Reason for a New Age

On Pragmatism

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/03/20


My general stance for law and life is that whatever works is what works. Whether that follows your personal beliefs of economics, politics, psychology, or whatever else is irrelevant if the best solution, in the real world, simply is the best solution. It’s for this reason that I can’t say that I ever subscribed to the idea that “Two wrongs don’t make a right”, “The ends don’t justify the means”, or other such bumper sticker slogans.

But, it is worth noting that there is a problem with pure pragmatism, and so it’s something of which one should always be mindful: Pragmatism is cheap.

For instance, the pragmatic way to deal with racism might be to simply get rid of everyone of a separate race. For instance, this is largely the way that Japan is. Foreigners are, outside of businessmen and wealthy tourists, highly discouraged. They specifically do not want real immigration of any sort into the country. And one must accede that there have yet to ever be race riots, lynchings, or such in modern Japan.

A thing to remember though is that originally, in the US, the Irish were foreigners. They came in, caused problems, started gangs, and were looked upon as “bad people” by many. And yet, two days ago, we celebrated St. Patrick’s day and anyone who so wished was freely able to come out and announce their Irish heritage to the rest of everyone else without worry. When the Chinese first started to come to the US, they were mistrusted and treated abominably. During WWII, domestic Japanese were treated poorly. These days, people of Asian ancestry are among the highest salaried in the nation. It’s been proven that people of different races can be fully assimilated and interact with one another without antagonism. In many cases, there never was any antagonism to begin with (for instance, people from India).

The pragmatic answer to simply avoid the issue, but in this case could also be called simple laziness. It can be done, though it takes some management to make it go off smoothly in every case. Certainly we can say that even when mismanaged, it doesn’t spell the end of the world.

But let’s look at a harder example. Again using Japan as an example, according to the Economist, roughly 90% of people who are convicted of a crime confessed to that crime. Practically speaking, what are the odds of that happening unless the cops are beating up suspects or otherwise coercing them into confessions?  Back 50 years ago, the US was probably similar to Japan in this respect. The police knew who was most likely to have committed a crime, beat them up, falsified evidence, or did whatever else to get a guaranteed jail sentence in a minimum amount of time. In end run, this left them more free time to catch more crooks. With less chance of getting away with a crime, there was altogether less crime at all.

I can’t really prove that this is the case, I can say that the crime rate started to clime starting in the 60s. But since I don’t have data on the state of things earlier than that, I can’t say for certain that the chart would be largely flat previous to and leading up to 1960. I assume it was. But what happened starting in the 60s? One could say that it was the start of the end of segregation, but that falls under a general move towards more liberal methods of governing, which is what I was already blaming. I can also point to Japan, Cuba, or other stable, fairly draconian countries and their lack of general crime. But I will admit that it’s still supposition.

The Economist also pointed out, though, that the police were worse than British (or American) police because they’ve never needed to do anything beyond go by their gut instinct. That may be right 90% of the time, and as such be effective in cutting crime, but if they come across someone who can’t be beaten into submission or if they must investigate something that requires true detective skills, they simply don’t have the experience, since there is so rarely the need for it. But, those same skills are the ones that make them far more effective at responding to larger threats like tracking down terrorist organizations, serial killers, etc.

Since the early 90s, the crime rate has been going back down in the US. This may be thanks to the legalization of abortions (as Freakonomics posits), the enactment of three strikes laws, a combination of those two, or something entirely different. Either way, this indicates that there are other solutions than simple draconian measures to combat crime.

Now I suspect that in modern day America, 99.9% of everyone who goes to jail was guilty and deserved it. In the 50s, that number would be more like 90-95%. You’re always going to have innocent people in jail, but you certainly can reduce the number by requiring evidence of greater and greater reliability. But on the downside, for every one innocent person spared, there are probably a good hundred criminals who go free.

Society has every right to say that this cost is worth it. Personally, I’d be happy enough to go to jail though I was innocent, if I knew that this was the price of a safe environment for the rest of society and my family. I don’t know that most people are quite so philosophical about such matters as I, though. And, more importantly, I’m not sure that most people in the US in the 50s or most Japanese in modern day are aware that people were being sent to jail based on beatings rather than based on evidence. In that case, society hasn’t properly voted for it. Most Japanese think that their detectives are every bit the forensic analysts as they see in American TV shows or in Sherlock Holmes novels.

But again, if you asked a police man, he would say that the pragmatic solution for him to fight crime is to have the freedom to simply take the people who he knows did it and lock them up. We know that this is probably more effective than what we currently have–the decrease since the 90s notwithstanding–and likely results in more lives saved than those ruined when innocents are sent to jail.

When you put your foot down, though, and say that a certain thing isn’t acceptable, it spurs creative thinking. The fight moves to fighting poverty or the other root causes of crime, to becoming better at crime detection, to creating the three strikes laws, etc. It very well might be that you can achieve the same end result through somewhat more clever means. There’s really no way to know that one way or the other until you do put your foot down on some moral grounding and tell everyone to figure out how to make it work, even so.

Pragmatism relies on what you already know. But if you already knew everything, there wouldn’t be a problem.

On the other hand, sometimes you also have to admit that the experiment simply hasn’t worked. This is often much harder. What are the odds, after all, of getting the public to accept removing cameras from police stations and police vehicles? What are the odds of getting all people of X skin tone deported en masse? What are the odds that teachers will be allowed to paddle students once more? I could string out all of the data in the world to support any of these, and I think everyone would still rather stick to the moral high ground. Mind that I’m not actually advocating for (or against) any of these positions, it’s just good to consider where the boundaries of sheer pragmatism lie so that you don’t become too scared to try something new, and also to consider how locked in we become to the rightness of the way things are.

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