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  • Ideology and Adaptation

    Posted by Shannon Love on October 1st, 2007 (All posts by )

    I’ve never been one for ideological purity.

    For one thing, ideologies represents only imperfect models for how reality works and no real-world model will ever cover all contingencies. So always, in the back of my mind, I look at any given ideology and wonder, “What circumstances will this ideology not account for? When will it work best and when will it not?”

    More importantly, though, the science of biology influences all my thinking. In biology, a strategy succeeds based on how well it adapts (from the latin for “to fit”) to the immediate environment. What works for a penguin in the Antarctic won’t work for a camel in the Sahara.

    Of course, we don’t like to think of our ideologies as specific adaptations to specific environments. We prefer to think of them as eternal truths that remain the best choices in all times, places and circumstances. We look at solutions that worked in the past and think they will work now. We look at solutions that work now and think they would have worked at some arbitrary point in the past.

    This unconscious bias leads us to to situations where we think that the right solution in 1420s Romania is the right solution for 1920s Kansas and vice versa. Such extremes of time and place give even the most ideological of us pause for thought, but we ignore much smaller displacements in time and space even when other factors, such as technology, have changed even more than geography and culture.

    I describe myself as a small “el” libertarian or classical liberal depending on the education of the person asking. I think that in general, decentralized apolitical solutions work for most circumstances better than centralized politicized ones do.

    However, I think that such decentralized solutions work better due to the specific technological, historical, cultural and political conditions of America in the early 21st Century. I strongly doubt that many of the solutions that I advocate, such as privatized Social Security, would work in a different milieu. Likewise, I find the argument that solution ‘X” worked great from, say, 1935-1975, so that it must work now, completely unconvincing.

    I often butt heads with libertarian purists over such matters. They criticize my willingness to use the state to fight wars or to socialize the cost of raising of children. I simply don’t care if such stances render me outside the libertarian true believers. I don’t care if some consider the stances immoral. Particular solutions work in particular times, places and circumstances and there is no point whining about it. I won’t try to shoehorn an ultimately unworkable solution into an ideological framework just to prove I am one of the gang.

    I think that changes in recent decades mean that decentralized/free-market solutions can meet needs better than old-style centralized/government-based solutions can. That doesn’t mean, however, that I just advocate free-market solutions reflexively (even if that may be my first impulse). In any particular circumstance, I have to understand how the free market might work and (this is the important part) how it might fail before I will advocate moving to a free-market solution.

    I want to fix problems, not join a club.

     

    20 Responses to “Ideology and Adaptation”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      Does a person have some bedrock that lies below the level of politics?

      If so, then any political ideology is always going to adopted with lots of caveats, because politics and the promotion of any ideology is merely a means.

      Some libertarians have a dogmatism about them, as if all the problems in their own personal world and the world at large would be solved in only … whatever the “if only” happens to be. This is a species of political dogmatism that can exist anywhere on the political spectrum. Such people may happen to be correct on a lot of their policy proposals — as I usually think they are — but they are coming at it all from a different place than you, me, or a lot of people will ever inhabit.

      That is why I always say I am “a conservative” — in the USA this is a name for a particular conglomeration of ideas and policies which has evolved over time (since the mid-50s), which incorporates small-l libertarianism (mostly) and the idea of strong national defense (2 biggies for me), within a framework of political practicality (i.e. not dogmatic to the point of not caring about winning elections), with an institutional home (the conservative wing of the GOP) from which it can sometimes actually have a real-world impact. Nor, unlike many uncomfortable members of this coalition, am I particularly troubled by the cultural conservatism of the GOP. My only difference with the religious right on most things is the dogmatism business — get what you realistically can from the political process and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the pretty good. But, even for those small-l libertarians who are troubled by this part of the coalition, or even despise it, the trade-offs are superior to any theoretical benefit from aligning with the Democrats on issues like abortion, where that Party’s raison d’etre is the expansion of government power the total incorporation of all citizens into a government regulated world. One party causes libertarians to hold their noses, one threatens their core values with extinction. I have never seen how there is any contest.

    2. Stephen Says:

      Sometimes ideologies present themselves as offering rational solutions to problems posed by existing circumstances, and can perhaps be understood as proposing possible adaptations. Often, however, ideologies present themselves as offering an alternative to existing circumstances, advocating radical structural change to what is as the only rational option. Adaptation to the present is not what is on offer in such cases; instead, the object is to bring about a new reality, albeit one that can be understood as in some sense a fulfillment of the promise of history. I very much doubt that this aspect of ideologies can be understood in biologistic terms.

