Jonah Goldberg, one of my favorite writers posted this on The Corner @ NRO, answering this question:

What is the difference between the anti-ideology stance of the pragmatic left and the “practical” right?

This is interesting to me, and Jonah’s answer is interesting if you follow the political and intellectual history of the 20th century.

Regardless, I would say the differences between the right’s anti-ideologism (what an awful word!) and the left’s are pretty profound. As I’ve been shouting around here for a very long time, Dewey’s pragmatism was not non-ideological. It was in fact profoundly ideological. The great con of the Pragmatic progressives is that they claimed they were opposed to ideology when in fact they were seeking to replace the dominant laissez-faire ideology with their own collectivist one. They claimed they merely cared about “what works” but that was, quite simply, a huge lie (or, to be more charitable, a massive example of self-delusion).

The core of the Deweyan position was the individual, or a few dedicated experts working closely together, could have all the knowledge they’d ever need to run vast swaths of society. Indeed, these experts would know better how to run things from some far away command center than would the individuals on the ground. The fact that the experts didn’t have a personal stake in their decisions was supposed to be a sign they were more qualified to make important decisions, rather than less qualified. Centralized economic planning? No problem! Just trim away the fat of ideological thinking and let the wonks collect their data and apply their knowledge and everything will work out fine.

The right’s anti-ideologism is entirely different. Whether you want to call it Burkean or Hayekian, the basic idea is that experts can never have enough knowledge to successfully plan societies, save in the crudest and (hopefully) most temporary ways (such as during war mobilization or natural disasters). It’s not merely a question of whether people can be smart enough, it’s that they can never know enough. The accumulated wisdom in institutions, rules, traditions, customs is much greater and more complex than anything a single person or small group of persons can comprehend, never mind master. Von Mises and Hayek demonstrated this point numerous times when it came to things like pricing. Prices seem very simple, but are astoundingly complex. Soviet planners certainly had the brainpower to set prices, and they had plenty of data. And, as an added bonus,  they had the ability  to imprison or kill people if they didn’t play along. And yet, they were still very, very bad at setting prices.

In short anti-ideological conservatives like Kirk put their faith in the ability of society to take care of itself. Meanwhile, capital P pragmatists like Dewey had contempt for any society left on autopilot. The Deweyans believed in “mastery” over mere “drift.” Mastery, in turn,  requires “experimentation” as Dewey (and FDR put it) which means letting social engineers experiment with the lives and livelihoods of citizens.

The conservative position may have its flaws and force us to, in Burke’s words, “bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes.” But it is a position of true humility. The Deweyan view is one of astounding arrogance. Indeed, it holds that  it’s okay for social engineers to commit the occasional experimental crime in the name of ameliorating some trivial  infirmity. (emphasis mine)

It’s a little lengthy and heavy on the intellectual-historical references (one can safely replace “progressive” – or given the modern politcal context, just “liberal” – for “Deweyan”), but this is a succinct explanation one of the core reasons (there are probably 3-4) that I think a libertarian-leaning, conservative political philosophy is a best-fit for gospel lenses.  Of course, by the light of the gospel it is just as wayward to “put [your] faith in the ability of society to take care of itself” as it is to arrogantly “believe in mastery”, but like Jonah says, the former is a position of humility.  It is far easier to translate a “faith in society to take care of itself” into a faith in the sovereign God of the universe.  There are certainly legitimate criticisms that that gospel can make of the Burkean/Hayekian political tradition, but it leaves the most room for correction and the most room for community.  Like I said….best fit.

Comments welcome.  I plan to expound on this point in coming posts.  I’ve been meaning to write about this, but I keep ending up with an effort to write a super-almost-book-essay.  Blurting it out in piecemeal fashion would probably work better anyway.

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