People sometimes wonder at my self-description as “pragmatic”; some think this means having no principles and having no regard for long-term consequences. This is not the case. As far as I can tell, if one includes moral interests within the scope of “practical consequences” (i.e., it’s among the things we care about) and one accepts that sabotaging one’s long-term interests can never be the “practical” thing to do, then I find it hard to imagine how anyone could not be a pragmatist.
Ironically, liberals often recommend misguided short-term measures for moral reasons without regard for institutional, structural, long-term consequences. Case in point: a federal judge has issued an injunction against the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The Justice Department is appealing the ruling because it can. Liberals opposed to “don’t ask, don’t tell” are appalled that the Obama administration is not doing the right thing and declining to appeal. Here are the questions not being asked:
(1) Is it, as a rule, a good idea for a lawyer who has taken on the task of representing a client to give in to outside pressure so that her client loses, because others who are not in the lawsuit or prosecution are made happier? Suppose that in the famous “hot coffee” case (popularly misunderstood as without merit) the lawyer who represented the woman with third-degree burns from McDonald’s overly hot coffee decided to not appeal a district court ruling against the client, because lots of people outside the courtroom thought the case was BS? Suppose that a lawyer defending someone accused of murder decided not to appeal a conviction, merely because he felt pressured by a lynch mob mentality against his client? Failure to grasp why these scenarios are analogous to refusing to appeal the injunction shows a complete failure to grasp the difference between mob rule and rule of law. Rule of law, however, has much to recommend it. Really.
(2) What caused DADT? We did. The American people did, through our duly elected representatives. But now really stretch yourself and imagine a law that you like, a nice liberal law (let’s say, some environmental protection law). Imagine a Neanderthal judge, and a high-handed, authoritarian, reactionary right-wing President who hates environmental protection. This President, and her Justice Department, is tasked with prosecuting the polluters, but they really wish they didn’t have to do that, because they hate the law. The crazy judge rules in favor of the polluters and against the government, but the government is secretly relieved because it is sympathetic to the party it is prosecuting and hostile to the law it is enforcing. So when it loses, it declines to appeal. Environmentalists complain, but the tacit message from the administration is “we never liked this law in the first place, so we’re going to passively sabotage its enforcement.”
This is exactly what people (like the people on the New York Times editorial board) are suggesting. Now why shouldn’t a pragmatist be open to using any trick or ploy to get the “right” results? Because by failing to grasp that the tricky exercise of power in a good cause is grasping at a two-edged sword, one all but guarantees that when the roles are reversed, and the opposition, your opposition, is in power, they will have learned a trick or two from you about how to abuse power, and will abuse it themselves… at your expense. Taking care to avoid this sort of thing is highly pragmatic, if you care about your own political best interests over the long haul. It is even more so if you care about the nation, and the viability of its democracy.
I learned these things in law school. Where do non-lawyer citizens learn them? Do they learn them?