Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Libertarian ideology: give it a break!

Several years ago I went through a phase of ideological libertarianism; I was adamant that liberty was the only foundation of justice, and that my favored strain of libertarianism (geo-libertarianism) was the only real embodiment of the libertarian principle. I spent a lot of time trying to convince others of these two points, and now that I have exited that phase of my life, I want to give a warning to others who are going down the path towards ideological libertarianism: DON'T GO THERE!

Actually, this warning goes out to anyone who is at risk of becoming an ideologue. I focus on libertarianism because it is the only ideology that focuses on the distribution of power in a society, and because of all the political movements in the USA, the libertarian movement seems to be the only one that is strongly based on ideology and hasn't splintered into a million warring factions (like the socialists).

Ideology does have it's place, but not in real life. Ideology is an academic exercise that allows individuals to express their deepest concerns and develop problem solving techniques. It provides us with criteria that we use to judge real-world proposals, and an awareness of how various values (for example, liberty and security) may complement or conflict with each other.

Ideology does not provide "the answer". When a person attaches himself to a particular ideology, he becomes blind to aspects of life that are not covered by that ideology. When ideology is invoked in discussions of real and immediate problems, it hinders communication. Ultimately, the application of ideology outside of the academic realm inhibits effective action and the realization of the ideological goals.

The preponderance of ideologues in the libertarian movement aggravates and alienates the vast majority non-libertarians and gives rise to the complaints chronicled by opposing ideologues such as Mike Huben. The worst tendency among libertarian ideologues is to reject a proposal because it isn't "libertarian", and then drop the issue. These ideologues never take a minute to address the problem that inspired the anti-libertarian proposal, and as a result, they appear to be one-dimensional and disconnected from reality.

Libertarian ideologues will also reject libertarian reforms because they are not one's own ideal, which is pure idiocy. This ignores the fact that society advances by the improvement of traditions, not by instant implementation of someone prophet's (half-baked) thoughts. It also ignores the reality of politics, where we need to convince others to accept our proposals and it is easier to sell a particular reform than it is to sell an entire ideology.

Humans need to embrace multiple ideologies, recognizing that the real world includes great uncertainty and humans have a number of concerns which may complement or conflict with each other. We also need to think more like engineers, treating the world as raw material that can be shaped, bit-by-bit, into one's ideal.

Extra: Gus Van Horn has a good post on how activists can become obsessed with implementing a particular policy and forget what it means to engage in politics. He describes the gradual nature of political change, addressing the need to change public opinon before changing state policy.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...
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Gus Van Horn said...

Adam,

I'm glad you liked my post and appreciate the link.

However, I would like to address two interrelated points you make.

(1) You are incorrect that libertarianism is "too ideological". In fact, the fundamental cause of the many problems of that movement are preceisely because that movement attempts to pretend that ideas do not matter.

As you point out, they treat the concept of freedom as if it is self-evident and in no need of justification by logic applied to the facts of reality. In fact, they won't even define freedom.

This is why you have, for example, anarchists and socialists included under the same allegedly pro-freedom umbrella. The former pretend that government isn't necessary to protect freedom, while the latter pretend that property rights somehow violate freedom. Just a definition of what freedom is would point to why anarchist and socialists don't belong in a movement that allegedly advocates freedom, but when you pretend that ideas so not matter, that's what you get....

(2) And speaking of ideas, or "ideology", I am not sure what you mean when you say, "When a person attaches himself to a particular ideology, he becomes blind to aspects of life that are not covered by that ideology. When ideology is invoked in discussions of real and immediate problems, it hinders communication. Ultimately, the application of ideology outside of the academic realm inhibits effective action and the realization of the ideological goals." Later on, you say, "Libertarian ideologues will also reject libertarian reforms because they are not one's own ideal, which is pure idiocy." You sound in the first quote (and predominantly) like you dismiss any ideology as such. But your second quote would seem to imply that if someone had an ideology which he rigorously tested against reality at every step of the way, he might in fact have an ideology that does not suffer from the common problem that lends false credence to the saying, "in theory, but not in practice," when it is used to dimiss theory as such.

Anyway, sorry to write a book, but your post brought up some issues I thought worth discussing at some length.

Gus

Adam said...
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Adam said...

Hi Gus, thanks for the response. It was rather concise, especially in relation to my own initial response to your response (the above, deleted post).

On your first point: "the fundamental cause of the many problems of that movement are precisely because that movement attempts to pretend that ideas do not matter." I have to admit that I don't know what problems that you are referring to, or exactly how you are defining the "libertarian movement." I suspect that we are also using different measures of success. For my part, I consider (libertarian) "success" to be convincing others to approach libertarian reforms more favorably, with the aim of having an impact on the extent of imposition in our society within the next few decades.

The second point addresses the usefulness of ideology. I warned against "attaching" oneself to an ideology-- by "attach", I mean to develop an identity based upon that ideology, and particularly, to participate in social institutions designed to spread that ideology. Ideologues also develop an emotional attachment to their ideology, where they view other ideologies as "enemies" and refuse to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Ideologies should be treated in the same manner that we treat scientific theories; more than one theory may be consistent with the available evidence, and both theories may even be true to a greater or lesser extent.

To sum it up, my main point is that the development of our own thinking is largely separate from social action. In other words, while ideology clearly has political implications, we should learn to separate the two activities. We can't treat politics as a direct extension of ideology because there are great benefits to coordinating our actions with others, and we can't postpone these actions while we come to an agreement on deep issues. Politics is a highly social activity, and social activities require communication and trust, both of which are hindered by the ideologues approach to politics; Dwelling on ideology destroys the lines of communication unless the other person is interested in having an ideological discussion (and most persons are not interested) while it also prevents the development of trust if it moves the discussion to (abstract) areas of disagreement, rather than focusing on areas of agreement.

LoganFerree said...

James Leroy Wilson has a very interesting article on this topic as well: http://independentcountry.blogspot.com/2006/03/incrementalist-hard-liner.html I tend to agree with him that we do need some people to be hard liners to keep the pressure on the moderates and the pragmatists. But I personally value the ability to adapt to the situation at hand and bend with the wind a bit.