James Leroy Wilson's blog

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Role Of Ideology

Gene Callahan is an economist and author of Economics for Real People among other works. On his blog, he has begun to reject the libertarian ideology of "anarcho-capitalism" he once embraced. In one blog comment discussion, he writes,

"See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics: Ideology is the mistaken attempt to deal with the practical world as if it were the theoretical world. We use prudence, not theory, to answer practical questions. Theory deals only with the universal, but the aim of action is always the particular. How does one know how to handle one's children, or talk to one's lover, without an ideology of children or love? Well, much better than with such an ideology!"
Callahan is also a charter of the Michael Oakeshott Association. Oakeshott was an English scholar who had said, “To be conservative.....is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

These positions of Callahan and Oakeshott looks attractive in comparison to Callahan's target, anarcho-capitalism and the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), for at least seven reasons.

First, an ideology based on NAP tempts one to be perpetually unhappy because of the injustice of everything.

Second, while anarcho-capitalists admit that there would ideally be compensation for descendants of slaves, of those who have been displaced from their lands, and of other descendants of victims of agression, there is no practical mechanism to achieve this. Thus, abolishing the State won't necessary restore justice or cleanse society of the ethnic and cultural tensions of previous injustices.

Third, a society based on NAP would change the treatment of children. I'm convinced that in many ways this would be for the better, but there are potential consequences that would be too shocking for people to handle.

Fourth, the anarchist-capitalist society would still be backed by force rather than voluntary cooperation, with private owners potentially making all kinds of arbitrary and vicious rules on guests and tenants who, if all the land is similarly privately-owned, may have no means of leaving even if they tried. (Karen De Coster calls them the Poop Nazis.)

Fifth, the NAP can violate common sense. For instance, NAP may be opposed the very concept of the State, but common sense says that those who cross a State's borders without authorization are trespassing by violating long-established rules of international law that even uneducated, low-skilled immigrants understand. States may be fictions to the anarcho-capitalist, but they are real to most people, and this makes a difference.

Sixth, the NAP tells us that people who hold opinions shouldn't be prosecuted for them, and I certainly agree with this, but on the other hand it hardly seems prudent to allow adherents of religions or ideologies that disagree with the Western liberal tradition to enter our country under our current laws, which would allow them to soon become voting citizens and help overthrow those laws.

Seventh, sticking to ideology can lead to problems of statesmanship. It is both moral and prudent, I believe, for the U.S. to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and pursue a non-interventionist foreign policy. But the outcome is probably best brought about from a position of strength and a no-apologies, America-First realism, rather than by extending an olive branch to the rest of the world. It is a disgrace that in international relations the lives of troops and civilians are bargaining chips, but I'd rather the President play the game to America's advantage then suddenly withdraw, say he'll play nice, and hope everyone else will, too. We may need realist means in foreign policy to achieve something close to the preferred ends.

In other words, prudence matters. It matters in domestic policy, and in foreign policy.

But is this to say that ideology doesn't matter at all?

It's true that ideology can become too abstract and too dogmatic. It can be, as quoted above, "the mistaken attempt to deal with the practical world as if it were the theoretical world."

On the other hand, ideology is a division-of-labor device. The intellectuals and their cult adherents aren't politicians. But ideologies that intellectuals produce provide a direction. They provide theoretical and hypothetical models telling us what the laws should be. And since laws are concerned with all current and future people in a country - and not just one's lover or family that one has an emotional attachment to - the theoreticals and hypotheticals are important. The politician can't possibly make law and policy by listening to every single person's life story first. Abstraction is necessary.

To the ideologue, the "free market" is a model. To the politician, the "free market" is a slogan. The question is whether we are better off living under politicians who like the "free market" slogan, or those who do not.

Ideologues are not politicians, they are educators. They try to persuade us not on what is the best and most prudent policy, but rather what is just and unjust. Their role is not to persuade politicians and the people to agree with everything, but to persuade them to agree on the basic principles and direction.

Think of it this way: you never see perfect spheres or exact right angles in nature, yet geometry helps us to understand and measure natural phenomena to improve our lives. Likewise, the map is not the reality, but if you are lost, an accurate map would be most helpful.

In the same manner as geometry or a map, ideology is a model to help us. Its role is to guide us to a more just world.

Here's an illustration. It is, admittedly, unfair to Callahan and Oakeshott, neither of whom I could imagine endorsing slavery, but I use it to illustrate a point. Keep in mind that this is a hypothetical example, and not the historical example of the American South and the Civil War.

Imagine a society in which people of one skin color are free and people of another color are slaves. Some of the free race begin agitating for the abolition of slavery, and their numbers start to grow. The options before the people are . . .

1. The abolition of slavery in which slave-owners compensate their slaves through back pay and/or by dividing up the land the slaves worked on. This is the dogmatic ideological solution.
2. A war to exterminate and/or punish the slave-owners as well as everyone who benefited from the slave economy. This is the fanatical approach, determined not so much to advance the ideology, but only to punish those who disagree with it.
3. The abolition of slavery through compensating slave-owners from the public treasury (taxes), which essentially leaves the freed slaves left to their own devices, with no compensation for previous labor or past unjust treatment. This is the compromise.
4. The preservation of slavery. This is the status quo.

Let's assume Option #1 is politically impossible to achieve because of the strength of the slave-owning voting bloc unwilling to give up their wealth. What, then, would you rather have, a war to end slavery (Option 2) or an unfair but peaceful end to slavery (Option 3)?

Option #3 would actually free the slaves without shedding blood, which would seem to be the least-bad option all around. It also doesn't achieve everything the ideologues want.

Non-ideologues tend to equate all ideologues as dogmatists or fanatics unwilling to bend theory to the facts on the ground. But perhaps ideology is not about imposing anything, but is rather about believing in a certain theory of justice. One can be both an ideologue AND a realist, and enter the political arena as a slave abolitionist encountering a pro-slavery establishment. In such a case, the #3 compromise would only be brought about because ideology steered the debate in the right direction. The slave-owners would never have contemplated the #3 option if there weren't ideologues opposing them.

Ideology is never implemented perfectly in any society, because every society is plagued by historical injustices and imperfections. But ideologues, including the Walter Blocks and Murray Rothbards of the world, allow us to expand our boundaries of what a just and free society would look like. Their extremism, though shocking, forces the individual to think through their own notions of justice. Activists and politicians attracted to the ideology, though not wanting to go to extremes, think through what they want to achieve and adapt it to the present political environment. They are emboldened by their ideological beliefs, but prudent enough to achieve favorable compromises.

Dogmatists are defeatists by nature, willing to claim their own virtue while blaming others for their lack of success. Fanatics are prone to violence. You'll see dogmatists and fanatics in every religion and ideology. They are not unique to either, and do not define either.

Belief in certain truths defines religion. Belief in certain principles defines ideology.

And it is possible to have religious and ideological beliefs yet still lead constructive lives in the real world. It is even possible for ideologues to force favorable compromises in the political arena.

Even the supposedly non-ideological believe in truths and principles that came from somewhere. They believe some laws are inherently more just, and some policies will inherently work better. Unless one is a psychopath or sociopath, one's conscience will embolden one to stand one's ground and, at the very least, force a compromise.

Dogmatism and fanaticism are predispositions that can embrace any religion or ideology. The process of intellectual clarity which leads to ridiculous conclusions is also apparent in every religion and ideology. But prudence also relies on a moral or ideological compass. It is hard to make one's way in the world, let alone help direct society, if you don't know where you want to go. Even the prudent need an ideology.

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