Wednesday, October 7, 2009

When Pragmatism Meets Ideology

“Abstract ideas are seen in today’s political world as meaningless curiosities. But bad abstract ideas cannot be allowed to fester and take root, because sooner or later they will be translated into action.”

I issued that warning on April 28, 2008, in Part 1 of my essay, Obama’s Collectivist Manifesto. In Part 3, I wrote:

“Senator Obama is a thoughtful, philosophical, and talented orator.

“[I]n this particular speech, [he] makes no concrete policy proposals. What he is doing is laying the groundwork for Statism. Statism holds that the will and power of the collective is embodied in and carried out by the state. The individual, being subordinate to the collective, is thus in practice subordinate to the state. In Obama’s universe, “We the People” in “America's improbable experiment in democracy” is the collective in whose name an Obama administration will carry out its welfare statist agenda.”

To the philosophically attuned mind, the ideological clarity of Obama’s rhetoric is all that is needed to decipher his policy direction. If one listens intently when Obama speaks, one realizes that he tells us, in abstract terms, all we need to know. That is his style. While people quibble over the details of his policy proposals, Obama forges ahead on the nearly deserted superhighway of ideas.

A good example of this is in the healthcare debate. Obama will entertain all competing ideas, as long as they point in the direction of his ultimate goal of socialized medicine. Bring up free market solutions, the only real alternative, and we are reminded in various ways of what I pointed out his message to us was on inauguration day - “that his agenda is not open to intellectual, philosophical, or moral challenge”:

"On this day", the new president told the nation, "we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics…the time has come to set aside childish things."

Obama media field commander E.J. Dionne makes clear just what those “childish things” and “worn out dogmas” pertain to – individualism and free markets. Time and time again, Obama came clean about what his “remaking of America” would look like. It is therefore shocking – yet, sadly, not surprising – to read Charles Gasparino’s 9/29/09 NY Post article titled Burned by Obama. He writes:

"In the depths of the financial crisis last year, people like Morgan Stanley's John Mack, BlackRock's Larry Fink, Greg Fleming (then of Merrill Lynch), JP Morgan's Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein were telling everyone that candidate Barack Obama was a "moderate," and moderation was what this country needed.

"What a difference a year makes. They won't admit it in public -- but in private conversations, the top guys on Wall Street are feeling burned.

"The guy who seemed like such a steady voice -- vowing to curb runaway spending and restoring order to the banking system and the economy as a whole -- is instead so driven to achieve his big-government policy goals that he and his policy people are ignoring their own economic advisers on the severe economic costs that his agenda will cause."

“Let us be our brother’s keeper, let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well,” declared Barack Obama on March 18, 2008. There it is, in black and white. What do those words mean, if not “big-government policy goals”. But those are just words, abstract ideas, not to be confused with practical reality. He'll be sure to do what works, not what's consistent with his beliefs.

Well, practical reality is what those Wall Streeters thought they had in the “moderate” candidate Obama. They fondly remember another Democratic president:

“It's almost the opposite approach, the Wall Street crowd complains, from the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, whose main first-term achievement -- deficit reduction -- was crafted by his chief economic adviser, Robert Rubin.

Like Obama, Clinton and Rubin promised to raise taxes on the "rich," and they did. But Clinton didn't raise taxes to embark on a wild-eyed redistribution of wealth and massive programs.”

What these Wall Street bigs failed to see was that while Clinton was the quintessential pragmatist, Obama, primarily, is not. Forget the “race card”. Obama’s weapon is much more pernicious. He is a philosophically astute, ideologically driven collectivist, who plays the pragmatist card to great effectiveness.

“Obama, according to Wall Street people who regularly deal with his economic and budget officials, is acting as if he has a blank check to do what he wants, while ignoring the longterm costs of his policies.

“As one CEO of a major financial firm told me: 'The economic guys say that when they explain the costs of programs, the policy guys simply thank them for their time and then ignore what they say.'

“In other words, the economic people feel that they have almost no say in this administration's policy decisions.”

Obama doesn’t care about “the longterm costs of his policies”, or of the economy, in any primary way. He doesn't care about the uninsured, or about the runnaway cost of healthcare. He is an altruist-socialist ideologue, who sincerely believes he can make collectivism work in America, contrary to all of the historical, theoretical, humanitarian, and practical evidence piled up by a century's worth of socialist dictatorships. To paraphrase Ayn Rand: Obama's audacity is an offer of "some vague hope that somehow, my gang will do it better".

He has told us that repeatedly. Mr. Gasparino lays it out for the financial titans:

“Wall Street should have seen it coming. Obama was among the most liberal politicians in the country, despite his campaign rhetoric -- and his record in Illinois and the Senate showed it. He has spoken glowingly over the years of the need to redistribute wealth, a measure that always leads to taxes on small businesses, the economy's main economic engine.

