Should you police your inner ideologue?
"Moderation is rapidly disappearing in political life, with dangerous consequences for the American republic." Police at a free-speech march in Boston. Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty   

Is ideology a bad thing?

Jerry Taylor of the Niskanen Centre thinks so and he used to be a libertarian:

“I have abandoned that libertarian project, however, because I have come to abandon ideology. This essay is an invitation for you to do likewise — to walk out of the ‘clean and well-lit prison of one idea.’”

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It’s a superb essay and I’d urge anyone with a deep interest in political ideas to read it in full. However, I do have some disagreements.

Here’s the most basic one: without an ideology – or at least a set of moral principles – how would you recognise a bad thing when you see it? Or, for that matter, a good thing?

Taylor believes that ‘worldviews’, though meant to be clarifying, can be distorting:

“Even if we embrace ideology merely as a conceptual lens to help us better understand what is most likely to promote human well-being (ideology as a pattern-recognition device), we run into difficult problems. The incredible complexity of social and economic relationships, the heterogeneity of human beings, and the ubiquitous and irresolvable problem of unintended consequences will frustrate dogmatic shortcuts to problem-solving.”

I like this optical analogy. But the question is not whether one should have a worldview or not, but what sort of lens one’s chosen ideology provides. Is it a microscope – detailed patterns of light and shade revealing the “incredible complexity” that Taylor writes about? Or is it a kaleidoscope – rearranging the truth into patterns that serve no purpose other than to please the viewer?

To be clear, Jerry Taylor’s argument against ideology is not that we should abandon all idea of right and wrong:

“The better alternative is not moral relativism. The better alternative is moderation, a commodity that is rapidly disappearing in political life, with dangerous consequences for the American republic.”

But what does he mean by “moderation”? At some points in his essay, Taylor appears to suggest that there is a non-ideological, technocratic realm that we can step into if only we free our minds:

“…the best we can do is to police our inner ideologue with a studied, skeptical outlook, a mindful appreciation of our own fallibility, and an open, inquisitive mind.”

Sorry, but there is no way of escaping ideologies. Stepping out of one ideology means stepping into another. So, for me, the first rule of Moderation Club is that there are no neutral worldviews, no default position to which the others should defer.

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Other than that though, Taylor sets out some excellent principles for moderates to follow – above that “appreciation of our own fallibility”. Thus the second rule of Moderation Club is “think it possible you might be mistaken” (Oliver Cromwell’s words, ironically). While the truth might be perfect, you most certainly are not – and nor are your favourite ‘thought leaders’. 

The third rule is beware simplicity: “elevating one principled concern about all others” (as libertarians do with the value of personal freedom) ignores the obvious complexity of a world where there are many principled concerns, which matter to different people to differing extents and that often conflict. 

This leads to the fourth rule – practice pluralism. Decent people will have different worldviews and unless one group subjugates the others, coexistence and compromise is inevitable – so, if you care that much about being right, you’d better make a virtue of it. 

The fifth rule is embrace inconvenient truths. If your worldview is a microscope not a kaleidoscope, then you’re going to come across facts that don’t fit with your preconceptions. When you do, don’t go into denial, but investigate and reconsider. You may find that your assumptions pass the test or you may have to make adjustments or even admit to being wrong – but in every case you’re in a better position than you were before.

You will by now have noticed that these rules constitute a distinct worldview of their own – but that, of course, is consistent with the first rule of Moderation Club.

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Jerry Taylor concludes by observing that “the main challenge for moderates is the limited amount of connective tissue that binds them together.” He wonders how then those who distrust ideology can “huddle together for warmth”.

Well, I’d recommend that we begin by admitting we are all ideologues, and then go out of our way to share a space – and even some ideas – with people of different ideologies. The act of doing so, which is in such contradiction to the spirit of the age, should provide all the “connective tissue” that is required.

I’m proud to say that UnHerd provides just such a space, so come huddle together here.