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Ideology: do we need it?

Summary:
Ilya Somin wrote an important piece, replying Jerry Taylor’s demise of “ideology”. Taylor calls for abandoning ideologies because of their well-known downsides: they tend to box you, so to say, in a set of policies, ideas, viewpoints that may blind you to reality. Somin persuasively argues that sometimes anti-ideology is an ideology too: Implicit reliance on unarticulated ideology by those who think of themselves as nonideological pragmatists is often actually more dangerous than more conventional ideological thinking. A self-conscious advocate of some ideology at least knows he has certain commitments and, therefore, can potentially take account of possible biases associated with them (even though many actual ideologues fail to do so). By contrast, the person who

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Ilya Somin wrote an important piece, replying Jerry Taylor’s demise of “ideology”. Taylor calls for abandoning ideologies because of their well-known downsides: they tend to box you, so to say, in a set of policies, ideas, viewpoints that may blind you to reality.

Somin persuasively argues that sometimes anti-ideology is an ideology too:

Implicit reliance on unarticulated ideology by those who think of themselves as nonideological pragmatists is often actually more dangerous than more conventional ideological thinking. A self-conscious advocate of some ideology at least knows he has certain commitments and, therefore, can potentially take account of possible biases associated with them (even though many actual ideologues fail to do so). By contrast, the person who believes he is above ideology may think of his political commitments as just obvious truths – perhaps the result of simple common sense. He cannot even begin to curb potential ideological bias on his part, because he believes himself to be above such things, by definition.

I have a lot of sympathy for Ilya’s position. The dangerous option is not self-consciously embracing a certain set of ideas (libertarianism, conservatism, social-democracy, socialism, etc) but being biased in a direction or another without fully understanding why.

We (meaning: people like me, Ilya, the readers of EconLog…) spend a lot of time discussing politics, but most of our fellow men are fairly non-political. A great deal of them eschew any strong “ideological” position. Yet they may be highly biased on this or that matter, for ideas they have digested (at school, for example, or by reading a novel, or at the movie theatre) mistakenly considering them as they were “facts”.

To consciously take a side in a debate you at least need to admit that there is another side, another way of looking at an issue.

Personally, I have always found it more interesting to discuss politics with people who consciously and strongly endorse a different position than mine, than with people who call themselves “pragmatists,” and they are either repeating badly digested platitudes, or embracing an all-powerful vision of interventionism without understanding that’s what they do.

Of course there’s the downside. There is some sort of affection that grows between people and the ideas they hold dear, and it is always difficult to get out of the box, to accept that our pre-comprehension of the wold may not be right in describing this or that phenomenon. This is particularly true in the face of relatively new problems, to which the solutions offered in the past for similar problems do not necessarily adapt immediately and swiftly.

But then I find “pragmatism”, or fact-by-fact judgment, basically unattainable. It’s sort of an impossible quest for objectivity.

I would add something perhaps paradoxical: while this quest for objectivity may be a difficult, stressful, and yet somewhat admirable exercise for professional wordsmiths like reporters and social scientists, I would definitely not recommend it for non-professionals.

I was listening to a radio show today and a listener, in a phone call, was describing his news diet in search of truth: lots of social media (people with different biases), daily checks of Italian news on foreign websites that are supposed to be more reliable, commentaries from both sides. It sounds admirable, but on the one hand it is incredibly expensive and one wonders how many big news items can be the object of such a thorough analysis: one a day? Two a day? Mind that we are not talking of a professional political analyst, who has clear goals in her reading diet (to produce a report, to understand the relationship between phenomenon X and phenomenon Y…), but of a supposedly average reader.

On the other hand, this seems to assume people are tabula rasa, so when news of a new regulation in, say, telecom pops up, they need to investigate it from scratch. But they have themselves a story, an understanding of how previous regulations worked or not, a memory of experts that correctly predicted some developments (and thus may be worth reading again) and of others who did not, et cetera.

I always find reading newspapers a worthy activity, all the more so because the newspaper forces you to get to know, and appreciate the importance, of items that are typically out of your radar. But I would not recommend reading lots of different newspapers to “make your mind up”.

Actually I would not necessarily recommend you make up your mind. Do so for things that matter to you: that, in most cases, Ilya is right, means putting on glasses that allow you to see some social phenomena in a certain light. If you want to make your mind up on matters you care about, be ideological knowing that you are. But when it comes to matters you do not care about, you do not follow closely and constantly, and do not make up your mind at all. Register news, try to remember, build up some experience. It takes a lot of effort and reading to become a genuine “expert”, and five newspaper articles a day, even if coming from different perspectives and different countries, won’t do it.

Alberto Mingardi
Mingardi, one of the rising stars of European libertarianism, is the founder and Director General of the Italian free-market think tank, Instituto Bruno Leoni. His areas of interest include the history of economic thought and antitrust and healthcare systems. He is particularly well known for popularizing the work of past scholars under-appreciated by today’s libertarians. Currently an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, Mingardi has also worked with the Heritage Foundation, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the Acton Institute, and the Centre for a New Europe.

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