Dead Ends

Michael Metzger

The end of July marks the calm before the political storm. In the United States, the presidential election promises to be rather contentious. Both parties have markedly different versions of what’s wrong and how to go forward. However, hubris might cloud both visions. We might actually be facing dead ends.

In political campaigns, these are the desultory days before the spigot of Super PAC money is opened wide. The torrent of funds whips up enthusiasts while washing away real debate regarding the issues at hand. Both parties seek to persuade voters with what are essentially fallacious arguments. By definition, a fallacy is an emotionally appealing argument that proves nothing. For Republicans, the central fallacy is pragmatism. For Democrats, it’s progressivism. Both however are dead ends.

Pragmatism is the fallacy that if something works, it’s right. It gained currency in the 19th century with the Robber Barons, including John D. Rockefeller. He cornered the market on oil, proving to be a pragmatic capitalist with a thin veneer of Christian faith. But the Robber Barons proved largely indifferent to the income inequalities they created. They lived in opulence while Lyndon Johnson’s family grew up in West Texas in conditions similar to the Middle Ages. Pragmatism yields an attitude of entitlement, not justice. It says I earned it – I deserve it. The outcome is often indifference to the plight of the poor.

Progressivism is a reaction to pragmatism. Seeing the ruinous effects of the Robber Barons, progressives sought to remedy inequality with more government (and a nod to God). The ever-expanding state would prove wise in redistributing greedy gain. This required an ever-expanding cadre of educated elites who would act as moral authorities, redistributing income. The fallacy of progressivism is assuming elites are virtuous by dint of an elite education. In the general public, it stokes an attitude of envy, not responsibility. It says Your gains are ill-gotten – I want them.

With the stock market crash of 1929, pragmatists got their pants pulled down. Washington began to eclipse Wall Street as a center of power. The city became crowded with crony capitalists lobbying for expanding free markets. They cozied up to Republicans. Progressives argued for expanding laws to regulate markets. They cozied up to Democrats. The problem on both ends is the moral middle is collapsing.

The moral middle is the center domain, one of three that constitute societies. The domain of law is on one end, where John Fletcher Moulton said “our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us which must be obeyed.” It’s progressive turf. At the other end is free choice that “includes all those actions as to which we claim and enjoy complete freedom.” It’s pragmatist turf. But between law and free choice is “the domain of obedience to the unenforceable,” the moral middle. In the healthiest societies, this is the biggest domain. Pragmatism and progressivism present a problem because they seek endlessly to expand free choice and law, encroaching on the moral middle and shrinking it. Pragmatism makes too much of free choice; progressivism, the law. When you make too much of anything, it becomes an idol.

In Hosea 8:4, we read how Israel got in trouble – “they made idols for their own destruction.” Herbert Schlossberg has surveyed the idols of modern life, including historicism, the view that whatever is, is. Life has no transcendent meaning or morality, so pragmatism is all there is. Another idol is “ressentiment,” defined by Nietzsche as a hatred for the success of others, occasioned, usually, by envy.1 This idol, seen in progressivism, demands a leveling of distinctions and equalization of wealth. A third idol is the deification of the state that leads even Christians to look to Washington for help. But few see these as idols, since idols yield hubris, and hubris clouds vision.

In his book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, Peter Beinart notes the hubris of pragmatism. It puts profits over purpose, hollowing out life and leaving an “underlying restlessness, a feeling of being cheated out of adventure.” Progressives on the other hand have a “soft and shallow concept of human nature” and an “unwarranted optimism about man.”2 This also yields hubris, displayed in the progressive Lyndon Johnson. “I understand you were born in a log cabin,” commented West German chancellor Ludwig Erhard [to Johnson] on a visit to the LBJ Ranch. “No, Mr. Chancellor,” Johnson replied. “You have me confused with Abe Lincoln. I was born in a manger.”

Hubris clouds the vision of pragmatists as well as progressives. They fail to see they’re dead ends – not a way forward. In fact, there is only one way out of a dead end – back to the beginning. The American experiment in self-government began with religion as the basis for creating virtuous citizens, but not as politicized Christians practice the faith. Laura Nash describes the majority of white, suburban evangelical CEOs as “justifiers.”3 They justify their faith in terms of pragmatism, or what works, and align mostly with the Christian Right. Younger, urban evangelicals are into “social justice.” They frame their faith in terms of progressivism and mostly align mostly with the Christian Left. Both however retain only a thin veneer of ancient Christianity because they fall prey to the idols of pragmatism, progressivism, and politicization.4

Ancient Christians gave heed to Origen’s warning. The Church Father said Christians are free to plunder the Egyptians, but forbidden to idolize their gods. This means the way forward is not found in the Christian Right or Left but in a principled approach that plunders the best parts of pragmatism and progressivism – one that promotes good business and social justice while repudiating entitlement and envy.

