Monday, December 06, 2004

Ideology and Ideologues

The most prominent forms of ideology in America today are what we refer to as conservatism and liberalism. The current meaning of these terms is somewhat removed from their original meanings. Liberalism used to mean a belief in liberty, freedom and self reliance to do one’s own thing and achieve what one could with the resources at hand while allowing others to do the same, without coercion. This implied a level of resourcefulness and responsibility for ones actions and a tolerance of others choices to pursue their own ends as they saw fit. Conservatism meant a respect for what had come before and served people well, and a reluctance to chuck the old for the new without due consideration of what might be lost as well as what could be gained with the new approach.

Today liberalism is identified with the Democrat Party and conservatism with the Republican Party. So liberalism has come to mean a belief in government as a way of solving problems, in addition to the usual private way. Conservatism still has an element of hanging on to the past and what it has delivered, but now has an element of old liberalism is mixed with it, the belief in free markets and individual responsibility. This new version of conservatism may arise from the mixture of old style conservatives and libertarians in the current Republican Party.

But, what are the salient features of these ideologies? In general, people we call liberals now tend to have egalitarian and altruistic motives. They see the differences in endowments of people, either due to heredity or culture, as something visited upon them, and either giving them an advantage or disadvantage as the case may be. They believe that one role of government, under its responsibility to promote the general welfare, is to equalize these differences so everyone can partake of the prosperity of the society. Present day conservatives, on the other hand tend to think that people should be rewarded based on their ability and capacity to contribute to the society. And the conservative ideologues believe that free markets are the principle mechanism for allocating the rewards. The reality is that the society will probably prosper best with a mix of the two.

Analysts vs. Ideologues

The analyst realizes that people generally behave both altruistically and selfishly. They are more altruistic in their dealing with family, clan, or friends and more selfish with respect to people outside these groups. Altruism leads to cooperation which can achieve a great deal in a society. Selfishness is great motivator. If we think we can reap the rewards of our efforts we will work harder and longer. Both of these personal attributes must be harnessed to achieve a smoothly running society.

Analysts generally view things as a tradeoff. They like to find the best mix of competing options to deliver the best result. Ideologues tend to view such behavior as not standing for anything. They like to have a set of rules or guidelines to tell them which path to go down, which option to select. Having to evaluate all the options and weigh one against the other can be real work, particularly if you do not have the aptitude for it. Analysts have the aptitude, but sometimes it can get them into trouble. They try to digest all sides of an issue objectively but get to the point where they suffer from analysis paralysis, and never get to a decision. Ideologues rarely have this problem. Over time they build a filter of rules and guidelines of what is acceptable and what is not. Rather than seeking out information on all the options ideologues tend to seek sources that reinforce the filter that they have developed. In some cases, this filter can change over time if the ideologue is not too extreme. In other cases, particularly if a belief system is involved such as occurs in devoutly religious people, the filter can be nearly immutable.

To some extent everyone is an analyst and everyone is an ideolog. It’s just a matter of degree.

Liberal Ideologue Examples

So what sort of filter does a liberal ideologue have? Being more altruistic and egalitarian liberals tend to be more sensitive to when people are in jeopardy or hurting in some way. As the saying goes, “they feel your pain” and they want to help. If the victim is in need of something, they want to find it for them to relieve their suffering. And where can one find it? Well, where someone else has an over abundance of it. And how do you get it? Well, buy it, beg for it, or take it in a legal way, which generally means with the government’s help and approval. What’s going on in this scenario is that not much attention is being paid to the consequences of what solving this problem in this way is having on the system. If too much is redistributed in this way it may cause a lack of incentive to produce what is being redistributed. But, if we have a liberal filter that says, if it helps someone it’s right and just, we are home free.

Another premise in the liberal’s filter seems to be that the earth was perfect before man got here. So anything that can bring it back to that state must be good, and anything that man has done to it must be bad. Hence, environmental extremism develops. Get rid of all the dams, protect all the snail darters and get people out of the wilderness. Again, if one accepts the basic premise, they look no further. When, in actuality there are tradeoffs to be made to arrive at a compromise solution.

