TCS Daily

Who is a Pragmatist?

By Arnold Kling - February 22, 2005 12:00 AM

"David Brinkley, writing the introduction of an early book of portraits of the Kennedy people, would...note that at an early Washington cocktail party a woman had gone around the room asking each of the hundred people there if he was a pragmatist."
-- David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest

In a recent essay in The New Republic, Jonathan Chait argued that conservatives are ideologues while liberals are pragmatists. On the other hand, Thomas Sowell argued the reverse in his book The Vision of the Anointed. Let the debate proceed.


The Chait Test


Chait offers a pragmatic operational definition of pragmatism.


"suppose that, to my enormous surprise, ...every empirical claim advanced by conservatives was correct. Cutting taxes produces such great economic growth that even the poor benefit. Privatizing or eliminating social programs like Medicare and Social Security will cause the elderly to save more money and enjoy higher living standards. Slashing regulations, by eliminating unintended side effects, actually does a better job helping those whom the regulations were intended to help than the regulations themselves... ...How would liberals respond? No doubt by rethinking and abandoning nearly all their long-held positions."


Chait wants to hold both liberals and conservatives to an equally high standard of pragmatism. If a policy has the consequences predicted by conservatives, then liberals should change their minds, and vice-versa. Call this the Chait Test.


Sowell clearly implies that he would endorse the Chait Test. In the longest chapter in Sowell's book, called "The irrelevance of evidence," Sowell writes,


"One of the more remarkable feats of those with the vision of the anointed has been the maintenance of their reputations in the face of repeated predictions that proved to be wrong by miles."


Examples that Sowell cites in that chapter include:


  • John Kenneth Galbraith's view that large companies had insulated themselves from the market and could never fail, while entrepreneurial businesses were irrelevant, their importance a mere myth
  • Paul Erlich's doomsday environmental predictions
  • The failure of price controls (Sowell uses the example of gasoline price controls; today, liberals have shifted their attention to drug price controls)


Elsewhere in the book, Sowell also lists:


  • The failure of the "war on poverty" to reduce poverty, compared with the reductions that took place due to economic growth
  • The failure of sex education programs to reduce risky sexual behavior and its consequences
  • The failure to balance the costs and benefits of banning DDT


Can Chait pass the Chait Test?


Chait cites several issues on which conservatives are allegedly impervious to facts. However, it is Chait who skates on thin empirical ice. For example, on Social Security privatization, Chait writes,


"Michael Kinsley has argued that privatization cannot increase national wealth--an argument that, if true, would undermine the idea's central rationale."


Here, I believe that Chait overstates what Kinsley claims. If not, then Kinsley claims too much.


What Kinsley actually wrote (at least in the piece that I referred to here) is that privatization by itself will not increase wealth by enough to eliminate the shortfall between future projected benefits and taxes under current law. That is not the same as saying that privatization will fail to increase wealth at all.


On this issue, liberals are so busy putting their hands over their ears and shouting that they are not hearing what economists like Martin Feldstein and Edward Prescott are saying, based on extensive empirical research. Their point is that privatization will increase national wealth by improving the incentives to work and save. Neither Feldstein nor Prescott (nor myself, for that matter) would argue that the increase in national wealth depends much on the ability of privatization to increase the flow of money into the stock market, as Kinsley-a-la-Chait would have it.


On health care, Chait makes two points often cited by liberals.


  • 1) Other countries achieve better health care results than the United States at less cost.
  • 2) The private health market cannot deal with health insurance because of the problem of adverse selection, which means that once insurance companies can determine that a consumer is high risk, the consumer is no longer insurable.


The first point does not hold up under close examination. See Winning the Health Care Olympics.


The second point has some validity. However, I believe that the larger problem is that what we call health insurance is not really health insurance. I have elaborated on that issue here, here, and here.


The market solution for health insurance is something that has never been tried. I believe that it is possible that the market could come up with a reasonable solution. I would like to see an environment in which some radical alternatives to the current models of health insurance were given an opportunity to prove themselves, before we close off all experimentation by imposing a government solution.


The First Iron Law


Can we conclude that Chait has it completely backward? Are liberals the ideologues and conservatives the pragmatists?


At this point, it is appropriate to invoke what my father calls "The First Iron Law of Social Science," which states: Sometimes it's this way, and sometimes it's that way. Some liberals are pragmatists, who would indeed be willing to alter their views in the face of evidence. Some are not. Some conservatives are ideologues, who would ignore any evidence against their positions. Some conservatives are not.


My version of pragmatism includes a large bias in favor of trial-and-error. On Social Security, I support the idea of a trial period of personal accounts as an addition to Social Security before doing anything to shift funds away from the current system.


I would also support a try-it-and-see approach with school choice, and, as just mentioned, in health insurance. I wish that I could count on the pragmatism of Chait's liberals to support such experiments.



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