Earlier version published in ND Observer, Nov 19, 2001


Dan Lindley

The Arrogance of the Dogmatic Left and Right

October 26, 2005

In confronting world problems such figuring out how to respond to the September 11 attacks, the dogmatic left winces at mention of force. Instead, they embrace principled and legalistic solutions such as arms control and international criminal courts. They believe they have a monopoly on morality.

The dogmatic right winces at principled solutions. Instead they embrace pragmatic solutions, usually force. They believe they have a monopoly on pragmatism.

The left thinks force is morally wrong, counterproductive in that it will breed future problems, and never solves anything anyway.

The right thinks principled solutions are hollow moralism, counterproductive because they bring false complacency, and do not work anyway.

Both views contain truth and error. Force under some circumstances is just, hence 'just war theory.' Force can solve problems, and for a long time. Defeat of Germany and Japan in WWII and their subsequent transformation into leading and constructive world powers is proof. Those who advocate force are not automatically immoral, nor is it just to make injurious assumptions about their motivations.

Legalistic solutions also frequently work: arms control during the Cold War and especially the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was stabilizing, and the World Trade Organization works to increase world trade. Furthermore, it is hypocritical to live in the U.S., one of the world's prime beacons of the rule of law, and not work for a world where more of its affairs are governed by the rule of law. Those who advocate legalistic solutions are not automatically naive.

Sometimes force is immoral and counterproductive: Vietnam. Sometimes arms control is lulling and fails: Washington Naval Arms Control Treaty.

Often the left and the right appeal for reasoned, rational approaches to problems, while each are guided by their own rather visceral wisdoms. Neither has a monopoly on rationality, and neither is free of emotion.

Dogmatism makes me wince. One size fits all solutions are unwise.

My advice to those thinking about policy issues:

1. Consider the pros and cons of all policy tools. Use whatever tools will best solve the problem at hand. If for ideological reasons (or sheer cockiness), you know what to do ahead of time, you are not doing analysis or social science, and will not be as wise as you should be.

2. One's heart can lead to a question or an issue, but rational analysis is the first step in figuring out how to solve the problem. An example of a normatively-generated question or issue: What should we do about the next Rwanda-like genocide? But what is the answer? The only thing upon which we can base a reasoned answer is to study similar historical cases and derive lessons about the causes of genocides and other wars and about the success of various measures to prevent genocides and other wars. We must figure out what array of tools we have at our disposal, then see what lessons we can learn from how well they have worked in the past. These sorts of questions and analyses are (or at least should be) the tasks of the social sciences. 

If you do not tell the truth for ideological or other reasons, you will not be helping social science cumulate knowledge or helping policy makers.  False coding, biased reporting, and other lies will help your cause in the long run - both for you personally and for your political agenda.

Following dispassionate analysis, moral concerns often weigh heavily. If it would cost 20-50 U.S. soldier's lives (who would have to kill 2000 Rwandans) to stop the genocide and save 200,000-500,000, is this worth it? Note that any number for lives saved is pure speculation ahead of the fact. How about 500-2,500 soldier's lives, killing 5000, and saving 50,000-100,000? These are complex issues, and can only be decided in one's heart. Even worse, the president may not receive one of these estimates, but perhaps both, one from the CIA, the other from the Pentagon. These options will have to be weighed in an urgent and politically charged atmosphere with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, lobbyists, pundits, scholars, and citizens all over the map.

3. In developing policy prescriptions, think as if you are president. This discourages hand-waving at problems, vague proposals, and helps impose some practicality on proposals. Presidents confront difficult moral and practical tradeoffs and risks, made worse by the considerable uncertainty about the costs and benefits of each possible action. Becoming aware of these tradeoffs and uncertainties will teach you that many policy decisions are difficult bets.

We did not know what exactly would happen when we began to use force in Afghanistan, in the Gulf War, or elsewhere. Nor would we know exactly what would happen if we did not. Welcome to the presidency. Roll the tape back to September 11, or the invasion of Kuwait. It's your call.