The case for narrow ideologies

I enjoyed a recent blog post by Jerry Taylor, president of the formerly libertarian Niskanen Center, on the case against ideology. Unsurprisingly, Taylor has gotten rebuttals from thoughtful libertarians like Ilya Somin.

Taylor says that signing up for an ideology like libertarianism means giving free rein to the human tendency toward motivated cognition. Somin counters that anyone who fancies himself beyond ideology is fooling himself. Everyone has an ideology, he says, and the only real question is whether you choose to make your ideology explicit or not. Self-conscious ideologues have the opportunity to engage in self-reflection and self-criticism about their thinking, Somin argues. In contrast, a self-proclaimed non-ideologue “cannot even begin to curb potential ideological bias on his part, because he believes himself to be above such things.”

I think it’s helpful to distinguish what we might call narrow ideologies from broad ones. For example, I’m personally sympathetic to the “copyleft” ideology of groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to YIMBYism, and to market monetarism. You might question whether these count as ideologies, but I would argue they do. Advocates for these narrow ideologies have shared arguments in favor of these views and common models of how the world works. They often have idiosyncratic vocabulary and a distinctive way of telling the history of their issues.

Narrow ideologies are narrow because they only say something about a small corner of the policy space. Being a YIMBY doesn’t imply any particular views on abortion, capital gains tax rates, or the war in Syria. At the opposite extreme are broad ideologies like libertarianism that offer official positions on almost every policy issue.

As a young libertarian, I could recite for you the libertarian perspective on almost any issue you can think of (with a few notable exceptions like abortion), and run through the standard libertarian arguments in favor. But I’ve come to believe that it was foolish to think you could derive views on a vast range of policy issues from a single principle.

Libertarianism has compelling things to say about a number of issues—I’m a fan of libertarian work on the importance of secure property rights, the value of school choice, the problems with occupational licensing, etc. But there are a lot of policy issues where libertarianism, as such, doesn’t provide much useful insight. On these issues, trying to apply libertarian insights can have disastrous consequences—see Ron Paul’s views on monetary policy, for example.

Libertarianism isn’t the only broad ideology, of course. Old-school Marxism was a broad ideology that saw every issue through the lens of capitalist exploitation of labor. More recently, it has become fashionable in some parts of the left to view every issue as a struggle of marginalized groups against the privileges of white men. On the right, Steve Bannon has been cultivating the mirror image of this ideology, which sees most policy issues as the struggle of ordinary (read: white) middle-class Americans against foreigners and “globalist” elites.

Marxists have useful things to say about the importance of worker autonomy in the workplace, while intersectionality theorists absolutely have important insights about the subtle ways that structural factors can perpetuate group inequality. But it’s a mistake to think any one ideology can answer every policy question. Libertarianism, as such, doesn’t have much useful to say about monetary policy, just as most self-described socialists don’t have realistic ideas about how to organize capital markets.

Rejecting ideologies entirely is a bad idea because ideologies are powerful engines for social change. To change society you need to formulate a bundle of internally consistent arguments and then convince a lot of people to promote them together—that’s an ideological movement. Somin is right that people never fully transcend ideology, and it can be useful to think about ideology in explicit terms rather than pretending to be entirely non-ideological.

But luckily, we have the option to treat all ideologies as narrow ideologies. We can learn the most important insights from each ideology while resisting the temptation to try to shoehorn every issue into a single over-arching conceptual framework. I like the Institute for Justice, for example, because they’re a libertarian organization that has focused on a handful of issues—school choice, economic freedom for small businesses, property rights—where libertarianism yields a lot of insight.

A wise policy expert has a full ideological toolbox and has a sophisticated understanding of which tools are most usefully applied to which issues. A foolish policy expert has a toolbox full of ideological hammers and approaches every policy problem as if it’s a nail.

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