Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!

Jul 15, 2015

The Myth of Apolitical Pragmatism

The partisans of “reasonable” technocracy often hide their desire to dominate others behind a disdain for “ideology” and “politics.”


Libertarians are not terribly fond of politics. Confronted with the tedious quarrels of partisan talking heads and the inauthentic speeches of politicians, we simply see two sides that both want to throttle liberty. Libertarianism, by definition, wants less of politics. As Nick Gillespie put it, interviewing Camille Paglia, “One of the promises of libertarianism is that we squeeze politics down to the smallest sphere possible so we can get on with more meaningful parts of our lives.” Taken on its own terms, Gillespie’s is an accurate statement of the libertarian perspective on politics. Libertarians tend to see politics itself—not merely one or the other party, or any particular policy position—as a menace, as an inherently coercive and largely arbitrary restraint on an individual’s freedom to live her life according to her own values and desires. We want to live in a world where available options are maximized and violent intrusions into private affairs minimized. Libertarians oppose politics in Gillespie’s sense as a matter of course—politics as the elimination or preclusion of personal choice and autonomy, as the glorification of coercive power. And if libertarianism is defined by its opposition to political control and machinations in pursuit of that control, then arguably libertarians should look forward to an end of politics, even an abolition of politics. Calling for “The Death of Politics” in a 1969 Playboy article by that title, Karl Hess argued that both sides of the political spectrum are “reactionary and authoritarian. That is to say: Both are political.” As have many libertarians since (myself included), Hess defines “rule by politics” as “the power of some men over other men,” with the libertarian alternative being intrinsically anti-political. We may think of a libertarian society as one in which the roles previously played by the politics are accomplished peacefully, absorbed in “the administration of things,” the methods of cooperation and contract replacing the violence of the political.1

But, perhaps counterintuitively, there is an authoritarian critique of politics just as there is a libertarian one. For example, as political theory scholar David Held observes, Karl Marx looked forward to an “end of politics,” a world without political or economic classes, in which the “political supremacy” of the proletariat and the end of material scarcity would be realized. Ironically, Marx presents a vision in some ways quite similar to that of libertarians, treating politics as “the official expression of antagonism in civil society” and anticipating the dissipation of the state and the related growth of a new, different kind of governing system. Taking Marx’s stateless, anti-political reverie on its face, libertarians may be tempted to think that it doesn’t sound half bad. Who wouldn’t want a society without unjust, coercive class rule, where permanent material plenitude has replaced poverty and want? If only we could call a halt to the messy, obstructive, and—perhaps worst of all—corrupt process of politics, we might get on our way toward utopia. Inspirited by seemingly endless scientific advancements and technological developments, utopians of all kinds once confidently forecasted the day when society would be cleansed finally and fully of politics. In the United States, the authoritarian variety of this anti-political thinking reached its apogee during the Progressive Era. But while the progressives purported to be anti-political, they, like Marxists, were not anti-state; they sought not to replace or discard the state, but to purify it, to make it the instrument of the empirical method, of objective, scientific knowledge used to execute and administer a rational ordering of society from the top down. Specialization and expertise were in the ascendant, attended by a new contempt among intellectuals and elites for all things political and ideological. According to the progressive thinking, if everything is reducible to hard science—to empirical data, duly analyzed and quantified—then there is no longer a need for either politics or ideology. Trained experts in central government agencies, assigned to specific social problems and tasks, need only determine the correct, scientific solution and determine a plan for its implementation.

The fundamental mistake of such thinking is one that Hayek identified in his Nobel Prize lecture, “The Pretence of Knowledge,” in which he explains the problems with applying the methods of the physical sciences to the social sciences. Progressivism is an example of this kind of “scientism,” an attempt to coopt, in Hayek’s words, “the dignity and prestige of the physical sciences” for public policy decisions made by a burgeoning class of bureaucrats—as opposed to either state legislatures or the U.S. Congress. The twentieth century academy likewise embraced the intellectual vainglory of scientism, the economics profession, for example, coming to treat economies as “engineerable systems, i.e., machines.”2 Many free market economists espoused this “modernist genre of economic theory,” even as they battled the ideas of Keynesianism and socialist economic planning. The space of thought, inquiry, and political debate was narrowing, giving way to a monotonous climate of conformity.

Writing during the Cold War, C. Wright Mills accused the United States self-appointed intellectual elite of embarking on exactly the kind of sanitation of thought associated with the “socialist realism” of the Soviets. By carefully pruning the domain of acceptable thought, based at least in theory on something harder and more scientific than mere political ideology, the American literati had enthroned a kind of snobbish complacency. Mills argued that a new “style of reportage,” sophisticated in tone, but not in ideas, had triumphed—that, as a result, facts and ideas were held in strict sequestration from each other. And without the ability to contextualize events and data, to apply abstract principles to fact patterns, we have no way to perform a critical analysis. The power of facts to “truly enlighten in a political way” is therefore lost to us. When Mills invokes the political here, he is, like James C. Scott decades later, vindicating a particular kind of contentious, even adversarial style of communication and dialogue. He is decidedly not talking about the politics that libertarians oppose. Just as the common law legal system assumes that an adversarial process serves the interests of truth and fundamental justice, specially designed to test the factual claims of both sides, Mills and Scott want to preserve a space for politics and ideology as methods for assessing and trying out social ideas. They see the wish for an end of politics and ideology fundamentally as a wish for an end of dissent. If the untidy, pluralistic world of ideological commitments can be obliterated (or at least pared down), then intellectual elites can more successfully confine decision making to a few foci of power, unchallenged by open discourse. Furthermore, the idea that the end of ideology has arrived assumes, Mills writes, “that in the West there are not more real issues or even problems of great seriousness.” To extinguish ideology altogether would be tantamount to establishing and enforcing complete uniformity of thought, realizing an Orwellian nightmare of Thought Police and Newspeak. As the character Syme tells Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984, “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” We see hints of Orwell’s Newspeak in the stifling political correctness that dominates public life, in the free speech and protest zones to which “political” speech is confined.

