Political Philosophy or Ideology?

Saturday, February 14, AD 2009

While we’re discussing libertarianism and its derivations, Randy Barnett at The Volokh Conspiracy recently flagged a post by a libertarian that I found interesting:

I’ve always found libertarianism to be an attractive political philospohy. But…the libertarian perspective has a couple of traps. The trap Barnett describes is a particularly tough one to get out of: once seduced by a libertarian idea, like “goods and services are produced & distributed more effectively when markets are not interefered with by coercive agents like government”, its apparently obvious correctness turns it into a sort of semantic stop sign.

I went through a phase where if, say, education or healthcare policy came up in conversation, I’d say “Markets! Markets markets markets! MARKETS!” I found these conversations astonishingly unproductive, but I didn’t think to blame myself.

Truth is, I didn’t know much about education or healthcare policy. The semantic stop sign—“Markets!”—shut down my own investigations into these matters. I was frustrated that I couldn’t convince conservatives, social democrats, and socialists to come round to my view. To myself, I blamed their intransigence. In terms of Barnett’s analogy, I had the “right answer”, but I couldn’t explain why it was right, and so I didn’t truly understand the subject being tested.

I’m slowly maturing. I’ve learned more about education & healthcare policy. What I’ve learned has moderated my beliefs a little, but I still claim that our schools and healthcare would benefit from a policy that lets markets do more of the heavy lifting than they’re currently able. I’m just better able to argue it now.

I still don’t argue it well—I still don’t know enough. But I’ve run the stop sign, and I’m no longer stalled. On this issue.

While perhaps the “Markets! markets! markets!” pitfall is more characteristic of libertarians, I think a similar thing could be said about political philosophy more generally. We’ve all had conversations with committed partisans in which the other person’s position could basically be summarized as ‘I’ve made up my mind, don’t bother me with the facts.’

Reality is complex and multi-faceted. Political philosophy is a rough heuristic; a story we carve out from a universe of data and experiences to use as a general guide. But this story is necessarily a simplification. It may be a valuable simplification; it may be more accurate than other people’s simplifications, but it’s a simplification nonetheless. And when we lose sight of the inadequacy of any political philosophy as a Grand Theory Explaining Everything, then we have an ideology rather than a political philosophy.

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