Two Insidious Trends in America
By Tibor Machan - July 08, 2010

Two powerful intellectual developments are ruining America. One is egalitarianism, the other pragmatism.

The former is an effort at the highest levels of American education, at institutions such as Harvard University and the University of Chicago, for example, to help establish a regime or political system that has as its firm and unrelenting goal to make all people equal in the benefits and burdens they enjoy and shoulder in their lives – economic, educational, medical, psychological, etc. The clarion call of this movement is to demand government mandated fairness for everyone.

The latter, pragmatism, is also being promulgated at some of the most prominent and prestigious institutions of higher education. This is a broad philosophical school of thought, originally forged on American soil by the likes of Charles Peirce, William James, C. I. Lewis, John Dewey, and numerous others, including the most radical member of the school, the later Richard Rorty; it insists that no basic principles can be identified in any area of human concern, not in ethics, not politics, not even metaphysics or epistemology (or theory of knowledge). Instead of finding basic principles on which to rest one's reasoning and actions – in morality or law, for instance – an attitude of practical expediency is all that human beings can hope for.

"Whatever works," is the simplified motto of pragmatism but there is a big problem with this, since things work always with respect to some goal and certain goals are clearly not worth pursuing, others are. Pragmatism insists, however, that there is no way to tell which goals are important, which are trivial and which are out and out insidious. That is all a matter of the intuitions of those who are in charge of calling the shots. (Currently, for example, President Obama and his team – most notably Professor Cass Sunstein of the Harvard Law School – proclaim the superior merit of pragmatism and pursue workable approaches to solving problems they feel need solving.)

Both egalitarianism and pragmatism tend to unleash an army of government regulators upon members of society, in the effort to cut everyone down to the same size and achieve goals the leaders believe need to be achieved, respectively. But both of these outlooks are hopeless, futile and must produce confusion and the tyranny of some people over others. As a result, the egalitarian objectives will mostly turn out exactly as George Orwell indicated in his novella, Animal Farm, namely, a group of members of society will be running the show and thus defeat the very idea of equality among human beings. And given how unprincipled conduct also encourages the rise of elites and petty tyrants, pragmatism also produces very bad public policies. Moreover, the pragmatist agenda flies directly in the face of some of the most noble aspects of the American political tradition, namely, the rule of law and the Founders' declaration of the vital need for basic principles, such as individual human rights within the legal system. (Cass Sunstein explicitly insists that such rights do not exist and the only "rights" you have is what the government grants you!)

What might be put in opposition to these two clearly dangerous movements so widely embraced by elite public philosophers? A renewed commitment to the American Founders' idea that human beings all have basic rights – in this respect they are indeed equal – and the most vital public good or purpose is the protection of their basic rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, etc. Some adjustment will have to be made on the Founders' ideas but very little. One point to keep in mind is that just because basic principles can indeed be identified in areas such as ethics, law and politics, it doesn't mean they are going to be timelessly fixed, unalterable. (That is the point of the amendment process.)

Unfortunately the education of American students is mostly in the hands of those who embrace both egalitarianism and pragmatism, so it isn't going to be easy to rekindle the commitment to the Founders' ideas and ideals. Still, that is the most significant way to counter the drift of the country toward greater and greater government regimentation. Everyone who understands this needs to discover ways to arrest that drift. It is an eternal struggle but worth it.