Pragmatism is OK, but it is not a Goal

“Don’t you wish at least to lead your men onto the field and barter a better deal with Longshanks before you tuck tail and run?” – William Wallace, Braveheart

I tend to be pretty ardent and uncompromising when it comes to principles of human liberty and human rights. As I will often rail against compromise on issues that ought to be cornerstones, it seems useful to point out that there is a time and a place for pragmatism. But, pragmatism is not a goal in-and-of itself. “Finding common ground” or legislative compromise is not a moral virtue of its own right. It is only valid when it moves the country in the direction of what is good, right, and proper.

A couple of historical examples are in order. A question to the reader, to set the scene: did Abraham Lincoln advance the cause of freedom and human rights for African Americans? Undoubtedly, the answer must be “yes.”

Yet it is this same Abraham Lincoln who said, in the Lincoln-Douglas debates: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

I can’t hope to get inside Lincoln’s head on that one. Lincoln had plenty of other things to say about human rights and human equality. Perhaps he had just been beaten up so much in previous debates over charges of abolitionism, that he had to find a way to take the heat off. Whether this was a political maneuver or heart-felt racism is unclear. But, if it was the former, then it was a skilled maneuver indeed. Lincoln needed Republicans to win the Illinois legislature in order for him to become senator. Any hope he had of moving the country closer to freedom and equality rested on his ability to get into office. If he had to back down from a full expression of freedom, at least he was closer to the goal.

Or how about Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union? It was Reagan who took an uncompromising stand for the downfall of communism. He saw the very philosophy of such a totalitarian oppression of humans as utter evil – the evil empire. Yet Reagan, leaning on the ides of Jean Kirkpatrick, drew a pragmatic distinction between totalitiarian regimes and authoritarian regimes. He worked with non-democratic regimes, who he would oppose on fundamental principles, for the sake of bringing down the greater evil – Soviet communism.

Without getting too much into revisionist history, I would like to point out that both of these men understood the preferred ideal, and accepted pragmatic solutions only when they moved us closer to the ideal. This is key, it is crucial, it is of utter importance. Simply walking out the door in search of pragmatism is not a virtue. We must know the end we desire, and move in that direction, even if incrementally.

We have plenty of examples of pragmatism without a purpose. Perhaps it’s a bit of piling on, but the entire foreign policy escapade of Jimmy Carter would appear to qualify. He, and his highly educated liberal elites, sought compromise and containment of the Soviet Union – but would trade the latter for the former if need be. There does not appear to have been any intention of moving toward a better state of affairs; merely a fear of Soviet domination and a hope of staving off inevitable U.S. failure.

(I don’t believe in keeping the margin of defeat low. We’re either trying to win, or there’s no point in playing. I don’t mind winning by only a few points, if that’s what it takes to win – but losing by any margin cannot be part of the goal.)

These arguments have implications for the political involvement of freedom-loving conservatives, such as myself. We have been hearing for some time now that conservatives must vote Republican no matter what, because Democrats are all liberals (possibly they are). Further, that conservatives should back moderate Republican candidates because they are “electable.” (Bob Dole and John McCain ought to be enough to convince folks that “moderates” are not electable.)

This argument does not “begin with the end in mind.” What are the political, economic, social, or human rights goals that we desire? We want freedom. We want self-determination. We do not want our neighbors, using the strong arm of the government, appropriating our resources for themselves. We do not want to be slaves – even partial slaves. Human freedom – that is what we want. (Not anarchy – but freedom.)

Moderates of either party have not moved us closer to that goal. To support moderates for fear of losing to liberals is akin to Carter’s “lose by a little” strategy. I’d rather keep the chances of winning open, even if it also increases the prospect of losing by a lot.

I’d rather take a shot at getting some actual conservatives, constitution-believing, human-rights-loving, all-men-are-created-equal conservatives elected, instead of muddling through with Democrat and Republican elite ruling classes that care only about their power and not about the rights of the people.

For this reason, I fully support the Tea Party movement in ousting moderate (quasi-liberal) Republicans in the primary process, even if it makes the general election harder to win.  We’ve got to try to win, not lose close.

(Frequent readers will point out here that there are issues on which I find no clear option for compromise, abortion being the most obvious one. Yet, I can still oppose abortion while supporting policies that reduce access and frequency of child-murder, while not outright eliminating it. But this only holds if [i] those policies are actually moving us toward a reduction in the pre-born-murder rate and [ii] the general movement is toward the correct final goal. That goal though is not simply a reduction of child murder, but its elimination. It has never been apparent that moderate, pro-choicers move us anywhere closer to such a goal.)

So let us not burn the house down just for the sake of principle. But let us only accept pragmatic compromise if it actually moves us toward the desired goal.

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