There’s a substantial, threatening deficit of realism among our politically engaged. If you’ve been listening to the chatter or reading the politically oriented Websites, you might already have noticed it. Or you might be part of the problem, and thus as unable to recognize that deficit as a fish is unable to recognize water.
But then, quite a lot of people have no idea what realism means.
For some years we’ve been having a kerfuffle over ideology, specifically political ideologies and their influence over the decisions of public officials. As many people don’t have a clear understanding of the nature of an ideology, much of what’s been said and written about it has been utter bilge.
An ideology is a set of ideas (sometimes a set of one) about the cause-and-effect laws that govern some segment of reality. Those ideas must be consistent with one another – i.e., they must not imply contradictory consequences – for the ideology to be coherent. An ideology that persists for long enough and acquires enough adherents will be given a name by which it can be recognized.
Ideologies have addressed many aspects of human life: politics, economics, social order, conventions of courtesy, morality and ethics, and so on. However, not all ideologies are recognizable as such. We most easily recognize the ones that pertain to politics and political economy.
Ideologies must not be confused with principles. A principle is a fundamental rule about right and wrong – a rule that divides the universe of human action into the morally acceptable and the morally unacceptable. Oftentimes a set of principles will underlie an ideology, but this is not always the case.
Consider the term human rights for a moment. Does this term denote an ideology? That doesn’t seem to be the case. Rather, human rights is a grab-bag term that summarizes certain moral obligations – an implicit invocation of the moral principle that thou shalt not violate another person’s rights. That not everyone agrees on what should go under that heading is a secondary consideration.
By contrast, consider Thomas Mackay’s statement about welfarism:
...the cause of pauperism is relief. We shall not get rid of pauperism by extending the sphere of State relief...On the contrary, its adoption would increase our pauperism, for as is often said, we can have exactly as many paupers as the country chooses to pay for. [Thomas Mackay, “Methods of Social Reform”]
That is a statement about cause-and-effect: a diminutive ideology. That it can be part of a larger ideology about political economy is not a dismissal, as several such ideologies incorporate it – and they disagree with one another.
The salient facts that apply to all ideologies are these:
- They pertain to specific areas of human conduct;
- They propose cause-and-effect models for those areas;
- They can be wrong.
I’ve ranted about Fact #1 before, albeit in an inverse way: An ideology must not be pushed beyond its domain of applicability. (See Part 4 of the cited essay: “The Ongoing Political Problem.”) Libertarians’ attempt to do so was motivated by a desire to solve problems in public policy to which libertarian ideas do not apply. It’s brought considerable harm to the pro-freedom cause. That harm has not yet ceased to accumulate.
Fact #2 is definitional: a part of the differentia that distinguishes ideologies from other abstractions. A silly counterexample might go like this:
Is that an ideology? Certainly not: it doesn’t make a cause-and-effect claim. It’s really a silly attempt at a moral principle: a statement that not to have coffee with one’s jelly doughnut is wrong. Yes, there’s an implied “or else” to it: “If you don’t, you will be punished somehow.” However, the implication is too weak to claim that it proposes a cause-and-effect model.
By contrast, the following:
...is a true cause-and-effect statement: if you will, a rather trivial ideology. However, I can testify from personal experience that it is incorrect. That brings us to Fact #3, which is at the core of this tirade.
“If what you’re doing doesn’t work, do something else.” – Michael Emerling
To say that some method or procedure “works” implies the following:
- It was aimed at producing a well-defined result from well-defined initial conditions;
- It achieved that result, within the limits of allowable deviation;
- The costs, including all side effects and second-order effects, were acceptable.
All three of those conditions are imperative. They’re the touchstones by which we judge all proposals for doing anything, regardless of the subject. They apply to ideologies with full force.
I shan’t sugar-coat the matter. It can be exceedingly difficult to meet all three of those conditions, especially in the realm of public policy. Much that Smith claims to be indisputable truth is pooh-poohed by Jones, because Jones insists on a different set of initial conditions, or places a higher weight on certain costs or consequences than does Smith.
If we return to Thomas Mackay’s statement about welfarism:
We shall not get rid of pauperism by extending the sphere of State relief...On the contrary, its adoption would increase our pauperism...
