The Advantage of Ideology

One of the main problems with politics is that it is complicated. Take, for example, the recently passed health care bill. The bill was over 2,000 pages. I haven’t read it. Neither, I imagine, have most of our readers (indeed, it would not surprise me if no single person has read every word of the bill, though obviously each of the bill’s many provisions has been read by someone).

Of course, even if someone had read every word of the bill, this would not be sufficient to have a truly informed position on it. To have a truly informed position one would have to not only read the bill but understand it. And to do that would require a great deal of knowledge about fields as complicated and diverse as the law, medicine, political science, economics, bureaucratic management, etc.

And, mind you, even if one were somehow able to master and muster all of this information, that would only entitle one to a have a truly informed position on that one bill.

If the subject turned from health care to the environment, or financial reform, or foreign policy, or taxes, the same process would have to be undertaken all over again. I have a friend whose job of late has been to keep track of the changes made to a single bill making its way through Congress. Just keeping abreast of the changes made to this one bill takes several hours a day, and there are hundreds of bills charting a similar course through the federal legislature (not to mention the legislatures of the 50 states and thousands of localities) as we speak.

So even if one were a polyglot who devoted every waking minute to politics, it would be impossible to stay fully informed about politics. And of course most of us do not have the luxury of devoting so much time or energy into learning about political subjects. We have jobs and families and responsibilities galore, with only a small fraction of our time left over to form our political opinions. If we are going to be involved in politics at all (and both the proper functioning of democracy and Church teaching require us to do so) then we are pretty much going to have to oversimplify reality in order to be able to decide which policies and politicians we ought to support and which we ought to oppose.

There are basically two ways in which we can simplify political issues down to a more manageable level. One is ideology (the other is partisanship). Ideology, as I would define the term, takes a simplified picture of the way the world works and applies it to specific situations. For example, one might conclude based on the evidence one has that when government provision of goods and services tends to be inferior to what is provided by the market, and, based on this conclusion, oppose a plan to have government provide health care to its citizens (or, alternatively, one might conclude that such government programs tend to be beneficial on net and support it for that reason). In this way, a person can have positions on political matters without devoting the superhuman effort that would be required to figure things out case by case (partisanship is analogous, except that one’s support or opposition to a given political position is based on the person or group supporting or opposing it, rather than the content of the view itself).

An ideology may be more or less sophisticated depending on the intelligence and learning of the person involved and the amount of effort they are willing to put into creating and maintaining it. Some versions of an ideology are almost cartoonish in their crude simplicity. Others are much more subtle and nuanced. But all of them are going to involve some level of oversimplification of reality. All else equal, a more sophisticated ideology is preferable to a simpler one, as a person adhering to it is likely to be right more often (if not, then the added sophistication has been a waste of time). But of course all else is never equal, and one will always face a trade off between the time and effort one can devote to politics, and the time and effort required for other things.

In theory a person may hold political positions based on an ideology while recognizing that the ideology does not provide a complete picture of the world and will not always give the right answer to political questions. In practice, of course, the tendency is for people to confuse their own ideology with reality itself. It’s the other guys who are ideological, whereas I (and those who agree with me) simply see things just as they are, and treat each case with an open mind. As Keynes once said, “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

While I agree with my co-blogger Tim that ideology involves an oversimplification of reality, and that this is less than ideal, I confess I don’t see any way to avoid relying on ideology when it comes to politics. Political discourse that relied solely on partisanship would not, I think, be superior to one where both ideology and partisanship played a role in forming political opinions, and I do not see and third way of overcoming the otherwise insurmountable obstacles that the sheer complexity of political issues would pose to forming political opinions. Perhaps some day someone will event a method by which we can all be fully informed about politics without the crutch of a simplifying ideological perspective. Until such time, however, I must say of ideology what Churchill said of democracy, that it is a worst of all systems, except for all the others.

11 Responses to The Advantage of Ideology

  1. Sharbel says:

    I want to offer an alternative take on ideology. My starting point is the definition by the under-recognized genius of North American psychology, Silvan S. Tomkins.

