Why We Need More Ideology, Not Less

“But we shall be on our guard against all that–we shall take precautions to ward off such disasters,” will doubtless say the enthusiasts. Be they “practical” politicians with their new regulative measures, or communists with their schemes for re-organizing labour their reply is ever the same: “It is true that plans of kindred nature have, from unforeseen causes or adverse accidents, or the misdeeds of those concerned, been brought to failure; but this time we shall profit by past experiences and succeed.” There seems no getting people to accept the truth, which nevertheless is conspicuous enough, that the welfare of a society and the justice of its arrangements are at bottom dependent on the characters of its members; and that improvement in neither can take place without that improvement in character which results from carrying on peaceful industry under the restraints imposed by an orderly social life. The belief, not only of the socialists but also of those so-called Liberals who are diligently preparing the way for them, is that by due skill in ill-working humanity may be framed into well-working institutions. It is a delusion. The defective nature of citizens will show themselves in the bad acting of whatever social structure they are arranged into. There is no political alchemy by which you can get golden conduct of leaden instincts.

Herbert Spencer wrote this in “The Man versus the State,” first published in 1884.

The book was controversial in its day. It would be just as controversial today — if not more so. Spencer would be called a racist, a hater, a Tea Party-ite and certainly crazy. The labels vary, but the fundamentals are no different. People are just as much in denial about government — not to mention objective reality — in 2014 as they were back in 1884. Probably more so.

What’s the saying? “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

This observation is true, when applied to specific human situations. These situations involve not ignorance, but evasion and denial. Why do people evade and deny the obvious truth? Because emotions tug them in the opposite direction. When people place emotions over reason (wherever the two conflict), you end up with disaster every time.

The “Liberals” of Spencer’s day (19th Century England) are the “conservatives” of today (Republicans, in the U.S.) Today’s conservatives pave the way for ever-more government intervention even as they complain the loudest that previous interventions didn’t work out. If you doubt me, watch what happens when we next get a Republican President and Congress (assuming we do). “Repeal and Replace Obamacare,” in the unlikely event that even happens, will not mean movement in a free market direction. It will simply mean a Republican version of the same basic government boondoggle (minus birth control and same-sex marriage recognition).

We’re told that the struggles between Democrats and Republicans are really ideological. But they’re not. “Ideological” implies a fundamental difference on a crucial issue. For example, government should be involved in health care, or government should simply stay out altogether. That’s a statement of (political) principle, either way. Or, government should tax income “progressively,” or not tax income at all. Or there should be a Department of Education and a Department of Commerce, or there should not be. These are examples of ideological differences.

With Democrats and Republicans, you get partisan differences, not ideological ones. Republicans want to use government agencies for one purpose, while Democrats want to use the same government agency for another. When Republicans are out of power, they want the federal government to spend less — until they’re back in power. When Democrats are out of power, they call for fiscal restraint (as even Barack Obama did when Republicans controlled the White House); but once in office, they spend (and borrow) way more than drunken sailors could ever dream.

If there’s one difference between Democrats and Republicans that matters, it’s this: Democrats almost always follow through on what they say. Republicans almost never do. Republicans talk a good game about limited government, but in office they do nothing to curtail  it — and they even expand the federal government dramatically, as George W. Bush did in office when he had control of Congress much of the time.

Most people believe ideology doesn’t matter; that in fact, ideology is part of the problem. They look at the fighting in Washington DC and they think, “You see? That’s ideology. People must set ideology aside and solve the problems.”

Putting aside ideology would be like putting aside principles of chemistry and biology when trying to cure disease or develop pharmaceuticals. Or ignoring principles of aerodynamics when trying to fly a plane; or to “compromise” on principles of engineering when trying to build a spaceship or a bridge. Is that really what we need?

What we see in our nation’s capital is not ideology. It’s partisan politics. It’s the evasion of important principles of government, ethics and even life itself in favor of the political equivalent of “which team will win this one?” That’s why many of us who do care about principles and ideas will no longer even watch CNN, Fox, or any of the broadcast establishments which put out entertainment, not news. Watching Karl Rove or Chris Matthews is like watching two sports reporters go over the details of the game. This is as far from the intellectual and ideological outlook that gave rise to the United States — the nation of the Enlightenment — as you could conceivably ever get.

Intellectually and ideologically, we have flatlined. There’s no brainpower out there, not in the halls of power or the mainstream of media culture.

“There seems to be no getting people to accept the truth.” Wow. This was Herbert Spencer writing back in the 1880s. But it could just as easily be 2014.

Once more people understand that ideology is not the problem, demand will be created for an alternative to the parties who ail us. Until that happens, we’ll continue to go through the motions of trying to get “golden content out of leaden instincts.”

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