Skeptical of claims to “absolute truth,” the celebrated Chicago School economist Frank H. Knight made free and open discourse a centerpiece of his thought. For Knight, social discussion, defined as the pursuit of consensus on a particular issue, is indispensable to the politics of a liberal, democratic republic. To remove a question from the realm of discussion and debate for any reason is to preclude even the possibility of a liberal society, for it is an attempt to circumvent the process that is at the center of such a society. Rather than any static ethical standard, it is the open, evaluative process that most interests Knight and defines his thinking on the liberal society. Worried about the tendency to oversimplification in politics and public policy, Knight argues that neither appeals to science nor to morality should limit or forestall discussion.3 James C. Scott’s “defense of politics” similarly identifies politics with process, with a forum for ventilating disagreements and, therefore, preventing a hegemony of ideas. Scott equates this defense with a rejection of “utopian scientism.” Rather than substituting supposedly objective “numerical audit systems” as a proxy for genuine participation in the conversation and “a healthy debate about quality,” we should embrace politics as dialogue. Echoing public choice theory, Scott distrusts the presumption of expert neutrality. For all the confident claims to non-ideological, non-partisan objectivity within what Scott calls “the antipolitics machine,” there are nevertheless interests permeating the process. Whether it is the Social Science Citation Index or the SAT, any standardized system or formula will represent and serve the interests that created it. Scott argues that these systems aim at a “radical depoliticization of public decision making,” and that this is fundamentally undemocratic, as it withdraws important, consequential questions from the arena of debate.

In the first year of Obama’s presidency, David Brooks, the quintessential “reasonable” centrist, gushed that “Obama aims to realize the end-of-ideology politics that Daniel Bell and others glimpsed.” Brooks admired Obama for his moderation in pursuit of a “Grand Bargain,” for his understanding “that most Americans practice their politics between the 40-yard lines.” Certainly Brooks is right that most of the political action takes place in the middle of the field, but the collusion between powerful interests and supposed moderates in both parties is exactly the problem. Quite contrary to the baseless idea that practical politics is more polarized and uncivil than ever, there is arguably too little politics in politics, too much of what Mills called “bipartisan banality.” The Red and Blue wings of the Washington establishment actually seem to get along quite well. In fact, it seems that we long ago reached what Murray Rothbard called the “Great American Consensus,” ratified again in every election that places one welfare-warfare statist in competition with another. “Pragmatic” politicians and public intellectuals like Brooks want more of the same, more of what he calls “the politics of cohesion.” What American political life yearns for, however, is much less sterile political cohesion, more diversity of opinion and disagreement. Purging politics of its controversies in an attempt at oppressive homogeneity is, of course, not what libertarians like Karl Hess have in mind when they’re looking forward to “the death of politics.” Libertarians want to minimize or—more optimistically—entirely eliminate political control of individuals’ lives and choices. The authoritarian critic of politics wishes to destroy politics by its universalization, much as the Marxist wishes paradoxically to destroy the state by maximizing its power, making it coextensive with and indistinguishable from society. It is entirely lost on Brooks and other apparent foes of all things ideological that, as Mills observed “the end-of-ideology is of course itself an ideology.” The search for political cohesion and empirical pragmatism is too often the ideological cover for efforts to suppress just the kinds of spontaneous, evolutionary dynamics to which we owe genuine progress and plenty. Progressive modernism, which has now thoroughly imbued both parties, is based on the mistaken notion that elites must do something, consciously and deliberately, to bring about desired social outcomes. Following Hayek, libertarians counsel a healthy distrust in the face of apolitical, non-ideological posturing and claims to scientific objectivity and neutrality.

  1. As the anarchist thinker Martin Buber writes, “All forms of government have this in common: each possesses more power than is required by the given conditions; in fact, this excess in the capacity for making dispositions is actually what we understand by political power. The measure of this excess … represents the exact difference between administration and government” (emphasis added).
  2. Robert F. Garnett, Jr., “Hayek and philanthropy: A classical liberal road not (yet) taken,” in Hayek, Mill, and the Liberal Tradition (Routledge 2011).
  3. Ross Emmett, “Discussion and the evolution of institutions in a liberal democracy: Frank Knight joins the debate,” in Hayek, Mill, and the Liberal Tradition (Routledge 2011).