    “Ideology is a tightly-woven set of ideas about things about which he can be least certain and therefore are most passionate.”

    What is the correct way to raise a child or a create a just and equal society? Are numbers discovered or invented.

    There are ideologies in all fields of human endeavor and we need to be as critical of our own ideologies as those of our opponents.

    Tomkins points out that all ideologies required faith precisely because of our inability to be certain.
    Thus there is the faith of the scientist and the Marxist, and the Christian.

    I think this approach is more fruitful and an accurate description of human affairs.

    Ideologies may be simple or complex whether of the right or the left. We are all ideologues. Pretending otherwise simply hides the rage and hate that is counter-productive to intelligent discussion and displaces them on to our ideological opponents.

    “We are rational; you are a destuctive ideologue.” This comes from both the right and the left. We need to debate critically all ideologies on their content, conservative vs liberal ideology.

    Let’s not pretend everyone of us without exception is an ideologue of a thousand ideologies about all sorts of things. We need to hold them lightly and critically lest we destroy each other with our unacknowledged and counter-productive passions, as Tocqueville has warned us.

  2. restrainedradical says:

    Very interesting. Is there anything that can be done to get ideologues to realize the limits of their knowledge? Is there any way to get them to place their trust in people with more complex ideologies?

  3. Elaine Krewer says:

    Excellent post here. I would elaborate on this further to say that, for the same reasons you find it impossible not to rely upon ideology/politics, I and others would find it impossible not to rely, at least to some extent, upon political action committees and lobbyists to advocate for the policies we favor.

    I know it’s practically de rigeur to decry the influence of lobbyists, PACs, etc. upon the political process — and don’t get me wrong, there is much that could be changed — but the bottom line is, lobbyists and PACs are simply individuals or groups who make it their full time job to track, advocate, and oppose legislation on behalf of other concerned citizens who don’t have the time, ability, or resources to do it themselves.

    Individual letters, e-mails, etc. are of course valuable, but the fact remains, if it weren’t for groups like the National Right to Life Committee, Susan B. Anthony List, state Catholic Conferences or National/State (fill in the blank) Associations writing newsletters, sending out action alerts, organizing trips to Washington or state capitals, etc. we’d have an even harder time getting our viewpoints heard. Of course, “our” lobbyists are devoted, hardworking advocates but “theirs” are merely fat cats trying to buy influence 🙂

  4. John Henry says:

    I agree wholeheartedly about the limits of ideology; but I’m skeptical about your bias towards action. Why must we form an opinion about every political topic? Is articulating an uninformed and ideologically biased opinion a more valuable contribution to the common good than a simple statement that one is not informed enough to comment? It seems to me that on-line, at least, we have no shortage of the former, and that the effect is hardly salutary.

    For example, I have an antecedent bias against the current financial reform bill; this is based on my work experience with Sarbanes-Oxley, and a number of textbooks and papers I’ve read over the years that suggest to me as a general matter that Congressmen are woefully ignorant on these topics and that their actions are likely to do more harm than good.

    At the same time, I have not read the current financial reform bill or even enough secondary commentary on the bill to form an educated opinion. I am certain there is some wheat mixed with chaff (even a blind squirrel finds an acorn, etc.). For that reason, I’ve elected not to form a strong opinion about the bill one way or the other because, while I have ideological presuppositions, I lack a firm basis for their application in this circumstance. Forming an educated opinion about something is hard work. And most people have neither the time or the inclination (and sometimes the intellectual ability) to put in that hard work.

