The Volokh Conspiracy

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Why We Need Ideology

Niskanen Center President Jerry Taylor argues that we should reject libertarianism and other ideologies in favor of "moderation." But, in truth, we cannot and should not abjure ideology. Trying to do so is likely to increase bias, not curb it.

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Many political commentators and others argue that we should eschew ideology in favor of facts. Just before assuming the presidency in 2009, Barack Obama declared that we need "a new declaration of independence not just in our nation but in our own lives, from ideology and small thinking." That imperative may seem even more urgent at a time when partisan and ideological hostility is greater than it has been for years. But the idea that we can avoid ideology is wrong, and embracing it can sometimes lead to even more serious errors than the ones critics of ideology seek to avoid.

Jerry Taylor, president of the initially libertarian Niskanen Center, is the latest prominent intellectual to repudiate ideology. In an interesting recent essay, he describes his own rejection of both libertarianism and political ideology more generally:

When we launched the Niskanen Center in January 2015, we happily identified ourselves as libertarians. Sure, we were heterodox libertarians, but there are many schools of libertarianism beyond those promoted by Charles Koch's political operations. The school we identified with was a left-libertarianism concerned with social justice

I have abandoned that libertarian project, however, because I have come to abandon ideology. This essay is an invitation for you to do likewise — to walk out of the "clean and well-lit prison of one idea." Ideology encourages dodgy reasoning due to what psychologists call "motivated cognition," which is the act of deciding what you want to believe and using your reasoning power, with all its might, to get you there. Worse, it encourages fanaticism, disregard for social outcomes, and invites irresolvable philosophical disputes. It also threatens social pluralism — which is to say, it threatens freedom.

Taylor's rejection of libertaranism has not led him to embrace a different ideology, such as liberalism, conservatism, or socialism. Instead, he argues that we should reject all ideology in favor of "moderation":

The better alternative is not moral relativism. The better alternative is moderation, a commodity that is rapidly disappearing in political life, with dangerous consequences for the American republic….

To embrace nonideological politics… is to embrace moderation, which requires humility, prudence, pragmatism, and a conservative temperament. No matter what principles we bring to the political table, remaking society in some ideologically-driven image is off the table given the need to respect pluralism. A sober appreciation of the limitations of knowledge (and the irresolvable problem of unintended consequences) further cautions against over-ambitious policy agendas.

This leaves us with modest ambitions, which will undoubtedly leave the idealist cold. But those ambitions need not be trivial or rudderless. We are not cyborgs. Our ambitions will be driven by our principles, which are idiosyncratic and weighted differently by each of us.

Abandoning "ideology" is surely good advice if we define the word in a pejorative sense, as many people seem to do when they describe their opponents' views as "ideological," but never their own. But it is far more problematic if we define it in a more neutral sense as any systematic political vision based on an integrated view of facts and values. Taylor seems to advocate rejecting ideology in the latter sense, not just the former.

There is some validity to Taylor's (and others') critiques of ideology, even when the latter is defined in a nonpejorative way. For example, Taylor is right to worry that committed adherents of ideologies (including libertarian ones) often evaluate evidence in a highly biased way, overvaluing anything that reinforces their preexisting views, and downplaying, ignoring, or misinterpreting that which cuts the other way. Studies show that this problem is common among intellectuals, ordinary voters, and politicians. He is also right that we should respect the limitations of our knowledge, and not allow ideological commitments to lead us to make strong claims about factual matters that we actually know little about.

In such situations, it often makes sense to defer to expert knowledge rather than assume that the facts must be whatever is convenient for our ideological commitments. At the same time, however, we should also be careful to recognize the limits of the experts' expertise, and not give them deference on issues that are actually outside their professional competence. For example, as Taylor suggests, libertarians would do well to defer to climate scientists' views on the question of the extent to which industrial emissions cause global warming. But we should not defer to them on the issue of what policies should be enacted to address the problem, as that question involves issues of morality and political economy, not just technical scientific expertise.

