Explaining things, Part 1 – Ideology

Over at the Agitator, guest blogger Peter Moskos wants libertarians to explain a few things to him. The Agitatortots have been answering him in the comments, but I thought it would be a good exercise to answer him here.

Despite being a fan of tax-and-spend government policies and income redistribution, I’m also sympathetic to small government (yes, I walk a narrow line).

But I’m not fond of ideologies. I don’t like it when people have answers before they know the question. So why shouldn’t libertarianism be dismissed as just another ideology.

Maybe it would help Moskos if he used a word he liked more than ideology. He should try calling it a worldview, or a set of principles. He may not be fond of ideologies, but how does he feel about people who have principles?

Really, I hate it when pundits and politicians dismiss their opponents as ideologues, as if having consistent principles was a bad thing. Consistency is not enough — your principles should meet other criteria as well — but it’s simplistic to criticize them merely for having them.

Perhaps less government is the solution to many specific problems. But I refuse to believe anything is the solution to all problems. I’m willing to accept (or at least debate) libertarian positions on any policy issue. I’m not willing to consider libertarianism as the Correct Ideology.

If Moskos doesn’t think libertarianism is the correct solution to everything, does he have anything to suggest as a replacement? Perhaps some alternatives that work better under circumstances where libertarianism fails? Or does Moskos sees himself as a practical problem solver who disdains theories and abstractions and tries to figure out the right thing to do in each specific case. Economist Paul Krugman has a name for people like that. He calls them “accidental theorists.”

The Accidental Theorist is someone who claims to understand a problem, and even proposes policies to solve it, free from the strictures of abstractions and theories, basing his thinking only on simple observation and common sense. But anyone who proposes to solve a problem, or who even claims to have a simple description of a problem, is almost certainly working from a theory of some kind. Unless the synapses of their brains are firing at random, they almost have to be engaging in some sort of repeatable mental process which leads them to propose the solutions they do.

The problem with an accidental theory is that it’s a one-off, a theory with a single advocate who barely acknowledges that he has a theory, and who therefore has not fully explored it, let alone stated it in ways that other people can understand and help to analyze. Such a poorly described and tested theory is unlikely to be superior to a more explicit theory that has been explored by many people.

Note that there’s a difference between an Accidental Theorist and someone who merely doesn’t have an all-purpose theory. Those of us in the latter category admit to problem areas where our theories and principles do not provide satisfying answers — we don’t have the Libertarian Theory of Everything — but by exploring those areas, we hope to improve our ideas. The Accidental Theorist, on the other hand, refuses to admit that he has a theory or that one is even necessary.

Update: Part 2 is up.

About Mark:

Mark is a computer programmer, website builder, photographer, and sometimes journalist in Chicago, where he also writes the long-running Windypundit blog.


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  • […] for a good intro to libertarianism. First I addressed the way he framed his question, explaining why calling libertarianism an ideology isn’t helpful and why less government is so often the solution. Today I’m finally going to address his […]