Thursday, March 21, 2013

Buchanan and Rorty on vision, pragmatism, and liberalism

In a Cato Policy report on "saving the soul of classical liberalism" by the late James Buchanan (HT - Bill Woolsey), Buchanan writes:
"Despite these successes, we true liberals are failing to save the soul of classical liberalism. Books and ideas are necessary, but alone, they are not sufficient to insure the viability of our philosophy. No, the problem lies in presenting the ideal.

Thus, for example, George Bush, during his presidency, derisively referred to “that vision thing,” when someone sought to juxtapose his position with that of Ronald Reagan. The “shining city on a hill,” the Puritan image that Mr. Reagan invoked to call attention to the American idea, was foreign to Mr. Bush’s mind-set. Mr. Bush did not understand what Mr. Reagan meant and failed to appreciate why the image resonated in public attitudes.

In a sense, we can say that Ronald Reagan was tapping into a part of the American soul about which George Bush remained illiterate. The critical distinction between those whose window on reality emerges from a comprehensive vision of what might be, and those whose window is pragmatically limited to current perceptions, comes clear in this comparison.

My larger thesis is that classical liberalism cannot secure sufficient public acceptability when its vocal advocates are limited to this second group of “does it work?” pragmatists. Science and self-interest do indeed lend force to any argument. But a vision, an ideal, is necessary. People need something to yearn and struggle for. If the liberal ideal is not there, there will be a vacuum and other ideas will supplant it. Classical liberals have failed, singularly, in their understanding of this dynamic...

Creating a new vision, a new soul for liberalism, is our most important task now. I am not here suggesting that attention should be limited to the design of all inclusive political packages. Politics, for the most part, proceeds in piecemeal fashion, one step at a time. What I am suggesting is that we, those who teach liberalism, focus on the vision, the constitution of liberty, rather than merely on a pragmatic utilitarian calculus that shows liberalism to yield quantifiably better results than politicized economies."
I think it's a very important point, but the juxtaposition of Bush and Reagan and of pragmatism and vision generally reminded me of Richard Rorty in Philosophy and Social Hope. I don't have the book on me at school so I can't grab passages, but the nature of the argument was that a pragmatist* approach to truth that seeks to satisfy needs (including the need to correlate our verbal descriptions of how the world works with our experience of how the world works) rather than see through to an "ultimate reality" is not inconsistent with what Buchanan calls a new vision, or what Rorty called "social hope". For Rorty, hope required action towards a goal under conditions of uncertainty in much the same way that a pragmatist's orientation to questions of "truth" involve commitments to claims about the world under conditions of uncertainty about "ultimate reality" (not just the nature of ultimate reality - but the question of whether such a thing even exists).

Pragmatism also fostered a social hope because there is not an end-point if you're not seeking out an ultimate reality. A pragmatist view of things is construct claims about the world based on what seems to work, given the task or question at hand. This is inherently progressive and visionary because you're oriented towards "what do I want to do next, and how do I achieve it?", rather than something like "I know exactly what the end-point is and I will be on this quest until I reach it, and then I am done".

Rorty called the sort of liberal that had this orientation a "liberal ironist" - ironist because the most central beliefs and desires of this sort of liberal are understood to be and really embraced as ultimately contingent.

Liberal ironists are not natural rights liberals or Objectivists, in other words.

Sometimes we think of idealism and realism (each in the more colloquial sense - not the technical sense) as being incommensurate orientations for people have. That's sort of the message of Buchanan's essay (although the essay is historically grounded and strategic in nature - so I wouldn't attribute this to Buchanan too much, personally). For Rorty, this need not be the case. It was one of many dualisms he didn't see much of a need for.

* - Pragmatist being of course different from, but of course not unrelated to, Buchanan's discussion of the pragmatic position.

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