The Problem with Pragmatism (and “It’s Time to Build”)

I was once an ally of Marc Andreessen, author of the recent much-descussed essay It’s Time to Build.

Back in 1996, there was an Epic Battle for the Future of the World between Netscape (founded by Andreesen) and Microsoft (founded by Bill Gates), for who was going to dominate the Internet. That battle is largely forgotten now, because it turned out that neither company ended up dominating the Internet. But at the time it was the Biggest Thing Ever. Or maybe it just seemed like the Biggest Thing Ever to me because I ended up in the middle of it.

At the beginning of 1996, I was a software engineer working for a business-to-business PC reseller called Dataflex, when it got bought out by a larger B2B PC reseller called Vanstar. Bill Gates owned something like 8% of Vanstar, if I recall correctly.

Back then, Gates was viewed as the Greedy Monopolist. More recently, because of his philanthropy focused on global disease reduction, Gates has flipped that image to become The Good Billionaire. But here’s a thing that hasn’t changed about Bill Gates: when he sees something as an existential threat, he will fight that threat in a thoroughly focused, organized, systematic, comprehensive, and relentless manner. Back then, Netscape was the existential threat. Netscape got crushed. The coronavirus has no idea what it’s in for.

Back in 1996, Netscape wanted to sell its software to businesses, because that’s where the big money is. But in order to do that, it needed resellers like Vanstar to leverage their relationships with businesses to sell them Netscape products. But there weren’t any resellers who would touch Netscape with a 10-foot pole. Either they were, like Vanstar, partially owned by Microsoft or Bill Gates, or they knew how much they were entirely dependent on Microsoft for their existence, and didn’t want to cross them. Netscape couldn’t get its foot in the door to businesses anywhere.

So a handful of we Dataflex/Vanstar veterans got wind of this, and decided to launch a B2B reselling business called Intraware to sell the software like Netscape that Microsoft didn’t want sold. That worked pretty well for a while, until the dot-com crash dealt a big blow to the idea. Then the fact that the Internet basically destroyed the concept of middlemen finished it off.

Still, we had a good run for a while there, and much of the material comforts I enjoy now are thanks to that titanic Netscape-Microsoft clash of the late 1990s. That fact that I can sit at home during this pandemic and not have to worry about where my next meal is coming from is in large part thanks to Marc Andreessen. So believe me, after all that, it does not give me much joy here to kind of bite the hand that fed me.

* * *

In my essay, “Quick Start Guide to Human Society™, I ran through some various approaches to political philosophies, and the problems with each of them. I claimed that each political philosophy has at its foundation a particular model of human nature.

I made one exception to that, which was Pragmatism:

Pragmatic models make no claim whatsoever about human nature. Instead, pragmatic strategies simply aim to function through trial and error to see what works and what doesn’t. They keep what works and throw out what doesn’t. Why something works or doesn’t isn’t considered an important question.

The problem with pragmatic models is that without a theory of human nature behind them, they lack a moral foundation. Without a good moral story to tell, it is difficult for pragmatists to establish and maintain trust within their Human Society™.

Andreessen in his essay is not promoting any particular political model. He goes out of his way to avoid doing so, pointing out the weaknesses and strengths of both sides of the two-party system. Instead, he advocates for tossing all that aside and just start focusing on getting stuff built, doing what works.

That’s basically Pragmatism.

* * *

America is a two-party system, so you don’t ever get a Pragmatist Party promoting Pragmatist ideas as a viable party. But even in multi-party parliamentary systems, there aren’t any Pragmatist parties that win elections anywhere. Why is that?

There’s an aphorism goes, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” Pragmatists don’t want to take sides on questions of human nature, they just want to Get Things Built. They prefer to remain neutral in the questions of morality that pervade political discourse. They prefer a skeptical distance from the moral certainty that emanates from each side of the political divide.

You know that phrase “if you can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided for you”? Pragmatism is like that. If you don’t have a view of human nature of your own, you’ll get one assigned to you.

