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Sunday, September 2, 2012

One man's ideas are another man's ideology

I watched parts of the Republican Convention this week. I caught only a smattering of the speeches but I was struck by the strong focus on the role of private enterprise, self reliance, and the skepticism that the government, particularly the Federal government, is in the position to solve the current challenges faces by the American people. This is in stark contrast to the governing philosophy of the Democratic Party.

These are competing belief systems and it is a completely legitimate question to ask which one is the right approach to support. Unfortunately, within the realm of politics, the road to dominance is generally via demonizing your opponents as opposed to actually challenging their ideas. In Paul Krugman's column yesterday, he called Paul Ryan "at heart a fiscal fraud" ( . This to me suggests that he is akin to Bernie Madoff, fully aware that he is promoting some sort of blatantly dishonest activity as opposed to accepting a different set of beliefs directed toward a common goal of improving the economy.

Similarly, Maureen Dowd wrote today:
That’s why they knocked themselves out producing a convention that was a colossal hoax. They did that for us. Because they care. With exquisite timing, they started caring last Tuesday at 7 p.m., when suddenly the party was chockablock with tender souls in rainbow colors, with strong-minded women and softhearted men, with sentimental rags-to-riches immigrant sagas. We all know Republicans prefer riches-to-riches sagas and rounding up immigrants, if the parasitic scofflaws aren’t sensitive enough to self-deport. That’s why my heart swells to think of the herculean effort the G.O.P. put into pretending its heart bleeds.
Again, there is the implication that no one could actually hold an world view different from Ms. Dowd. The only explanation is that the RNC engaged in some sort of elaborate hoax and deception of the American public.

I was curious to see if other had written previously on distinguishing ideas from ideology, from being principled from having an agenda. I came across a chapter from Louis von Mises book "Human Action" on ideas and specifically the section on world view and ideology ( He provides a conceptual framework for a set of assumptions that I hold, specifically the assumption that we may have different approaches to solving problems but we share the desire to improve our material well being. The issue becomes whose material well being are we talking about and what is the best approach to accomplishing these ends.

The second assumption is:
All other ideologies, in approving of the search for the necessities of life, are forced in some measure to take into account the fact that division of labor is more productive than isolated work. They thus admit the need for social cooperation.
The implication of this assumption is that incentives which affect cooperation are important. He goes on to say:
In fact, for all parties committed to pursuit of the people’s welfare and thus approving social cooperation, questions of social organization and the conduct of social action are not problems of ultimate principles and of world views, but ideological issues. They are technical problems with regard to which some arrangement is always possible. No party would wittingly prefer social disintegration, anarchy, and a return to primitive barbarism to a solution which must be bought at the price of the sacrifice of some ideological points.
While this piece was written more than half a century ago and the terminology has evolved, the themes are consistent:
In the field of society’s economic organization there are the liberals advocating private ownership of the means of production, the socialists advocating public ownership of the means of production, and the interventionists advocating a third system which, they contend, is as far from socialism as it is from capitalism. In the clash of these parties there is again much talk about basic philosophical issues. People speak of true liberty, equality, social justice, the rights of the individual, community, solidarity, and humanitarianism. But each party is intent upon proving by ratiocination and by referring to historical experience that only the system it recommends will make the citizens prosperous and satisfied. They tell the people that realization of their program will raise the standard of living to a higher level than realization of any other party’s program. They insist upon the expediency of their plans and upon their utility. It is obvious that they do not differ from one another with regard to ends but only as to means. They all pretend to aim at the highest material welfare for the majority of citizens.
The accomplishment of improvement of material welfare is described by Mises as (bold is my emphasis):
The problems involved are purely intellectual and must be dealt with as such. It is disastrous to shift them to the moral sphere and to dispose of supporters of opposite ideologies by calling them villains. It is vain to insist that what we are aiming at is good and what our adversaries want is bad. The question to be solved is precisely what is to be considered as good and what as bad. The rigid dogmatism peculiar to religious groups and to Marxism results only in irreconcilable conflict. It condemns beforehand all dissenters as evildoers, it calls into question their good faith, it asks them to surrender unconditionally. No social cooperation is possible where such an attitude prevails.
I highlighted Dowd and Krugman only because the timing of the Republican convention. I am certain that the same behavior will be exhibited when Republican leaning columnists have their chance with the Democratic convention. Those who hold beliefs as to how improve the material well being of others which are different from ones you might believe are not necessarily evil or dishonest. However, from the perspective of exploiting differences in belief systems within the political realm, if is almost always more successful to take such a tack if in order to get elected.

This underscores an inherent issue with moving social problems into a the political realm. We may hold different views as to how the world works based upon differences in belief systems. Many if not most of the differences are based upon some empiric evidence, selectively embraced to support what we believe to be true. When these belief systems reside in the private domain, we are free to embrace what we chose to embrace and reap the rewards or suffer the consequences personally. There may be some spillover effects but as long as those who hold particular belief systems do not capture the coercive power of the state, most individuals will be free to embrace what they hold to be true and have their actions guided by them. There are limits to actions of individuals and for a review of this I recommend Richard Epstein's book, "Simple rules for a compelx world".

Once issues move into the political realm, actions move from individual moral mandates to legal mandates, often imposed on substantial minorities by slim majorities. Particular belief sets and the potential maladaptive consequences fall not only on those who embrace them, but also upon those who want nothing to do with them, but only have them imposed by slim 50.1% to 49.9 majorities. Increasingly, we take the power of the state for granted. We assume that those who are in control of the various levers of government at the local, state, and federal levels are capable of making the life of the average citizen better or worse. What exactly do they have at their disposal which can effect such changes? What empiric evidence is there from the past to support that governmental approaches to problems are effective?

If the effects of state actions were unambiguous and apparent within the time frame of elections, this would not be such an issue. However, within the common election cycle of 2-4 years, assessment of actions within the political realm yield conflicting results. Ideas as to optimal rules and structures are difficult to test at best and assessments as to the wisdom of particular approaches may require decades to become apparent. Short term expediencies required to garner votes may capture the electorate but result in disastrous longer term outcomes. Similarly, vilifying those who disagree with us may be helpful to get elected but is dysfunctional when we need to create institutions which foster cooperation and coordination.

Finally, using the "State" to create optimal incentive structures tends, particularly when there are sharp and legitimate differences between belief systems in regards to which structures to create , does not allow for sufficient diversity of approaches. Political processes, particularly polarized ones,  lead to what I call the "All in" approaches, much like playing poker with only one betting strategy, with every bet being an all in bet. Moving problem solving out of the political realm allows many different agents to act in accord with their individual beliefs, investing their own precious resources. There will be winners and losers, some based upon luck but also many based upon reading the landscape correctly and having the right set of beliefs. I use the term right set of beliefs not in a moral sense but in a functional sense in that their assessment of the environment, human wants, and human nature allowed them to better address human needs and create wealth and resources to re-invest in future successful endeavors.

I believe that political processes are essentially incapable of accomplishing this on a consistent basis and for this reason the role of the state in human affairs needs to be limited. This idea dates back at least to the founding of our Republic. Whether it is true is a legitimate point for discussion. It is not desirable to vilify those those who hold this belief, to always question their motives, to call them frauds or perpetrators or hoaxes, of call them as crazy. It might get you elected but it will not improve the lives of your fellow citizens. We are all dependent on each other to survive and thrive and we can get to a better place when more of us are rowing in the same direction. That will happen when people voluntarily chose their path, not when someone else tries to force them.

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