January 26, 2010

Obama, the Pragmatic, and the Ideal

Lately, a significant portion of the fate of our nation is hanging on the seeming necessity of choosing between the pragmatic and the ideal.

We are in two wars on the other side of the world because many Americans presume the pragmatic and the ideal are often at odds.

Obama struck a deal with the pharmaceutical industry at the outset of health care reform on the expectation that pragmatically, it might be politically impossible to pass health care reform if the drug lobby opposed reform.

This deal making though has helped damn the current health care reform bills in the eyes of many independent voters.

Those who might be skeptical of Republican rhetoric against the reform legislation nevertheless could find no way around the fact that backroom deals had been struck at the expense of the American taxpayer.

In 2003, Congress passed Medicare Part D, and did not use the potential advantage of a huge insurance agent (Medicare itself) to negotiate prices with drug makers!

I expect somewhere between 60-90% of Americans would choose the label "corrupt" over alternatives like "beneficial" to describe this aspect of the 2003 legislation -- an apparent giveaway to for-profit drug makers.

What if you had to individually negotiate, as a household, with a toll road operator, for your toll road rates? The toll road operator could consider your address and decide just how much it might be able to wring out of you based on what it guesses is your individual likelihood to be willing to pay more.

When government appears to simply create an extra margin of profit for some corporations when it could easily have solicited bids instead (as it does for many other goods and services), it is entirely reasonable for citizens to view that provision as an instance of corruption.

What label might Americans who view the lack of drug price negotiation in Medicare Part D as corrupt now apply to the 2009 Obama deal with drug makers at the outset of this new reform?

Pragmatism, by its very nature as a word, implies deciding what to do on the basis of the expected practical outcomes of options. But for many people "pragmatism" also implies that simply following principles, ideals, might often be unworkable in terms of outcome.

Was the likelihood of passage of health care reform increased by making a backroom, apparently corrupt deal with drug makers?

Might I suggest a portion of Massachusetts independent voters may have reached the conclusion this was a corrupt deal?

Consider further -- does invading an entire region of parochial tribes to fight a group of wing nut terrorists, at times fighting tribal people that fight us only because we have invaded their territory, make terrorism more likely or less?

In contrast, if we followed a strategy of based on the ideal of peacemaking, while continuing to be on-guard, and simply issued warrants for the arrests of "criminals", what effect would that have over time on the number and passion of terrorists?

If you think peacemaking and labeling known terrorists as "criminals" would lead to a lower number of recruits to their ranks, your pragmatic instincts are quite correct.

Because Al Qaeda is not essentially a group of individuals.

It is a set of ideas.

Obama has made an important and subtle mistake, a disconcerting failure of wisdom.

He has accepted the fallacy of the pragmatic versus the ideal.


Life experience gradually teaches us that violating ideals in pursuit of goals is impractical over time.

We cannot win a war of ideas -- the fight against Al Qaeda -- by fighting and killing people who are not trying to conduct a war against us (tribal people in eastern Afghanistan who are not members of Al Qaeda). Such a practice in fact validates the ideology of Al Qaeda and recruits new fanatics to its cause.

No, to fight Al Qaeda and win, we need to use ideals -- ideals that are superior to the ideology of Al Qaeda.

You win a war of ideas by using and practicing better ideas -- ideals -- not by forfeiting your moral standing by fighting bystanders trying to defend their homeland territory against your presence.

To defeat Al Qaeda, we need to use words and ideal actions.

This is an instance of a very deep principle that age and experience gradually will suggest -- the ideal is the most pragmatic option. It is the option that will have the best outcome in time.

The pragmatic and the ideal are one and the same.

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