Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Virtue of Extremism

“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And…moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”—Barry Goldwater

In my post of 9/3/08, I responded to University of Arizona professor John E. Schwarz’s Washington Post essay in which he advanced the claim that governments as well as free markets create wealth. By examining the essences of this preposterous assertion, it becomes quite clear that governments, by their very nature, cannot create wealth of any kind. By identifying the source of wealth (individual human minds), the nature of government (coercion), and following the circuit of wealth from its productive source through the hands of state and back to the private sector, one can see that the apparent…but not actual…ability of government to produce wealth is an illusion.

It is obvious that Mr. Schwarz is counting on the reader confining his mental observations to the specific concrete facts that he espouses without looking any deeper or “seeing the forest in addition to the trees.” Ignoring the forest, one will only see that government funds research, that that research sometimes yields commercially useful technologies, and that government then becomes a buyer of the products produced by private firms employing that technology. On the face of it, one who focuses only on those particular trees…i.e., confines his thinking to the isolated concretes without connecting them to the related facts a broader perspective would give him…will logically conclude that government can produce wealth. In other words, it is the anti-conceptual “thinker” (one who focuses only on concretes), rather than the abstract thinker (one who identifies the essential elements of an issue and integrates them with related facts, by reference to broader principles, which is true thinking in human terms) that he is counting on.

This is important because Mr. Schwarz is urging democrats to adopt the government-creates-wealth fallacy as a counter argument to what he calls the “mantra of the free market [that] has gained such a hold on Americans.” It is easy to see why. If governments can indeed produce wealth, and given that government represents, theoretically, all of the people equally, then all of the people have a right to share in the wealth that their government “creates”. Free market capitalism, it must be recognized, is only a handmaiden of government. After all, the highest paying jobs in the highest growth industries exist only by grace of the wealth-creating power of the state, according to Mr. Schwarz.

Once that inverted logic is accepted, there is no way to draw a line between where the power of state ends and the freedom of the individual begins. Any alleged market “failure” can serve as a justification for expanded government control over the economy. Mr. Schwarz has laid out a blueprint for the realization of the dream of the Left since FDR…the extermination of the remnants of free market capitalism in America.

Free market Capitalism is the social system based on individual rights, and a government limited to protecting those rights. Under Capitalism, every individual is free to work and produce to the best of his ability and ambition, and to trade his work product for the work product of others in voluntary, uncoerced agreement to mutual advantage. The only alternative to voluntary engagement between human beings is force. Under the explicit proposition laid out by Mr. Schwarz, force is a valid substitution for rational persuasion in economic matters. Anyone with an investment idea need not concern himself with convincing potential investors of the validity of his concept and seeking their voluntary funding. He need only cobble together a political constituency in order to lobby the Democrats for the necessary funds, who will then seize (i.e., loot) the capital via coercive taxation from people who would not voluntarily do so. There is no contest between private, disarmed private citizens operating in a free market, and legally armed (i.e., politically connected) groups operating through governmental force. Once a government reneges on its obligation to protect individual rights and instead turns predatory, it becomes the tool of an ever-growing army of economic groups seeking to advance its interests by force. And in the process, the private, free market elements wither under its onslaught. Freedom ends where predatory governmental force begins.

This is the process that has been going on in America since FDR’s New Dealers unleashed special interest politics. Mr. Schwarz has validated this process by declaring, in effect, that a free market is unnecessary for prosperity. His is a back-door call for central economic planning. Without refuting the basic point that governments can create wealth, there is no way to fight back if the Democrats pick up this mantra. And fighting back requires bucking a powerful headwind. That headwind is entrenched in American culture. It is the cover that has enabled the growth of an out-of-control governmental monstrosity that Americans never explicitly chose. That headwind, and cover, is the philosophy of Pragmatism.

Pragmatism holds that thinking is useless. Concepts such as the idea that governments can create wealth are treated by the pragmatist as perceptual primaries, like observing a rock lying on the ground. Understanding, in the human sense, is impractical. There are no fundamental truths, no moral absolutes, no unifying principles, no common denominators that one can rely on to integrate one’s knowledge, to project logical future consequences or draw lessons from the past. It is futile to identify the essence of any issue. One can never be sure, Pragmatism holds. What worked (or didn’t work) yesterday, may not work (or work wonderfully) today. What was true in the past is not necessarily true today. One must judge every issue, whether on the personal level or in the political realm, as an isolated “fact” cut off from all other isolated “facts.”

According to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Pragmatism is “a [philosophic] system which tests the validity of all concepts by their practical results” (Simon and Schuster, second addition, c1979). Thus, Pragmatism freezes man’s awareness at the level of the immediate moment. The only way to understand the freedom-destroying nature of ideas like the one presented by John E. Schwarz is to first renounce the concrete-bound mental processes created by an adherence to the philosophy of Pragmatism. If one viewed Mr. Schwarz’s assertion through the lens of Pragmatism, one would see that it does indeed “work.” No need to be concerned with the objective facts, which demonstrate its falsehood. No need to be concerned with the nature of individual rights or of government…or of the fact that acceptance by the America people of his assertion would be a huge step toward totalitarianism. After all, just look at the immediate “practical results” as outlined by Mr. Schwarz.