Pragmatists want to stay amoral. But by not choosing, moral decisions get taken out of their hands, and they thereby abdicate their political power. The practical result is that pragmatism gets co-opted by other philosophies.

Sometimes those other philosophies that pragmatism gets attached to are immoral. Which is exactly what happened to them throughout a large portion of American history.

* * *

Two party systems are inherently unstable. The average two-party presidential system lasts about 20 years before falling apart because the two parties drift so far apart that they can’t agree on anything long enough to Get Things Built. (Parliamentary systems last about 4x longer, on average.) America’s two-party system is no exception to that instability. The Civil War was basically that instability coming home to roost. The only thing that kept it from breaking up again after the Civil War was that for the next 100 years, America wasn’t really a two-party system as much as it was a three-party system: the Republicans, the Democrats, and the Southern Democrats.

Nobody wanted another Civil War. That gave Southern Democrats the leverage to make a deal: they would be a source of pragmatism and compromise to Get Things Built, as long as they got to keep their racist institutions intact.

So American Pragmatists, lacking a view of human nature of their own, found themselves assigned one: that white human beings were superior to other races of human beings, and should therefore rule over them.

Racism is America’s great sin. It is also American Pragmatism’s great sin. America used to Get Things Built, but it wasn’t because it Wanted To Build more than it does today. It did so because America, and in particular American Pragmatists, in their unwillingness to commit to a model of human nature, were also unwilling to commit to saying that the model of human nature promoted by white supremacists, and the political philosophy that follows from it, is wrong. It was willing to trade the welfare of African Americans in order bridge the necessary gaps between left and right in order to Get Things Built.

This is how Pragmatists, time and time again, in their efforts to remain amoral, let immoral things happen.

* * *

The Civil Rights Act blew up the deal with the Southern Democrats. And for the next 30 years or so, the pragmatists and the racists drifted around without a clear home. Both left and right tried to attract the racists to their side in indirect and subtle ways, by being “tough on crime” or launching a “war on drugs”. Both sides tried to appeal to pragmatists by trying to solve social problems with market mechanisms.

A funny thing happened in the 1990s. The pragmatists and the racists began to realize they held the leverage in this power struggle. The Pragmatists, under the Clintons, took over the Democrats. And increasingly, as the pragmatists shifted towards the Democrats, the racists began to co-opt the Republicans, leading in the end to Donald Trump’s victory.

In the election of 2016, Americans were given a choice between an amoral philosophy and and immoral one. Because Pragmatists have trouble morally justifying their positions, people could and did ascribe all sorts of immoral motivations to those choices, whether true or not. It’s not hard to make a Pragmatist look immoral. The choice between amorality and immorality often doesn’t look like a choice at all.

* * *

In the end of his essay, Marc Andreessen asks, “What do you think we should build?”

My answer to that is: a moral center.

It’s a pipe dream, I know. But you’re asking, so I’m answering.

America’s great flaw is that its political center has always been occupied by amoral and immoral philosophies. So in order to Get Things Built, America has always had to do things that are morally reprehensible.

In the long run, that leads to distrust, which leads to roadblocks.

It doesn’t need to be that way. I believe that America can Get Things Built again, if it had a good moral story for the center of American politics.

A primary reason I wrote my essay “Quick Start Guide to Human Society is to provide an example of such a moral center.

It’s a morality that differs from the right, which is focused on liberty, and from the left, which is focused on equality. This centrist philosophy that I’m advocating is focused on trust. It is not a branch of either the left or the right, but philosophically distinct from either one. It can tell a story about why being in the center, as opposed to either the left or the right, is the morally correct place to be. And as such, it can provide a bridge where the distrust of the left for the right, and vice versa, leads each party to spend most of its energy and resources on stopping the other side.

With a third clear morality to choose from, there is no excuse for people who want to Get Things Built to take the Pragmatic path and avoid moral choices. Make a choice, and then get to work.

America’s potential is still there, waiting to be unlocked. The key we need to unlock it is a morally sound mechanism for compromise. If we build that, then our country’s true potential can be fulfilled. America can finally Get Things Built the way we all believe it can.

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