Sunday, April 10, 2005

In praise of ideology

This David Brooks column is excellent:

Much as I admire my friends on the left for ingeniously explaining their recent defeats without really considering the possibility that maybe the substance of their ideas is the problem, I have to say that this explanation for conservative success and liberal failure is at odds with reality.

Conservatives have not triumphed because they have built a disciplined and efficient message machine. Conservatives have thrived because they are split into feuding factions that squabble incessantly. As these factions have multiplied, more people have come to call themselves conservatives because they've found one faction to agree with.

I'm a living microcosm of this. Witness my tortuous deliberations on the gay-marriage issue. I've also noticed this:

Moreover, it's not only feuding that has been the key to conservative success - it's also what the feuding's about. When modern conservatism became aware of itself, conservatives were so far out of power it wasn't even worth thinking about policy prescriptions. They argued about the order of the universe, and how the social order should reflect the moral order. Different factions looked back to different philosophers - Burke, Aquinas, Hayek, Hamilton, Jefferson - to define what a just society should look like.


Liberals have not had a comparable public philosophy debate. A year ago I called the head of a prominent liberal think tank to ask him who his favorite philosopher was. If I'd asked about health care, he could have given me four hours of brilliant conversation, but on this subject he stumbled and said he'd call me back. He never did.

Liberals are less conscious of public philosophy because modern liberalism was formed in government, not away from it. In addition, liberal theorists are more influenced by post-modernism, multiculturalism, relativism, value pluralism and all the other influences that dissuade one from relying heavily on dead white guys.

As a result, liberals are good at talking about rights, but not as good at talking about a universal order.

I've noticed this as well. Modern liberalism doesn't seem to have a coherent philosophy, or even any strong philosophical currents within it. Most liberals adhere to some watered down version of relativism and deny any objective truth or highest good. Its all what the "facts" of each case say, not whether some higher principle such as "freedom" or "liberty" should trump these specific facts. Liberals call this "reality-based" decision-making, and seem to think it a good thing.

An example of this is the social security debate. If you believe that it is a fundamental good to let people control their own money, to have financial freedom, then private accounts seem like a no-brainer. But, if all you are worried about is efficiency and preserving an ailing pyramid scheme, then you begin to worry that people might invest badly, or spend the money on other things. No matter that this is their money, and a principle of freedom would justify letting them do as they wish. Freedom is useful only insofar as it can be used to justify pre-drawn social engineering schemes. It is not a fundamental principle to be applied.

This also goes hand in hand with the derision that is heaped on the word "ideology" nowadays. Frankly, I wouldn't trust someone that doesn't have an ideology. Having an ideology is a good thing. It merely means that you see certain principles as always being better than others, and as ends to be persued. A person with a Libertarian ideology sees "liberty" to be the overriding virtue. A person with a conservative ideology believes that the collective wisdom of past generations contains an inherent virtue. A person without an ideology would hold no principles as better than others. A person without ideology would prefer slavery to freedom if the price was right.

In volume one of "Law, Legislation and Liberty," Friederich Hayek wrote:
If I am not mistaken, this fashionable contempt for ‘ideology’, or for all general principles or ‘isms’, is a characteristic attitude of disillusioned socialists who, because they have been forced by the inherent contradictions of their own ideology to discard it, have concluded that all ideologies must be erroneous and that in order to be rational one must do without one. But to be guided only as they imagine it possible, by explicit particular purposes which one consciously accepts, and to reject all general values whose conduciveness to particular desirable results cannot be demonstrated (or to be guided only by what Max Weber calls ‘purposive rationality’) is an impossibility. Although, admittedly, an ideology is something which cannot be ‘proved’ (or demonstrated to be true), it may well be something whose widespread acceptance is the indispensable condition for most of the particular things we strive for.

Hayek holds that it is impossible to have a 'purposive rationality' which lets one build rational laws, because we don't have all the necessary information. This is why conservatives love him. But, if I start writing on that, this post will go on forever. Don't want to let that cat out of the bag yet. I'll put together a post on Hayek soon. I'm also thinking about writing a column about it, but I don't know if I could do his view justice in just one column, or if the average reader of the Collegian would even care at all.


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