Following the December 15th Republican "debate," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote once again about the evils of ideological thinking.
Krugman did begin his piece by criticizing Mitt Romney for his repeated vacillations about which public policies he supports, which he opposes, a problem Romney has been plagued by most of his political life. But Krugman didn't do what follows from this, namely, praise Romney for being a pragmatist, for his agility and flexibility. No, he decried the former Massachusetts governor's various views. And then he moved on to a more familiar target, one he has been shooting at every chance he gets. This is Representative Ron Paul's integrity and consistency. Calling it ideological thinking, Krugman considers this a far greater failing than anything he could find with Romney.
Krugman summarizes all this: "In a way, that makes sense. Romney isn't trusted because he's seen as someone who cynically takes whatever positions he thinks will advance his career – a charge that sticks because it's true. Paul, by contrast, has been highly consistent. I bet you won't find video clips from a few years back in which he says the opposite of what he's saying now. Unfortunately, Paul has maintained his consistency by ignoring reality, clinging to his ideology even as the facts have demonstrated that ideology's wrongness."
Ignore, please, for the moment that Krugman is every bit as ideological as would be anyone who tries to make sense of political economy, just one field of study that tries to learn generalities from the past so as to prepare for the future. The way this is done is by the identification of certain principles and then implementing them with the expectation that bad results will be avoided and good ones fostered. There really is no practical field, such as farming, medicine, engineering, child raising and so forth, that can carry forth without such an "ideological" or theoretical approach; no one who even dabbles in them can avoid it.
Ron Paul's theoretical guidance comes from a certain school of free-market economics, laid out by the likes of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek. (Other free-market schools are those of Milton Friedman – the Chicago School – and those of James Buchanan – the Virginia School.) Massive volumes lay out these positions, in more or less technical ways, as they do the positions of Paul Krugman and his idol, John Maynard Keynes. It is routine in the social sciences for emerging scholars and researchers to hitch their wagon to some earlier leader in their field. Just check out sociology or anthropology – they all follow this pattern. Krugman is no exception. He has hitched his wagon to Keynes and follows Keynes's pragmatic, erratic economic thought. It happens to accommodate his hostility to principles. It doesn't demand any integrity in one's thinking; only expediency counts.
Because we are talking here about how political economy should be approached – or macroeconomic theory – the impact of unprincipled thinking is quite remote. It is difficult to tell which results of such mishmash political-economic thinking come from which ideas – as I have argued before, it is like getting food poisoning or, alternatively, health benefits from a smorgasbord meal which contains many diverse ingredients.
But if you consider some areas of concern that are more immediately relevant to one's life, the unprincipled approach quickly shows its damage. For example, it is generally understood that people with certain medical maladies should stick steadily to a certain diet – think of diabetics. In engineering, medicine, nutrition, farming and the rest the practitioners learn their general principles and implement them in the course of their practice. Or consider morality; it is pretty much the case that lying and cheating ought to be avoided. Even more drastically, deploying coercion in sexual relations is not just immoral but outright criminal. Everyone must, therefore, practice consensual sex so that rape, for example, is never acceptable. That is the ideology of the thing, no exception.
Yet by Krugman's lights, to prohibit rape in all cases, as a matter of one's ideology, is a serious flaw in one's character, just as sticking to free-market economic analysis – such as refusing to print money without proper backing – is supposed to be in Ron Paul's thought. As Krugman chides, "Paul has maintained his consistency by ignoring reality, clinging to his ideology even as the facts have demonstrated that ideology's wrongness," but the only case he offers to illustrate the alleged wrongness is that Paul and his allies have warned about inflation for years and yet we are not seeing inflation break out all over. (Of course, there are those, rather more subtle economists, who see it break out in numerous hidden way – like postponing the destruction of the value of money for a while, "kicking the can down the road" so as to confront the mess later, e.g., by our grandchildren.) In other words, inflation can be hidden in various clever ways but not without eventual dire consequences. So here, too, Krugman is off.
What Paul insists on is consistency in one's economic theorizing, something that every bona fide science insists upon. Pseudo-sciences like astrology and tarot reading don't, with the result that they accomplish nothing useful at all. Most of Krugman's ad hoc economics is like that – fancy footwork without any useful wisdom in its wake.
The ideology that Krugman follows despite denying it – just as many pragmatists deny that they firmly stick to some ideas – is the economic philosophy of the state's regimenting economic agents at nearly every turn. At no time will coercion as such be frowned upon by Krugman – it would be ideological to do so, in his view.
But the issue isn't whether ideology is admissible but which ideology is sound, which bogus.