The Advantage of Ideology

One of the main problems with politics is that it is complicated. Take, for example, the recently passed health care bill. The bill was over 2,000 pages. I haven’t read it. Neither, I imagine, have most of our readers (indeed, it would not surprise me if no single person has read every word of the bill, though obviously each of the bill’s many provisions has been read by someone).

Of course, even if someone had read every word of the bill, this would not be sufficient to have a truly informed position on it. To have a truly informed position one would have to not only read the bill but understand it. And to do that would require a great deal of knowledge about fields as complicated and diverse as the law, medicine, political science, economics, bureaucratic management, etc.

And, mind you, even if one were somehow able to master and muster all of this information, that would only entitle one to a have a truly informed position on that one bill.

If the subject turned from health care to the environment, or financial reform, or foreign policy, or taxes, the same process would have to be undertaken all over again. I have a friend whose job of late has been to keep track of the changes made to a single bill making its way through Congress. Just keeping abreast of the changes made to this one bill takes several hours a day, and there are hundreds of bills charting a similar course through the federal legislature (not to mention the legislatures of the 50 states and thousands of localities) as we speak.

So even if one were a polyglot who devoted every waking minute to politics, it would be impossible to stay fully informed about politics. And of course most of us do not have the luxury of devoting so much time or energy into learning about political subjects. We have jobs and families and responsibilities galore, with only a small fraction of our time left over to form our political opinions. If we are going to be involved in politics at all (and both the proper functioning of democracy and Church teaching require us to do so) then we are pretty much going to have to oversimplify reality in order to be able to decide which policies and politicians we ought to support and which we ought to oppose.

There are basically two ways in which we can simplify political issues down to a more manageable level. One is ideology (the other is partisanship). Ideology, as I would define the term, takes a simplified picture of the way the world works and applies it to specific situations. For example, one might conclude based on the evidence one has that when government provision of goods and services tends to be inferior to what is provided by the market, and, based on this conclusion, oppose a plan to have government provide health care to its citizens (or, alternatively, one might conclude that such government programs tend to be beneficial on net and support it for that reason). In this way, a person can have positions on political matters without devoting the superhuman effort that would be required to figure things out case by case (partisanship is analogous, except that one’s support or opposition to a given political position is based on the person or group supporting or opposing it, rather than the content of the view itself).

An ideology may be more or less sophisticated depending on the intelligence and learning of the person involved and the amount of effort they are willing to put into creating and maintaining it. Some versions of an ideology are almost cartoonish in their crude simplicity. Others are much more subtle and nuanced. But all of them are going to involve some level of oversimplification of reality. All else equal, a more sophisticated ideology is preferable to a simpler one, as a person adhering to it is likely to be right more often (if not, then the added sophistication has been a waste of time). But of course all else is never equal, and one will always face a trade off between the time and effort one can devote to politics, and the time and effort required for other things.

In theory a person may hold political positions based on an ideology while recognizing that the ideology does not provide a complete picture of the world and will not always give the right answer to political questions. In practice, of course, the tendency is for people to confuse their own ideology with reality itself. It’s the other guys who are ideological, whereas I (and those who agree with me) simply see things just as they are, and treat each case with an open mind. As Keynes once said, “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

While I agree with my co-blogger Tim that ideology involves an oversimplification of reality, and that this is less than ideal, I confess I don’t see any way to avoid relying on ideology when it comes to politics. Political discourse that relied solely on partisanship would not, I think, be superior to one where both ideology and partisanship played a role in forming political opinions, and I do not see and third way of overcoming the otherwise insurmountable obstacles that the sheer complexity of political issues would pose to forming political opinions. Perhaps some day someone will event a method by which we can all be fully informed about politics without the crutch of a simplifying ideological perspective. Until such time, however, I must say of ideology what Churchill said of democracy, that it is a worst of all systems, except for all the others.

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Black Adder

Monty rules!