      Ignoring the eschatological dimension of ideological thought can be dangerous. Reading Michael Burleigh’s in The Third Reich: A New History, I’m struck by how often critics and victims of the Nazi’s represented Nazi anti-semitism as a regression to medieval patterns. The Nazis themselves were rather clear that what they were aiming at was not a return to a medieval community, but the creation of a new (and eternal) human community. The creation of this end-state, they claimed, fully justified any means necessary, which the Nazis demonstrated was not simply a bit of rhetorical excess on their part when they set up the death-camp system. Nazi thought was fundamentally oriented towards this attempt to re-create the world. Attempting to understand it either as a reversion to older patterns or as a somehow distorted piece of pragmatic, problem-solving thinking, entirely misses what proved to be the center of Nazi thought.

      A question that might be considered: to what extent is the attempt to understand any and all ideologies as “specific adaptations to specific environments” itself an ideological project?

    3. veryretired Says:

      An ideology has, at it’s core, a definition of what a human being is. Based on that analysis of human nature, the theory proposes certain rules for living, directions for society, and envisions an end state of some sort for which everyone must strive.

      In ancient times, up to the modern day, many of these systems were based on some religious definitions that justified the (usually autocratic) “order of things”. As the religious foundations began to break down, new theories were proposed.

      The results produced by any particular ideological system provide a very valid basis for evaluating the correlation between the claims of the system and the actuality of human beings’ nature, and the theory’s relationship to reality.

      This is the reason that true believers must so adamantly insist that the failures of their belief system were the result of “incorrect interpretations” and “evil or incompetent practitioners”. To admit otherwise would require a complete re-evaluation of the ideology, and questions at that level are simply not permitted.

      Thus, for example, marxism defines humans as products of their economic conditions. Rearrange the economic system, and you can rearrange the nature of human beings into the “new socialist man”. Individuals don’t matter, only economic classes.

      Nazism is based on the blood and folk theories of the 19th century. Humans are their breeding. Pure blood = good, mixed blood = bad. Throw in some rabid anti-semitism and some “spirit of the folk” mythology, and the master race is only some racial cleansing programs away. Individuals don’t matter. Rights are an inconvenient obstacle on the way to the promised land.

      As the millions upon millions of corpses piled up all over the world, so did the level of desparation of the true believers escalate. There could be no question that the theory was correct, the goals immaculate, the sacrifices necessary. Only people could be in error. Only people were not worthy. Find the right people to run the system, and it would work this time.

      Enter Hugo Chavez and his acolytes. Or the islamic loonies waiting for the 12th imam. Or any number of authoritarians operating under any number of variations of the age-old belief that the leader and his state know best, so sit down and shut up, or we’ll kill you.

      There is an direct relationship involved—the further from reality about the human beings they are attempting to control, the more blood must be spilled to enable the true believers theories.

      Chickens are relentless little animals. They always come home to roost.

    4. david still Says:

      I am not sure why you lump in Chavez with Nazis…after all, though he is hardly my ideal of a leader, and though he seems likely to stay in power as long as he would like to, nonetheless the people have given him an electoral mandate and so far as I know he is not doing ethnic cleansing. Poor Rudy G. liked the job of being mayor of NY and wanted to amend the law so he could stay in power but alas the people of NY saw otherwise.

      Ideologies are those things we scoff at if they are not ours: Freudianism, socialism, Marxism…and yes: libertarianism. Thus stay with pragmatism and like a true political figure you can be all things at any given time.

    5. Shannon Love Says:

      Stephen,

      A question that might be considered: to what extent is the attempt to understand any and all ideologies as “specific adaptations to specific environments” itself an ideological project?

      I don’t think of ideologies as adaptations. Something of the opposite. I think people try to make ideologies into platonic ideals divorced from any physical reality and holding true for all places and times. That’s a bit of an exaggeration but I think there is something in our psychology that pulls us toward that kind of purity.

    6. Shannon Love Says:

      David Stils,

      I am not sure why you lump in Chavez with Nazis…

      I would say that Chavez is in the mold of the totalitarian leaders of the 20th century. He shares their delusions of understanding and control. Like them, when his theories fail, he will turn on the people blaming them for his own errors.

      Chevez will cruise along until the inevitable oil bust and then he will fall. The only question is how hard that fall will be and how many innocents will be caught up along with him.

    7. Robert Schwartz Says:

      “ideologies represents only imperfect models for how reality works and no real-world model will ever cover all contingencies. So always, in the back of my mind, I look at any given ideology and wonder, “What circumstances will this ideology not account for? When will it work best and when will it not?””

      The first, and most important, step on the path to wisdom. Congratulations, you are now a real conservative.

    8. Jim Rose Says:

      Shannon…as usual, absolutely brilliant. That’s exactly my position…I’m libertarian but I’ve always felt that being libertarian means that you avoid rigid ideological boundaries. It makes no sense to me that the you can be libertarian and dogmatic at the same time.

    9. Shannon Love Says:

      Robert Schwartz,

      Congratulations, you are now a real conservative.

