Monday, December 17, 2018

The Problem with Ideology

Will Wilkinson used to be a fairly rigid libertarian, but several years ago he decided that his ideology was blinding him to reality and stopped calling himself by that label. I just discovered an essay he published in October 2017 in which he argues that any "ideal theory" of politics – libertarianism, communism – is a fantasy:
Many political philosophers, and most adherents of radical political ideologies, tend to think that an ideal vision of the best social, economic, and political system serves a useful and necessary orienting function. The idea is that reformers need to know what to aim at if they are to make steady incremental progress toward the maximally good and just society. If you don’t know where you’re headed—if you don’t know what utopia looks like—how are you supposed to know which steps to take next?

The idea that a vision of an ideal society can serve as a moral and strategic star to steer by is both intuitive and appealing. But it turns out to be wrong. This sort of political ideal actually can’t help us find our way through the thicket of real-world politics into the clearing of justice.
To illustrate why this is so Wilkinson compares two lists of countries, one the "Freedom Index" of the libertarian Cato Foundation, the other the Social Progress Index, which is based on progressive assumptions. It turns out that these two lists of the top twenty countries in the world, based on what purport to be radically different notions of the Good, are very similar. The top twelve countries on the Social Progress Index are:

  1. Denmark
  2. Finland
  3. Iceland
  4. Norway
  5. Switzerland
  6. Canada
  7. Netherlands
  8. Sweden
  9. Australia
  10. New Zealand
  11. Ireland
  12. United Kingdom

Nine of those countries also rank in the top 12 of the Freedom Index, and Sweden and Norway rank 13 and 14; only tiny Iceland fails to make the Freedom Index top 20. So while libertarian theory predicts that a large social welfare state should limit freedom, the libertarians' own list shows that Social Democratic countries have more freedom.

The world is just far more complicated than your theory, whatever it is, can comprehend. And the farther your ideal world is from things as they are, the less you actually know about how it would work.

The crazy thing about the current political climate is that millions of people are losing faith in both democracy and mixed capitalism despite overwhelming evidence that this is the best system humans have ever devised. The distance that our world falls short of utopia seems to grate harder and harder on our psyches, and the longing for some kind of radical change swell.

All the evidence, though, argues that revolution is usually a disaster, and maintaining systems that have proved to work so well, with a bit of tinkering, is the best course.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

All the evidence, though, argues that revolution is usually a disaster, and maintaining systems that have proved to work so well, with a bit of tinkering, is the best course.

That does hold fairly true. Except, of course, when it doesn't hold true at all.

If the systems of the day, which proved to work so well, had been maintained with only a bit of tinkering, we'd still have chattel slavery and still have limited suffrage denying the vote to women. Slaves and women might, through gradual reforms, have received more protections under the law than they had historically known, but without the sweeping global revolutions that played out, it's quite likely the former would still be in bondage and the latter still not allowed to vote.

Yes, revolution is frequently disastrous, and only a fool champions it in any but the most dire circumstances. But status quo can be equally disastrous. Look at the complacency of the Ming and then Qing emperors as the world around them changed. Look at the Tsars of Russia. Look at the Ottoman Empire. Look at the Soviet Union.

Time and again, massive, powerful, deeply entrenched, successful systems with long histories of "proving to work so well" fell to pieces because they convinced themselves that "a bit of tinkering" was all they needed to fix their problems. Reform is all well and good as an alternative to revolution, but it has to happen at an appropriate pace, and sometimes that means rather sweeping reforms, which are often at odds with moderate agendas.

Meiji Era Japan is a fantastic example of how sometimes you have to enact reforms that are so drastic as to virtually qualify as a revolution in and of themselves. To hew more closely to the line of status quo, to engage in only "a bit of tinkering", is simply not sufficient to avoid catastrophe. Complacency kills.