Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Ideology versus Principle

with 2 comments

by Weiner

There’s a great guest post at US Intellectual History blog by Corey Washington and Johanna Carr about the problem with ideology.

It is clear that for most people support for their policy views follows from an underlying ideology rather than from strong evidence. They argue for no taxes because they believe small government is better. They argue for legalizing cocaine because they believe in the right to privacy. In very few cases, do they present a well-formed opinion based on research and evidence. And as any rational person knows only evidence, not ideology, is a sound basis for such empirical claims. 

My friends are not unusual. Political beliefs, like religious beliefs, are usually based on very weak, and selective, evidence. People tend to have the same political orientation as their parents, which may result from environment, i.e. growing up in their parents’ household, or a genetic predisposition to a particular political orientation, as recent studies have indicated. People also often develop views as a result of hanging around others with a certain political orientation. Once formed, political views are maintained and reinforced by reading material that supports one’s positions and by discounting material that conflicts. Likewise, people often embrace views advocated by the “experts”, they find idedologically appealing, while discrediting those with equivalent credentials, whom they do not. (When I discuss economics with my friends in Amherst, MA, they quote economist Paul Krugman about as often as Christians quote Jesus.) 

In short, ideology seems to be the equivalent of religion, without the God stuff.

Definitely worth reading the whole thing.

I don’t agree with everything in the post. I think leftists and libertarians can and do point to the lack of evidence of success in the drug war in support of their views on drug legalization, much like atheists point to the lack of evidence for God in support for their atheism.

Still, Washington and Carr moved me because I am definitely guilty of holding Paul Krugman up as a divine-like authority, just as others do with Karl Marx or Ayn Rand. I think Krugman is more pragmatic and less ideological than those two, which is why  I think that more extreme ideologies, like Marxism or Rand’s Objectivism, are more pernicious in the ways they resemble religion.

I think this post works well in conjunction with George Packer’s recent piece in The New Yorker about Obama’s budget. Packer distinguishes between “ideology” and “principle,” using Daniel Bell‘s “End of Ideology” as a guide.

Ideology makes it unnecessary for people to confront individual issues on their individual merits,” the late Daniel Bell wrote. “One simply turns to the ideological vending machine, and out comes the prepared formulae.” Ideology knows the answer before the question has been asked. Principles are something different: a set of values that have to be adapted to circumstances but not compromised away.

It’s this distinction that leads me to support a principled pragmatism, like that outlined by Chris Hayes in this superb piece in The Nation. We like principles at PhD Octopus, or as Wiz calls them, “Abstract Ideals.” How we get there can be answered with pragmatism. But where is there? Which principles? Those questions may be just as hard.

My view is that good historical evidence suggests that social democracy, that is, a strong welfare state that protects individual rights and freedoms, working within a regulated capitalist framework and a multicultural society is the way to go. But you know what? Maybe Washington and Carr are right, and even that belief is something I take largely on faith.


Written by David Weinfeld

April 23, 2011 at 16:17

2 Responses

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  1. Principled pragmatism, I like that. As nothing else does, it wouldn’t work for every situation – the All of human experience in a strange world. Has a “rules made to be broken” vibe, or “living constitution,” in other words allows for growth and adaptability, as well as creation and destruction, which are the rules of the game.


    April 23, 2011 at 16:34

  2. […] a previous post, I mentioned the esteem in which I held Paul Krugman (below), as a near “divine” […]

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