    I think your defense of ideology is fine insofar as it acknowledges a basic truth about the limits of being human; we cannot learn and think through everything, and so we must rely on ideologies and authority as shortcuts for decision-making in every day life. But I don’t see why we shouldn’t insist on ideology plus knowledge for political discourse (as opposed to every day life) – without both knowledge and ideology political discourse is, in my experience, a waste of time. I only care that my accountant can do my taxes; if he’s a 9/11 truther or has ‘questions’ about Obama’s birth certificate, that’s not really my problem as long as he does his job well. A political commentator who expresses such opinions, on the other hand, is pernicious, and I’d rather he or she either learned their facts or stopped talking. To put the point too strongly, it seems to me you’re suggesting they should just keep spewing ideological nonsense on the grounds that ideology is necessary (I agree it may be inevitable that they will keep spreading nonsense either way; I’m just not sure it’s desirable). Why shouldn’t we insist that people take the time to form educated opinions before opining?

  5. Zach says:

    How do political principles fit into the understanding of ideology you present here?

    Do you think there is such a thing as a true political principle?

  6. Blackadder says:


    A good political principle is one that is true in most, but not necessarily all, cases. One could perhaps come up with examples of political principles that were true in all cases, but I suspect they would be either overly complicated or vacuous.

  7. Given the definitions here, it seems to me that probably there is a happy balance to be found between ideology and partisanship, in that based on an a set of ideological principles which hold true most of the time, one accepts the judgment of factions or individuals who also accept those principles as to how to apply those principles to individual circumstances and whether to make exceptions.

    One other though, in regards to John Henry’s point: I’d agree that it’s sometimes advisable not to sound off too much about a particular issue due to one’s lack of specific knowledge, however, I don’t think that necessarily means supporting (or not opposing) a specific measure. Though, of course, that may in turn be another ideological distinction: broadly speaking conservatives following “when in doubt, don’t change anything” approach while progressives follow a “when in doubt, redesign and regulate” approach.

  8. j. christian says:


    When I read the title of your post, I immediately completed the thought with: “…is that it lowers the transaction costs of political participation.”

    I didn’t even have to read the article because all that economics ideology did it for me. 🙂

  9. John Henry says:

    Though, of course, that may in turn be another ideological distinction: broadly speaking conservatives following “when in doubt, don’t change anything” approach while progressives follow a “when in doubt, redesign and regulate” approach.

    I think that’s right. I guess my proposed ‘shut up unless you’re fully informed’ standard is open to two pretty strong critiques (and I’m sure there are others):

    1) It’s unrealistic; that’s not how people operate and it might actually hurt the level of discourse (a half-informed BA is probably better than the vast majority of partisans out there). It requires some level of sophistication for a person to even realize how uninformed they are – and those are hardly the people we want to exclude.

    2) There’s little evidence that the politicians who enact legislation meet this standard; if the people passing the laws often are guided by crude simplifications and caricatures, it’s not clear that citizens should be held to a higher standard in critiquing their votes.

  10. Blackadder says:

    John Henry,

    I think the issue you are raising is the issue of democracy. Throughout most of human history societies have been governed by a small elite, which in theory possessed a greater level of ability than average and could devote more time to studying the subject. Over the past few hundred years, more and more people have come around to the view that you can’t really trust a small group to act in the interest of society as a whole, and that whatever is gained in terms of increased information by those in politics is more than outweighed by the risk of self-dealing. On the other hand, most societies don’t operate via direct democracy, so there is still a sense that some level of expertise among the policy makers is advantageous, though it must be kept in check.

    If you want to decrease the role of ideology in politics, you have a couple of options. One would be to decrease your reliance on democracy. That might mean more reliance on experts or other authority figures, or it might involve a more libertarian approach, where certain questions are left up to the individual to decide for him or herself.

    The other option is education. The more educated a populace, the more sophisticated their views are likely to be. I don’t think it’s an accident that the rise of democracy and the rise of education have gone hand in hand.

  11. […] Isn’t ideology just the inevitable and unavoidable result of information overload? I don’t find fault with people who vote based on simply ideologies. But there seems to be a general lack of humility. As Peggy Noonan said of Sarah Palin, “she wasn’t thoughtful enough to know she wasn’t thoughtful enough.” Keep your ideologies but let’s recognize that we cling to them because we don’t know any better. The Advantage of Ideology […]

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