...one determined to “disprove” Mackay might insist that public welfare programs inherently diminish pauperism by converting paupers to non-paupers! There’s quite a bit of definitional sophistry there, and an ill-concealed determination to ignore the second-order effects of public welfare programs. Yet many persons dedicated to the expansion of governmental welfare programs do exactly thus...and get away with it.
Nevertheless, there are times when an ideology is either demonstrably wrong or inapplicable to the case at hand.
The Obamunist foreign-policy posture of “strategic patience” is currently under discussion, especially in contrast with the still-emerging foreign policy of the Trump Administration. During the campaign, some drew parallels between the two, claiming that Obama’s reluctance to involve the U.S. in foreign conflicts was largely similar to Trump’s “America first” stance. I believe this to be incorrect: Obama’s posture didn’t actually refrain from involving us; rather, he greatly preferred rhetoric to action, unless he believed action incapable of adversely affecting his Administration. Atop that, Trump’s “America first” stance doesn’t automatically preclude involving the U.S. in a foreign dustup; it merely insists that any such involvement must serve American interests above all else.
The arguments over Trump’s actions in Afghanistan and Syria, and the arrival of several carrier battle groups in the waters around the Korean Peninsula, have ranged from dubious to ludicrous. It is defensible to argue about what best serves American interests, though in some cases there isn’t a lot of room for disagreement. It is not defensible to argue that an intervention can’t possibly serve American interests. Indeed, it borders on lunacy.
Foreign-policy ideologies often incorporate a large amount of lunacy.
The political economy ideology that advocates the free market has come in for some body blows in recent years. That isn’t really the fault of free market economics, but rather the ways in which governments have learned how to disguise their market interventions to the intended benefit of their domestic industries. For example, Country X’s subsidies and regulatory concessions to particular industries can create conditions under which Country Y’s participants in those industries will be induced to relocate to X. That’s not a market failure, but a failure of government X to respect the market. If the effects sufficiently disfavor country Y, its government can and should react – and that’s not a failure of free market economics either.
Yet there are free-market ideologues unwilling to concede that the political conditions that surround the marketplace can cloud the desirability of unfettered international trade. They maintain that as bad as X’s policies may be, Y’s attempt to compensate for them is still “wrong.” Wrong by their dictates, perhaps, but in what other sense?
President Trump’s proposed “border adjustment tax,” intended to create a counter-incentive to the expatriation of American industries and employers, might fail for several reasons. It might be ineffective; the costs it imposes, especially upon American consumers, might be too high to bear; or it might precipitate a second-order effect that’s far worse than the flood of industrial expatriations. But those possibilities can only be tested in the crucible of experience. To say a priori that they’re “wrong” is a different sort of pronouncement: a moral pronouncement, with which not everyone is likely to agree.
Realism is, above all else, the readiness, willingness, and ability to recognize when events have diverged from one’s preferences or expectations, and to admit that that is the case. The admission should imply a concomitant readiness to revise one’s ideology, if it should come to that. The resistance to making such revisions, displayed today by so many, doesn’t alter the facts. How could it?
Realism also partakes of another practice: the willingness to confront one’s own choices. For an individual, that consists of asking oneself “What did I do to bring this about?” and answering candidly, to the best of one’s ability. For an electorate, it involves asking “What did we do – and ought we to have expected the consequences it has brought?”
We elevated a consummate deal-maker to the presidency. He’s out there doing his best to make deals – deals that he believes will serve America’s interests. Was it really imaginable that he would superglue himself to any set of policy prescriptions?
We returned a group of legislators to Congress who could best be described as “pusillanimous time-servers.” There’s very little courage to be found among them; they cower at the lightest criticism from the press, to say nothing of the way they shrink from the barbs of their political opponents. Their highest ambition is to die in office; by their behavior we must conclude that they believe the best course toward that end is never to offend anyone. Was it really imaginable that they would follow any bold course, regardless of the topic or their supposed positions on it?
We consistently expect more honesty, candor, and respect for our rights from politicians than they provide in practice. We keep “throwing the rascals out” and electing a new set, “insanely assuming that they are better than the set turned out. And at each election we are, as they say in Motherland, done in.” (H. L. Mencken) How is it that we have not yet confronted the fatuity of our expectations?
The greatest need of our time is for realism about politics, governments, and the behavior thereof. Will it come? If so, from where – or whom?