      Not sure if I am. To quote Glenn Reynolds, “I’m don’t think I am a conservative because there is little I want to conserve.” I am a future directed person who believes in the inevitability and desirability of change. Neither am I religious or attached to a specific culture. Most definitions of conservative don’t include that basic outlook.

      For most of the 20th century the Left represented change most of the time and got labeled progressive as a result. By circa 1975, however, they stopped changing and became the conservative element (i.e. attempting to maintain and extend the institutions of the status quo). Now most of the new original ideas come from thinkers on the right. Modern politics has become a struggle between Leftist resisting the innovations of Rightist.

      I suppose I think of myself as something like a progressive-Rightist.

    10. Lexington Green Says:

      Shannon, you want to “conserve” America’s dynamism and future-oriented culture and openness to change even to the point of creative destruction — which, oddly enough, is one of our most deeply rooted characteristics. Most cultures don’t have this. So, I would suggest, to the extent we do, you are “attached to a specific culture”.

    11. w sol vason Says:

      We live on a ever changing planet. The temperature fluctuates continuously from day to day, year to year, decade to decade, century to century, millenium to millenium. The Earth quakes. Continents drift. Volcanoes erupt. Meteors impact. Stars collide. God created evolution so that life could survive on an ever changing planet in an ever changing universe.

      Abundent resources become scarce; scarce resources get used up and conservation, no matter how draconian, can never stop things from changing because God created a universe that is ever changing. Why? Because static is boring.

      Social organizations must evolve and adapt to our ever changing world or become extinct. God created free markets as the means for societies to evolve.

      Change or become extinct. That’s my ideology. Ideologies that fail to deal with change lose adherents until only the loony tunes are left.

    12. Shannon Love Says:

      Lexington Green,

      Shannon, you want to “conserve” America’s dynamism and future-oriented culture…

      Hah! I think you are right. It’s something of a paradox, being a conservative to conserve the modality of change. It’s like the old observation that the only thing a tolerant culture cannot tolerate is intolerance.

    13. Shannon Love Says:

      w sol vason,

      …God created a universe that is ever changing. Why? Because static is boring.

      I don’t think so. After all, he knows how it all turns out in the end anyway. ;-)

    14. Lexington Green Says:

      “…It’s something of a paradox…”

      Agreed. It is the paradox that lies at the heart of American culture especially, and Anglospheric culture more generally. Moreover, we have evolved resilient and malleable institutions and cultural practices to make the paradox work — common law adjudication, efficient bankruptcy laws, general purpose incorporations statutes, a culture based (ideally, and often in practice) on merit and competence, and free choice of the participants, rather than kinship relations (perhaps the most important one of all), the practice of marriage decisions made by individual rather than families or clans (or maybe this is the most fundamental) and a whole bunch of other stuff that makes our culture work. It did not come out of the blue, it all has deep historical roots.

    15. Lexington Green Says:

      I had this post on the subject.

    16. sol vason Says:

      Shannon:
      God knows how its all going to end because She’s the one who’s going to pull the plug. But until that time there is free will – He gave it to all life forms (people, dolphins, worms, cats of course) which means She hasn’t a clue about what’s going to happen. But He’s set up the universe to keep constantly changing to make sure something happens. Sort of like reality TV. More problems and conflict equal better ratings. :)

    17. Anonymous Says:

      “Hah! I think you are right. It’s something of a paradox, being a conservative to conserve the modality of change. It’s like the old observation that the only thing a tolerant culture cannot tolerate is intolerance.”

      I had much the same reaction when I heard something similar a few years ago. The hard part is that a lot of political Conservatives have a very different idea in mind: either a return to an “earlier America” or simply a desire to use political levers to ensure the continued success of their business model. Of course, this plays into the worst stereotypes promulgated by the liberal intelligentsia so it is hard to affiliate with the label amongst liberal friends.

      Lexington’s point is still a very good one though: I think *most* of the intellectual conservatives I’ve met (and many of the rank and file) appreciate the need for a flexible and dynamic economy.

    18. WildMonk Says:

      Oops..that wasn’t supposed to be anonymous…

    19. Tokyo Tower Says:

      > I am not sure why you lump in Chavez with Nazis…after all, though he is hardly my ideal of a leader, and though he seems likely to stay in power as long as he would like to, nonetheless the people have given him an electoral mandate and so far as I know he is not doing ethnic cleansing.

      Well, David, Hitler was also democratically elected, mind you. And although Chavez is not killing people as sistematically as the Nazis, still, he is using his now unlimited authority to arm South American guerillas, arrest political enemies and enrich political allies. As far as Veryretired’s Tocquevillean critique of democracy and its discontents goes, the comparison is relevant and sensible.

    20. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » What are You Going to Do About It? Says:

      […] Shannon mentioned, a rational libertarian has to look at any particular social problem and its proposed solution as […]