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1 Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), p. 51.
2 Peter Beinart, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010), p. 95.
3 Laura L. Nash, Believers in Business: Resolving the Tensions Between Christian Faith, Business Ethics, Competition and Our Definitions of Success (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994)
4 James Hunter, To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford, 2010), p. 163.

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6 Comments

  1. Yes.

    Barack Obama does embrace Karl Marx: “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” Here, the top-down government elitists are the definers of terms, distributors and profiteers. Per the conclusion of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”

    Mitt Romney is a quintessential business manager with his own stamp of pursuing power for its own sake, and where the mathematics of people as movable objects triumphs. No remedy to President Obama’s trajectory.

    But past the plundering of Egypt, in drawing just back wages, is the danger of being polluted by the ideology of the idols as happened in the wilderness. We need a vision rooted in the biblical assumption of the image of God, and thus a proactive grasp of Samuel as judge among the people, and not Saul as a paganized king over the people.

    We need to pray, as per Daniel 2:21 and Luke 1:51-52, that godly and humble leaders will be raised up. But I cannot see this happening until the whole professing church embraces a deep humility and repentance, and thus, the destruction of our own idols.

  2. Mike,

    You are pretty close to committing a fallacy yourself: the strawman. Romney and the Republicans are classic pragmatists vs Obama and the Democrats as progressivists. Once this is set up, you can proceed to knock both of them down and advance the argument of the “moral middle”.

    Granting your argumental structure, what evidence do you have that pragmatism and progressivism form extreme poles and that what is best is in the center? Can anyone really know if they’ve correctly bracketed the entire political spectrum?

    I don’t disagree with many of your points, but if you’re going to criticize fallacial argumentation, it’s wise to check your own.

  3. Hi Mike:

    Always open to refutation. Pragmatism and progressivism don’t square with the founder’s vision for liberty and virtue requiring the public exercise of religion. I would point you to Charles Murray’s excellent piece in yesterday’s New York Times, where he cites the lack of “obedience to the unenforceable” in what he calls today’s “collusive capitalism” (yes, he cites Moulton, as I do). Murray doesn’t see any way forward in today’s progressivism. He sees them as two poles at either end of the political spectrum.

    This is why I respect your caution but don’t see this as the fallacy of the straw man. That fallacy requires misrepresenting a position and then knocking it down. I don’t believe I misrepresent pragmatism or progressivism. You might disagree with my positioning them as opposite ends of the spectrum, but I’m not alone in this opinion. Thanks for the check-up, however!

  4. So what does this approach “that promotes good business and social justice while repudiating entitlement and envy” specifically look like? Does any particular person or political party model this? Does the structure of our democracy allow for it?

  5. Mike, I think that your characterizations of both pragmatism and progressivism are straw men. Pragmatism originated as a philosophical school in the US led by John Dewey and William James, who would both be appalled to know their names are in any way associated with the likes of John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Mellon. The philosophy you point to more closely resembles a Machiavellian “by any means necessary” approach, which probably doesn’t fairly approximate the republican/conservative position in any case.

    Your characterization of progressivism is flawed as well. Envy is not the driving factor behind progressivism and neither do progressives believe in some sort of aristocratic moral/intellectual elite governing the country. I would cite John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice” in characterizing the progressive viewpoint (though Rawls wasn’t a progressive so far as I know): Inequality in the distribution of resources is unjust unless it benefits everyone. The progressive position notes the immiseration of the middle classs and the lowest in our society and contends that the distribution of wealth, resources, and access to government (AKA the “levers of power”) are unfair. Progressives do not seek to do away with economic inequality entirely – they simply seek to do away with excessive inequality.

    In addition I would like to suggest that the “moral middle” need not be thought of in terms of a middle way among extremes. I don’t think morality should be an average of two other data points. Rather, morality should constitute its own sphere, and progressives and conservatives (the true opposite of progressivism IMHO) should find where their philosophies fall into that sphere.

  6. Alex:

    I particularly agree with your last paragraph. But I think you misunderstand the moral middle. It is not morality “as the average of two other data points.” Pragmatism and progressivism are also moral systems. Moulton simply meant the middle is where we fend off the tendency in human nature to make too much of law or free choice. It’s the best morality – not an average of the two extremes.

    While I think you make a good point regarding Machiavelli’s influence in business, I would urge you to read “The Metaphysical Club” by Harvard’s Louis Menand. He would connect pragmatism to business. I would also suggest your definition of progressivism is a bit selective, as numerous authors have cited it’s elitist tendencies, particularly evidenced in Woodrow Wilson, an ardent progressive.

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