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The Failure of Ideology

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Wilson
September 26, 2017

It is becoming more and more widely accepted among economists that, despite the best efforts of the best minds in the field over time, economic affairs don’t lend themselves to instructive theoretical constructs; they are far too complicated. The generalization that people and institutions act in their economic self-interest may be true, but predicting what this generalization might mean in practice is impossible, because there are myriad ways to perceive economic self-interest and myriad choices facing millions of participants in economic affairs. The number of variables involved renders instructive theory beyond reach. There never will be a theory that can tell a central banker, legislator, business executive or investor what to do next.

The same is true for political theory. The generalization that people and organizations act in their political interest may be true, but predicting what that might mean in practice is impossible, because there are even more political variables than economic variables.

The evident fact of the matter is that human behavior defies economic and political theory-making. The answer to the question “What is the best economic course of action?” is, “It depends.” That is also the answer to the question “What is the best political course of action?” “It,” of course, depends on future human behavior.

It is therefore futile to postulate an ideal state of economic or political affairs that includes a useful degree of detail. We idea-1026394_640can say with confidence market economies are hugely superior to centrally planned ones. We can say with even greater assurance that representative governments that ensure human rights are good, while authoritarian regimes are evil. These valid generalizations, however, yield no advice about what to do in particular circumstances. No one knows how to replace closed, command economies with open, market economies, much less how to replace tyranny with democracy. Nor do we know what corrections to apply when market economies and democracies veer off course.

It is pure fantasy to think there could ever be such a thing as an economic or political ideology the application of which would prove efficacious. Human behavior would have to be predictable for any such doctrine to be true or to succeed. And human behavior is, self-evidently, not predictable.

When politicians stand for the application of ideological “principles,” then, they are engaging in egregious oversimplification, not principled advocacy. It would be better to regard ideological advocacy and commitment as willful ignorance than as virtue.

Consider some recent examples of Progressive and Conservative ideology in our politics. When Ronald Reagan led the argument against Medicare in 1964, he argued with passion that the adoption of Medicare would herald the end of American freedom, but said little about Americans’ health care. When Bernie Sanders led a national argument for health care and college educations as “rights” in 2016, he offered equally passionate appeals, but few particulars about how to implement and pay for these rights. Both men used their ideological passions to avoid, rather than address, complex realities. A 2017 debate about health care between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders produced the same result: both talked with fervor about their ideological beliefs but neither addressed the actual complexities of the subject matter. No one learned anything substantive about the complexities of health care from these political figures.

Or consider how we deal with the “lightening rod” subjects of abortion and assault weapons. Progressive ideologues assert a Constitutional right to abortion. Conservative ideologues assert a Constitutional right to assault weapons. With these issues, as with health care, the application of ideological fervor serves to avoid, rather than produce, serious consideration. Neither set of ideologues wishes to address the complex political and moral pros and cons of the subjects. It is far easier to place these subjects off limits by invoking ideology than it is to deal with them. (The framers of the Constitution gave exactly zero thought to abortion or assault weapons.)

It is not by chance that politics at the national level is highly ideological while politics at the local level is minimally so, with state politics in between. This is the case because national issues are mostly broad and general and readily lend themselves to ideological viewpoints. Fewer state issues, and hardly any local issues, lend themselves to ideological argument. Accordingly, so long as health care remained a national issue, it could be defined primarily in terms of ideological support for, or opposition to, Obamacare. As the issue has shifted to the state and local levels, however, concerns about real world complexities have advanced and ideological arguments have receded.

Consideration of practical realities always bodes ill for the viability of ideological viewpoints. As partial as we may be to our ideologies, they are about as useful to understanding the economic and political issues of the real world as yardsticks would be to measuring the solar system. We need new ways of thinking.


Author: Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. is a retired city manager with 38 years of local government experience. He is the author of the book Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management, Melvin & Leigh, Publishers, Irvine, California, 2016. Mr. Wilson is also a columnist for PA Times and Governing.com. 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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