It is no coincidence, in my view, that just two days following the publication of Mr. Schwarz’s piece comes one by Dick Meyer, in which Mr. Meyer elevates Pragmatism into the highest intellectual virtue of the American people. I do not mean this in the sense that there is a coordinated effort between the two men, but in the sense of like-minded souls with a common purpose.

In this piece, Mr. Meyer cashes in on the largely successful efforts of the Progressives in the American educational establishment of fostering an anti-conceptual mentality among the population. John Dewey, it must be remembered, is the father of progressive education. Dewey was a leading advocate of the philosophy of Pragmatism who likewise disdained abstract thought.

Mr. Meyer extols disintegrated “thinking” and condemns as evil…as “extremist”…any adherence to rational analysis based on a coherent set of fixed principles of morality, of logic, of objectivity. He writes:

Poll after poll, focus group after focus group show that the vast majority of Americans -- the Silent Majority, perhaps? -- are pragmatic, independent and un-partisan in their basic views. They are eclectic: "liberal" on some matters, "conservative" on others. They are not slaves to that hobgoblin of small minds, consistency.

Extremists, however rare, are becoming more common and, importantly, more rabid…[They} have grown more intolerant and prone to "personal demonization."

Mr. Meyer never defines the term “extremist”. He merely refers darkly to "extreme liberals" and "extreme conservatives". Nor does he tell you why either extreme is bad. Notice that he places “personal demonization” and intellectual “consistency” under the same heading “extremist.” The smear merchants of either political wing and the rational, consistent…i.e., principled… advocacy of one’s position are both “extreme” and therefore condemned. We must just go with “a much more pragmatic, moderate and independent crowd.” “Independence” here does not mean the refusal to subordinate one’s own judgement and mind to others. The sense that Mr. Meyer means is the willingness to betray any conviction, value, principle, and fact in pursuit of “eclectic” compromise. Compromise on what? The extremes on either side. What is a compromise between two evils? But that requires a principled analysis of the ideas of both “extremes”. And that is what Mr. Meyer does not want the “pragmatic, moderate, and independent” American to discover.

The purpose of the use of the term “extremist” in this context is a smear tactic aimed at any person who holds a firm set of convictions (of principles) and has the integrity and willingness to defend them by applying them consistently to every issue. Whether one’s ideas are ultimately right or wrong, one’s consistency in upholding his convictions is a sign of moral and intellectual strength, not weakness. The foisting of the conflict between "extreme liberals" and "extreme conservatives" is a straw man. By today’s accepted definitions, both, in fact, represent a threat to America. That particular straw man is a means of discrediting “extremism”…i.e., any coherent set of beliefs advocated consistently…as such, with no further discussion.

What Mr. Meyer is struggling to obscure is that the real battle today is between two extremes, not of evil against evil, but between good and evil…between capitalism and socialism…between individual freedom and the totalitarian state. Mr. Schwarz, Mr. Meyer, the Progressive educators and their ilk depend specifically on the American people never becoming “slaves to that hobgoblin of small minds, consistency.” That is because the consistent application of America’s founding principles of unalienable individual rights protected by government stops their statist designs dead in their tracks. Ask yourself who won and who lost when the Left demanded total socialized medicine and then settled for the “compromise” of socialized medicine only for the elderly (Medicare), then the poor (Medicaid), then the children (SCHIP), then the uninsured (EMTALA)… And each step on this path towards total socialized medicine, we are told that it “works” because the “practical results” show that the elderly, and the poor, and the children, and the uninsured are receiving healthcare. And each step along the way, “that hobgoblin of small minds, consistency,” is not there to tell us that our freedom is slipping away, thanks to “pragmatic, independent and un-partisan” non-extremism. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit. In that transfusion of blood which drains the good to feed the evil, the compromiser is the transmitting rubber tube . . .(Ayn Rand, ATLAS SHRUGGED, page 1054).

It is the philosophy of Pragmatism that helps explain why, despite its utter brutality and abject economic failure wherever and to the extent it is adopted, socialism keeps rearing its ugly head. Americans never overtly voted for welfare statism or socialism. Yet America is drifting inexorably toward totalitarian socialism...specifically, the fascist “brand”. It is being smuggled in bit by imperceptible bit…in healthcare, energy, finance, housing…virtually across the board. It is being put over on a people that has accepted the idea…the absolute…that compromise is always good, on any issue, because the extremes…standing on principle…is always evil. So America has been giving up one extreme…capitalistic freedom…in exchange for the other…totalitarian socialism…one pragmatic piece after one pragmatic piece.

If America is ever to reverse the trend toward its own demise, it must check its fundamental premises that have become accepted wisdom. One of those premises is the anti-intellectual philosophy of Pragmatism. It freezes the human mind into a range-of-the-immediate-moment functioning that obliterates hindsight, foresight, logic, and abstract understanding. It keeps one blind to the progression towards the day when "the gate slams shut.”


Favela Cranshaw said...

Outstanding article, Mike.

May I bring to your attention that the word "Capitalism" is misspelled twice in the links

Mike Zemack said...

Thanks, favela. And thanks for pointing out the misspellings. I don't know how they got past me.