The Myth of Principle and Pragmatism

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The
recent dispute between this website and Jonah
Goldberg of National Review Online
illustrated one of the chief
myths that plagues political philosophy today – the false dichotomy
of "principle" and "pragmatism." According to
this myth, libertarians are ideological purists who accomplish little
or nothing in the real world. Mainstream conservatives, on the other
hand, understand that politics is the art of compromise, but sometimes
go too far and "sell out." These are the standard stereotypes.
Both are highly misleading.

If
anything, libertarians – and big-L Libertarians in particular – are too "pragmatic," too political. They compromise
their anti-statist principles not only in policy details like support
of school vouchers
, but even in their overall strategy. Let's
suppose the Libertarian Party somehow takes control of Congress,
or elects a President. What happens next? Human nature will take
its course. The politicians of the LP will be no different from
the politicians of any other party once they attain power. At that
point the Libertarian Party becomes the government. Can we seriously
expect the State to minimize itself?

You
can't change politics through politics. That's why the biggest revolutions
in our history were not political, they were cultural (the sexual
revolution, political correctness) or military (the War of Northern
Aggression). Even the "Republican revolution" of 1994
had less to do with Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America
than with culturally alienated "angry white males."

Sticking
to principle does not mean having no effect on the world. Far from
it. A clear example is Charley Reese, columnist for the Orlando
Sentinel and one of the most principled men in journalism today.
Reese is also, as Ralph
Raico pointed out
, probably responsible for George W. Bush winning
Florida and becoming president. Note that it's not simply because
Reese endorsed Bush – lots of columnists did that. Reese however
made a real difference because his readership includes people who
would have preferred to vote for Harry Brown or Pat Buchanan. Reese's
principles earned him the respect of those who would not have listened
to anybody else telling them to vote for Bush.

As
far as "selling out" is concerned, there are many good
reasons to get angry at the Republican Party, but this is not one
of them. The Republican Party simply does what all US political
parties do – it tries to win power. Specific policy positions
are only a means toward that end. Expecting principle from a party
is like expecting blood from a stone. If anti-statists want Republicans
to behave a certain way, appeals to principle won't work, nor will
accusations of "selling out." What can work are practical
threats to their political survival. In other words, fighting pragmatism
with pragmatism. What Gun Owners
of America
calls "Confrontational
Politics
."

Not
that the Republican Party is always so pragmatic, though. There's
good reason why the GOP is called the "Stupid Party."
Republicans play by the Left's rules, courting racial minorities
such as blacks and Latinos instead of ideological minorities such
as conservatives and libertarians. In the process the GOP has lost
seats in the House and Senate in every election since 1994 and has
won the presidency only by the grace of Charley Reese.

I've
applied my arguments mostly to the political representations of
conservatism (the Republican Party) and libertarianism (the Libertarian
Party) for a reason. Pragmatism is hardly a concern for conservatives
and libertarians who are primarily involved in educational efforts,
such as LewRockwell.com. What does "pragmatism" have to
do with telling the truth about Abe Lincoln? Political pragmatism
should not constrain those of us who work in the realm of ideas.
Otherwise thought itself becomes subservient to politics. Which
is what has already happened in the "official" conservative
and libertarian movements.

None
of what I've said is meant to suggest that people of principle should
not be engaged in politics. But anyone who does get involved in
the business of electing candidates and passing legislation must
be aware of how little is possible through such measures. And on
the flipside, principled opponents of the State should never lose
heart and forget what can be achieved outside of politics. That's
where revolutions begin.

P.S.
For another treatment of principle and pragmatism, see W.
James Antle's article
in Enter Stage Right. I disagree with
much of what Antle writes, but he deserves credit for saying that
conservative intellectuals should not be quick to embrace political
pragmatism.

March
13, 2001

Daniel
McCarthy is a graduate student in classics at Washington University
in St. Louis.

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