How important is ideology? How important are ideals? Did I just start a blog with questions?

I imagine many of you are thinking that these things are profoundly important—and you’re right. 

Societies and governance systems are so complex and big and daunting—and they impact our everyday lives. In an attempt to bring order to the perceived chaos, we attempt to systematize our approach. And if something isn’t working, we try to change it.

Ideals and ideologies have been instrumental in bringing about important, large-scale change since societies were first formed. Democracy arose in ancient Greece, then it arose again from the ashes of Europe’s fallen monarchs. Dictators mounted an ideological defense of fascism in the early 20th Century. In response, blood was shed in the name of democracy. The next great battle was between communism and capitalism.

The arc of history is marked by sea changes in ideological thinking.

We internalize our ideologies; make them a part of our identities. They emerge from the core of our humanity, those abstract ultimate values like freedom and justice and equality. “What is freedom?” we ask. The answer becomes an ideology, an ideology becomes a system of thought by which we hope to encourage our societies to become better, or even perfect.

There is much to be admired about the great social and political thinkers and their ideas. Anarchy beautifully puts faith in the goodness of humanity. Socialism admirably strives for fairness and equality. Libertarianism righteously guards personal and economic freedom. These are all good things.

However, problems arise in the ethical dimension. Does the application of an ideology really make a society better? So we often believe, and we will religiously defend our ideological positions in the face of facts, evidence, history and crises.

What is good for society cannot be contained within a single ideology. Let’s think of some examples: 

Private corporations exploit their workers. This is true in many cases (but not all). They pay people as little as they can get away with, extract as much productivity from them as they can get away with and charge as much for their products as they can get away with.

Is the answer to nationalize everything? The workers are being exploited! They are not free! Well, there’s not a lot of freedom in not being able to choose what you can and cannot buy, which is precisely what would happen in the event of a state monopoly of consumer goods.

So the answer must be lassaiz-faire capitalism or strict libertarianism, right?

Well, when it comes to health care, choosing between life and death because you can’t afford medication or surgery isn’t much of a choice is it? And adding a profit motive to prisons adds a profit motive to making people criminals. That can only go badly.

Ideology quickly gets mixed up with the messy realities of politics. And the role of politics is not to push ideals and ideologies—though that is often what politicians do. Politics is intertwined with ethics. Charged with managing the wealth and resources of an entire society, politics must grapple with how to do this so as to produce goodness for society.

Not a single politician in Washington D.C. or Brussels or New Delhi or Seoul or Ottawa or Canberra would ever say that they don’t believe in the ideals of democracy. They might, however, heatedly debate how to apply it—or even what that means. And it is the inflexible ideologues who inevitably fail themselves and their societies because their ideologies are more important than what is best for their societies. They argue and debate and journalists as well as citizens hang on every word, hoping for a triumph or affirmation of their own ideologies. In fact, if I get any comments on this blog, I expect they will be in defense of some ideology that is perceived to have been slighted. I will be told I don’t really understand socialism or that the free markets would work if we ever just let them be truly free. I get it; I have my opinions too.

But societies are as unique as the people within them. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to prosperity, freedom, equality or justice. Our societies and the political systems that oversee them must be allowed and encouraged to evolve, grow, to respond to the needs of the people, to anticipate change and react accordingly to problems. Every so often, new Enlightenments must emerge and being stuck on an ideology will hinder them from doing so. As Immanuel Kant said:

“Enlightenment is mankind’s leaving behind its self-imposed immaturity.”

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