn something about the real world, which is far more complex than the mole would have us believe. If we want to know what will work,we should find out what has worked in the past. Therefore, the sincere pragmatist, before he trashes ideologues, should study history for at least ten years, reflect on what he has read, and then get back to us.
         (2) The most serious error of pragmatism is its lack of appreciation for the role of ideology in social perception. By "social perception," is meant how we "perceive" the world of social wholes (or entities), such as "state," "society," "church," and "the market." In truth, we do not perceive social entities with our eyes; rather, we understand them with our minds. Social entities, as Hayek says, are "constituted" by the mind. They are not physical things, like rocks and trees and birds, but are mental constructs of abstract relationships.
         This means that how we think about social entities will greatly influence how we perceive them. We libertarians know this from experience, having encountered many people who appear to "see" government differently than we do. Some people don't see government as essentially coercive; they may even see taxes as "voluntary." These differences in social perception result from viewing social reality through different ideological lenses. Ideology is absolutely essential to the success of the libertarian movement, because it establishes a common frame of reference. If we fail to convince the average person, this is often because we see a different social reality than does the average person. Before we can convince other people, we must refer to the same social world.
         Contrary to the pragmatist, the real world of social interaction is not a world of objective data and physical entities. It is a subjective world, one that is filtered through ideological assumptions, premises, and prejudices. The social world is constituted by the ideas that people have about it. If libertarians can change those ideas, they can, in a very literal sense, change the world.
         (3) In evaluating any form of pragmatism, we should keep in mind that the greatest benefits of a free society are often those that cannot be foreseen or predicted. As Hayek points out, this has important implications for any pragmatic strategy.
         "Since the value of freedom rests on the opportunities it provides for unforeseen and unpredictable actions, we will rarely know what we lose through a particular restriction of freedom." (Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Vol.I, p.56)
         The direct effects of market intervention will be apparent in many cases, but we cannot know all the opportunities that have been lost through such intervention. This means that liberty will tend to lose out in any cost-benefit analysis -- because the benefits of intervention can be "seen," while the costs (the unrealized opportunities) remain largely "unseen." Consequently, whenever policy decisions are based on expediency instead of principle, "freedom is bound to be sacrificed in almost every instance." Hayek continues:
         "The preservation of a free system is so difficult precisely because it requires a constant rejection of measures which appear to be required to secure particular results, on no stronger grounds than that they conflict with a general rule, and frequently without our knowing what will be the costs of not observing the rule in the particular instance. A successful defense of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concessions to expediency .... Freedom will prevail only if it is accepted as a general principle whose application to particular instances requires no justification." (Ibid., p.61.)

INTELLECTUALS AND PUBLIC OPINION

         Hayek's essay, "The Intellectuals and Socialism", is a superb discussion of the role of intellectuals in modern society, the reasons for their attraction to socialism, and why they have generally found classical liberal (i.e., libertarian) ideas to be unappealing. Although some points in this essay may not be as relevant today as when they were first published in 1949 -- for example, a smaller percentage of modern intellectuals probably favor outright socialism than when Hayek was writing, while a greater percentage have embraced libertarianism -- Hayek's general insights remain highly suggestive and useful for the modern movement.
         "The Intellectuals and Socialism" presents nothing less than a strategic vision for achieving a free society; it is a compelling case for the indispensable role of abstract principles and a systematic theory of liberty. Though Hayek is not usually regarded as a strategic thinker, this essay demonstrates in theory what his role in establishing the Mont Pelerin Society demonstrated in practice -- namely, that F.A. Hayek was perhaps the most brilliant and successful strategist in the modern revival of classical liberalism.
         Because the meaning of "intellectual" is rather vague, and because the word sometimes carries a negative connotation, it is important to understand at the outset what Hayek means by the word.
         For Hayek, an intellectual is a "professional secondhand dealer in ideas." By this Hayek does not intend to disparage the intelligence, knowledge, or significance of intellectuals. Intellectuals can be highly intelligent or rather stupid, wise or foolish, knowledgeable or ignorant, quick-witted or dull, original or hackneyed. By "second-hand," Hayek means second in the order of the transmission of knowledge -- a mediator between the expert and the general public. Therefore Hayek defines the intellectual in terms of his public function -- or social role, as sociologists would say -- in the dissemination of specialized knowledge to a wider audience; he is an "intermediary in the spreading of ideas."
         The intellectual is distinguished by Hayek from the expert -- the specialist, scholar or original thinker in a particular field of knowledge. This does not mean that intellectuals cannot be experts, or vice versa, but insofar as the specialist addresses not just fellow specialists but the public at large, he is functioning in the dual roles of expert and intellectual. Though the roles of the expert and the intellectual are often embodied in different persons, this need not be the case.
         This concept of the intellectual encompasses many professionals, including journalists, teachers, novelists, ministers, and even cartoonists and artists who convey ideas through their work. Also included are various professionals and technicians, such as scientists and doctors, who, because of the respect they command in their own areas of expertise, are taken seriously in other fields. Essentially, therefore, intellectuals are those who deal with ideas that are taken from other sources; they are secondhanders, in contrast to experts, who are firsthanders.

[To Be Continued]


George H. Smith's articles and essays have appeared in many publications, including the New York Times, Reason, Liberty, and Free Inquiry. He currently conducts classes and seminars on Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand and other libertarian thinkers for Resources for Independent Thinking, a foundation headed by libertarian psychologist Sharon Presley. RIT, 484 Lake Park Ave., #24, Oakland, CA 94610-2730, 510-601-9450 (voice), 510-547-7140 (fax), rit@well.com (e-mail).

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).


"It is the nature of American politics that clarity is considered harsh and uncompromising."
-- George L. O'Brien


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