Though ideology carries real risks, it does not follow that we would be better off without it. The world is complex and there is an almost infinite variety of facts out there. We cannot consider them all. As Taylor recognizes, "[w]ithout some means of sorting through the reams of information coming at us every day, we would be overwhelmed and incapable of considered thought or action." Thus, we need rules for determining which facts are relevant, and what normative goals we should use our knowledge to pursue. Ideology of one kind or another, is essential to organizing our thinking about the facts of the political world, and systematizing our reasoning about political values. Taylor argues that we should abjure theories that privilege one value over all others and instead embrace "pluralism." He may be right about that. But even a pluralist has to make choices between different values when they conflict. And the pluralist also needs a way of determining what kinds of policies are likely to best achieve whatever values she considers important. Once again, some sort of ideology is necessary to help us make these kinds of choices. It is important to consider the strengths and weaknesses of competing ideologies, through the use of logic and evidence. But we cannot abandon ideology entirely.

Taylor's "moderation" is not a true alternative to ideology. Indeed, it is a kind of ideological commitment of its own. The idea of moderation implies sticking relatively close to the middle of the political spectrum (at least on most issues), making compromises, and abjuring "over-ambitious" radical agendas. But for reasons I outlined in a 2016 exchange with Taylor's Niskanen Center colleague Will Wilkinson, there is no good justification for believing that moderate views are necessarily closer to the truth than more extreme ones. Among other things, the moderate views popular with majority public opinion are often heavily influenced by ignorance, bias, and unreflective acceptance of the status quo.

History shows that "extreme" positions (relative to the standards of the time) are often correct. Extremist critics of slavery (who advocated swift and complete abolition) were closer to the truth than moderates (who advocated abolishing the slave trade and limiting the spread of slavery, but maintaining the "peculiar institution" where it existed). Similarly, radical reforms are sometimes more effective than more moderate and gradualistic ones. To assume that moderation and gradualism are always (or even usually) preferable to the available alternatives is itself an ideological commitment, not a self-evident truth.

None of this suggests that moderate views are always wrong, or that more extreme positions are always correct. But it does indicate that we should not have any general preference for the former over the latter.

To his credit, Taylor is not fully comfortable with the moderation he himself advocates. His advocacy of moderation is itself, in a sense, moderate:

Compromise…. has limits. Compromise with theft, murder, slavery, or gross infringements on human dignity is indefensible. As Martin Luther King wrote in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, we do not want to adopt the position of the white moderate of the 1960s, "who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice." Nor should we compromise with lying, the use of dubious means to achieve commendable ends, or over matters of scientific truth, or what is universally acknowledged to be beyond dispute. Firm positions and tough stances are sometimes required.

I agree with much of what Taylor says in this passage. But, depending on how they are interpreted, these exceptions could easily swallow the rule. For example, much depends on how broadly we define such concepts as "theft" and "gross infringements on human dignity." It could turn out that a great many current policies are actually egregious violations of these principles. If so, by Taylor's analysis, we should not be moderate in our opposition to them.

Notice, also, that the scope of the principles Taylor describes here is itself subject to dispute. For example, many libertarians argue that taxation is theft, while adherents of most other ideologies disagree. Many people argue that lying (including even some types of lying to voters) is sometimes justified. Similarly, it may sometimes be justifiable to use "dubious means to achieve commendable ends," especially if the gain is large and the sacrifice necessary to achieve it relatively small. We cannot logically resolve such disagreements without reference to ideological principles of one kind or another. It turns out that even avowed opponents of ideology have to rely on it, even if only implicitly. Taylor himself does so in his essay condemning ideology!

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.

In sum, we cannot and should not abjure ideology. On the other hand, Taylor is right to warn of the dangers of ideological bias. There is no easy way to solve that problem. But self-awareness about your commitments is a good place to start. If you know you have certain commitments, you can also predict the types of biases you are likely to have in evaluating new information. That awareness can help reduce the extent to which you succumb to temptation. In addition, understanding your commitments can help determine what kinds of logic and evidence should be sufficient to persuade you to abandon or revise some of them.

For example, like the pre-2018 Jerry Taylor, I see myself as a libertarian. But I have also tried to consider the limits of libertarian principles. That consideration has led me to endorse some constraints on them (e.g. here and here), and to think about what sort of evidence would be enough to compel me to reject libertarian positions more completely. My understanding of the shortcomings of my own ideas is surely far from complete. But it is likely better than it would have been if I thought of myself as a "moderate" or pragmatist free of ideological commitments.