Conservative Ideologue Examples

So what kind of filter does a conservative ideologue have? Being more attuned to individual effort and self reliance the conservative ideologue is likely to think more along the lines of, “What I produce is mine and what you produce is yours.” I might want to exchange some of mine for some of yours in a mutual bargain, but there will be no taking of anything of mine or anything of yours. So what is being overlooked in this scenario? Well, do we really produce anything on our own? Or is there a storehouse of resources generated in the past and passed on to us that we draw on to produce something in the here and now? Who owns this storehouse of past resources? More likely it is owned in common than individually, if it happens to be the road we drove to work on, the school we attended, the library we visited, the modern technology we used, etc. So how much of our produce are we entitled to and who gets to decide? Generally the people in charge do. This may be to boss, the company, the government. Or it may have nothing to do with the cost of what we produce, but how scarce our particular contribution is. It’s all very complicated, and probably no one has the right answer, but if we have a filter that says, “If we were paid a certain amount for our contribution it must be right and just,” we are home free.

Another premise in the conservative filter the free market and small government, which go together, since regulation requires government and markets can’t be completely free if they are regulated. So if any proposition impinges on markets it does not pass the filter. If it reduces the size of government or eliminates regulations it’s considered good, so again you’re home free in any argument about the subject.

The Analyst Example

Without any filters to justify our case, we would conclude that there must be an incentive to produce, if we are to have anything to reduce someone’s suffering. If we take too much from very able producers they will stop producing. We would also realize that what we are paid for what we produce is not necessarily what is right and just, that it may be somewhat arbitrary or transitory, for being in the right place and the right time where we could take advantage of a shortage, or we may be involved in a monopoly enterprise. Or our employer may have paid a politician to cut him a better tax deal or a sole source contract to enable him to pay us more. We would recognize that part of the value of what we produce is based on resources contributed by people in the past, which is held in common. We would realize that if a market is completely free it might lead to more wealth ending up in the hands of a few who have gamed the system through monopoly, paid favors, kickbacks, or simply due to the market structure itself. There is nothing in market theory that says that all will be provided for at least to the extent necessary to survive. We come to realize that some government regulation is necessary to make the system work efficiently, but too much regulation might reduce the productivity of the system. We would look for the tradeoffs in all these relationships, so that everyone has an opportunity to be productive, healthy, and relatively satisfied with their role in the system. We would realize that people are more productive when they feel that things are getting better, not worse, that they don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from or where they’re going to sleep tonight. We would realize that a system where everyone has a role and some measure of control is better than a system where a few people are in control and the rest feel powerless and dissatisfied.

So what are these ideological filters actually doing? Aren’t they giving us a false sense of reality? It may be confusing to have to analyze every situation in depth, but we at least should realize the whatever filters we use or shortcuts we take to draw conclusions may not be valid and are subject to change based on new information. So we are better off seeking out contrary evidence, rather than evidence which reinforces a filter which may be invalid.

Detecting and Confronting Ideological Arguments

In general, ideologues don’t seek compromise and aren’t bothered by lack of analysis or evidence. They are content to refute an argument against an extreme right wing proposition with an example of an extreme left wing proposition that is equally awful, or vice versa. They rarely argue from their own knowledge, but quote from others arguments. You will rarely see a long argument by an ideolog. They deal in clich├ęs, trigger words, and concepts which their own kind will recognize as valid. If this doesn’t work they will resort to smearing the messenger or the source of the proposition. Ad hominem attacks are frequent. Appeals to authority and testimonials from prominent sources are common. In general, they use all types of logical fallacies in lieu of deductive argument or evidence. If all else fails they will accuse an analyst of having too much time on his hands, being arrogant, having an over inflated ego, and as a last resort that he may be happier in France or some other foreign country.

The only argument that can be used to confront ideologues is to point out the logical fallacies they are using. Even this won’t change their mind about anything. Ideologues don’t change their minds, even over long periods of time when circumstances have changed dramatically. But, they will simply go away and argue with another analyst or ideologue of the opposite stripe. If an ideologue is a close friend or family member, these bonds may allow for some progress in helping them overcome the malady over an extended discussion period. Otherwise it’s best to avoid them and spend your time discussing and learning from other analysts.