Monday, June 18, 2012

"Unsympathetic pragmatism" is an oxymoron

Last week I mentioned pie, with the implication that people who feel shorted on their share of the pie may feel inclined to do something about it.  I mostly meant it as a sort of self-interested behavior: if most people would do better off under system A than under system B, even if system B has greater overall wealth, happiness, or whatever other metric you like, most people will support system A (assuming informed actors, which is a terrible assumption).  Though this dichotomy fails to account for a system C which is more evenly-distributed than B, though not as much as A, but due to a "just right" distribution, leads to a larger pie, making everyone better off than they'd be under systems A or B.

But onward to unsympathetic pragmatism.  To contradict myself as soon as possible, this is a sensible notion in certain contexts, such as the doctor who cleans and patches the otherwise-deadly wound, despite the lack of anesthetic making the procedure unimaginably painful.  However, that's not a very good analogy to take to higher scales, such as economies, healthcare, and human survival.

In America we have some people who put on a front of seriousness, people like Paul Ryan who want to balance the budget and will do so by any means necessary (except raising taxes, because those have to go down further).  As they explain it, we need to be pragmatic, to deal with some short term pain, because it will make us better off in the long run.  They may turn to the doctor analogy (I have not yet seen them use it, but it seems like a great misleading analogy) to prove this.  They're wrong on many levels, such as using analogy as a substitute for logic, exceptionally bad math (they use imaginary numbers in entirely the wrong context), and heartlessness.

Heartlessness?  How can that be bad if they're the unsympathetic pragmatist?  Let's go with the doctor analogy, but try to spruce it up a bit.  First off, give the patient a gun and if it hurts to much, he shoots the doctor, himself, or someone else in line of sight.  Oh hey, Greek austerity riots, a surge in crime, and some members of Parliament who would make me nervous if Greece was as awesome as Germany.  Also if they patient suffers too much pain he dies (which literally happens when your budget-balancing involves cutting food assistance, heating, and healthcare).  Furthermore, the patient may suffer serious, possibly permanent damage if the procedure is done wrong (underfed and undereducated children aren't typically superstars in anything).  If the patient thinks the doctor is doing it wrong he can fire the doctor and get a new one, assuming the transition doesn't kill him as well, and assuming the first doctor doesn't get to hang around blocking the other doctor from working while whispering lies in the ears of the patient.  I'm referencing the Republican Party, if you didn't pick that up.  In America.  Not to be confused with the political parties in other countries which tend to be little more than coalitions of unprincipled demagogues selling their influence to the highest bidder with no regard for the safety of their supposed constituents, whilst not speaking English.

My point is that "unsympathetic pragmatism" is not actually pragmatic if the unsympathetic part dominates too much.  The problem arises when people get the notion that the key part is "unsympathetic" rather than "pragmatism", and as a result, they focus entirely on not caring about the harm they do to others, justifying it all with some vague mention of the improving/saving the world part.  The goal should be the goal, not the method.  Alas, being an unsympathetic sociopath is branded as "courageous" rather than "useless heartlessness."  We only need to look at the American War Against Paying Taxes for the War That Just Saved Us (also known as the American Revolution or Tea Party), in which the unsympathetic pragmatist of a king wisely chose to impose the necessary taxes to pay for the war and military might to enforce them, without taking into account the sentiments of the people, such as representation and not having unrelated soldiers sleeping in their beds.  Imagine if the colonies had gained representation in Parliament and didn't have Redcoats looting their larders.  I suspect the British Empire would have been better off under the "sympathetic pragmatist" approach.  Though the downside cannot be emphasized enough: We'd all be speaking English English.


Feliz said...

"coalitions of unprincipled demagogues selling their influence to the highest bidder", "whilst not speaking English"

You put that detractor in to keep people from commenting on the core of your article. I understand you study politics and would assume you know better how the political system in other countries works. Pick any Western European one and show me how it's worse than a corrupt two party system.

Klepsacovic said...

The "whilst not speaking English" part is an intentionally trivial differentiation.