“The execs who had such hopes for the president are now wondering fearfully just how radical he really is.”

What can so blind the leaders of some of America’s top financial firms to the obvious? Pragmatism, for one thing. These men simply could not fathom that abstract ideas can connect to reality. Obama garnered their electoral support by exploiting their pragmatic refusal to see the ideological evidence right before their eyes.

But there is a much deeper failure on their part … a failure that points to the reason for American capitalism’s slow destruction. Now that they know the real Obama, how are they fighting back against the man they believe “burned” them? In short, they're not. Instead, they cower in moral, silent fear and ignorance:

“It's almost comical watching the Street's top players squirm when they hear 'class warfare' rhetoric coming from the White House, and it forces them to act in ways they'd never imagined. In addition to recently giving phony speeches about the sins of large compensation packages that they had no problem taking just a few years ago, many Wall Street CEOs are so terrified of being outed as greedy capitalists that they no longer use the corporate credit cards to charge business lunches at their favorite New York restaurants.

“The funniest story I've heard lately came from a former Wall Street executive and longtime Democrat who anxiously recounted a recent conversation with Obama.

“The executive said he told the president that he's at a disadvantage because he's relatively inexperienced in economic matters during a time of economic crisis. ‘That's why I have Valerie’ [Jarrett, who has deep ties to the Windy City's Democratic political machine], came Obama's reply.

“Now you know why Wall Street is so nervous.”

But that’s not the whole “why”. The above is a dramatic example of Why Businessmen Need Philosophy. Philosopher Leonard Peikoff has some indespensible advice for American businessmen:

"The Declaration of Independence states that all men have an inalienable right to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' What does the 'pursuit of happiness' mean? Jefferson does not say that you have a duty to pursue your neighbor’s pleasure or the collective American well-being, let alone the aspirations of the Bosnians. He upholds a selfish principle: each man has the right to live for his own sake, his own personal interests, his own happiness. He does not say: run roughshod over others, or: violate their rights. But he does say: pursue your own goals independently, by your own work, and respect every other individual’s right to do the same for himself.

"In essence, America was conceived by egoists. The Founding Fathers envisioned a land of selfishness and profit-seeking—a nation of the self-made man, the individual, the ego, the 'I.' Today, however, we hear the opposite ideas everywhere...

"The [conventional belief is] the idea that self-sacrifice is the essence of virtue, is no fantasy. It is all around us. Nobody defends selfishness any more: not conservatives, not liberals; not religious people, not atheists; not Republicans, not Democrats.

“The best among you do not believe the altruist mumbo-jumbo. You have, however, long been disarmed by it. Because you are the victim of a crucial power, against which you are helpless. That power is philosophy.

“We are all trained by today’s colleges never to take a firm stand on any subject: to be pragmatists, ready to compromise with anyone on anything. Philosophy and morality, however, do not work by compromise. Just as a healthy body cannot compromise with poison, so too a good man cannot compromise with evil ideas. In such a set up, an evil philosophy, like poison, always wins. The good can win only by being consistent. If it is not, then the evil is given the means to win every time.”

Obama statism is the latest and one of the most virulent strains of the plague that has been increasingly infecting this country more or less steadily for decades. The main victims of the statist trend in America are the businessmen. But they are not only victims. The Wall Street businessmen and others like them are also one of the guiltiest groups for failing to speak out. They are philosophically ignorant and morally disarmed. As a result, they are dragging down with them any American who values his freedom, and in the process helping to smother the unique and revolutionary ideals that gave birth to this great country.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Despite the aura of political pragmatism that he tries to cultivate, Obama understands better than most the power of ideological consistency. But his ideas are merely the skeletal remains of 20th century collectivism. They can only win by default. In concluding his talk, Mr. Peikoff points the way to an effective counter-attack:

“I do not advise you to break any law, but I do advise you to fight an intellectual battle against big government, as many medical doctors did, with real success, against Clinton’s health plan. You may be surprised at how much a good philosophical fight will accomplish for your public image, and also for your pocketbook. For instance, an open public fight for a flat tax, for the end of the capital gains and estate taxes, and for the privatizing of welfare and the gradual phasing out of all government entitlements is urgent. More important than standing for these policies, however, is doing so righteously, not guiltily and timidly. If you understand the philosophic issues involved, you will have a chance to speak up in such a way that you can be heard.

“This kind of fight is not easy, but it can be fought and won. Years ago, a well-known political writer, Isabel Paterson, was talking to a businessman outraged by some government action. She urged him to speak up for his principles. “I agree with you totally,” he said, “but I’m not in a position right now to do it.” “The only position required,” she replied, “is vertical.” (Emphasis added.)


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this article. You made many astute observations.

Aquinas Heard

Mike Zemack said...

Thank you, Aquinas